Climate Change is a Foundational and Intersectional Issue of Life or Death

In a way, climate change is really the ONLY issue. Because if we don’t get this one right and, at minimum, hold global heating to the 1.5 degrees C agreed on in in the non-binding Paris Accords, none of the other issues that progressives—or anyone else—care about are going to matter. Humans won’t be around to address them, let alone heal them.

During the 2016 presidential primary, a longtime friend and I were having a respectful disagreement on social media (yes, it’s possible). I was a Bernie Sanders supporter and she supported Hillary Clinton. My friend commented that different issues were important to us, and hers were women’s and reproductive rights, children’s welfare, and education. I hastened to tell her that indeed I care very much—and have since I started following politics at age 13—about all those issues, as well as ending endless wars, common sense gun control, veterans’ welfare, economic opportunity and equity, confronting racism, and making sure everyone in the US has access to health care.

But at the bottom, at the very foundation of all of these worthy issues, the climate crisis looms. It will either be the crumbling foundation on which our whole society founders and sinks, or the solutions can become the sturdy and enduring foundation for a new society based on equity, compassion, balance, harmony, truth, justice, and fairness. In 2016, I supported Bernie in the primary because I felt—and still do in 2020—that he has the clearest grasp of the gravity of the climate emergency, and the most detailed plan to address it.

bumper stickers

If we find creative solutions to the climate crisis—natural solutions enabling a drawdown of carbon from the atmosphere combined with ever more efficient renewable technologies—we have the potential to solve every other issue that troubles us. Climate change is the most intersectional issue of all, for it is the warp thread interwoven with every aspect of our lives from international relations to racism to immigration to economics and public health.

How do we envision and co-create a different, more human and humane society? Let me count the ways.

Transforming the War Economy to True Peace

There is no question that we are currently witnessing conflicts increasing and being exacerbated by the climate disruption that we have already experienced. Cynical oligarchs of every stripe and the corporations that they run, from Exxon to government-owned fossil fuel entities such as Russia’s Gazprom and Saudi Arabia’s Aramco, have exploited age-old religious, ethnic, tribal, and racial divisions. Their policies have created and exacerbated simmering conflicts, and destabilized governments that might not be lockstep cooperative in keeping fossil fuels flowing.

In the very near future, there is also potential for conflict over increasingly scarce fresh and unpolluted water. Back in the 90s, the Zulu sangoma Credo Mutwa, considered by many to be the high shaman of southern Africa, told me that the future wars would be over water.

Longtime severe drought in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan have contributed to poverty, desperation, food insecurity, and internal migration from the countryside to urban areas, intensifying potential for conflict between religious and ethnic groups.

In addition, it is well documented that extreme heat increases violence, whether on the macro level of international conflict or the micro level of increased crime and interpersonal fighting.

A coordinated international effort to implement positive and possible climate crisis solutions would take the wind out of the sails of war, and the sales of the arms merchants. What if we humans come together across borders to plant trees, restore our exhausted soil, and create locally-based food production systems that go beyond organic into truly Regenerative Agriculture? What if our goal is to  share resources instead of compete for them? What if those in service in what is currently a war-based military instead served to assist other countries—or their own countries—mitigating (un)natural disasters such as wildfires and floods, and delivering food and water where they are needed? What if service members helped clean up polluted rivers, plastic-choked oceans, and superfund sites?

The U.S. military alone is one of the largest carbon-emitting institutions in the world, more than the totals of up to 140 individual countries. War not only causes death, injury, sickness, and destruction, but pollution with substances like depleted uranium and herbicides like Agent Orange that indiscriminately affect both “sides” of a conflict as well as causing species loss and habitat devastation. War is also an economic disaster for all but arms merchants. All those weapons, missiles, planes, and bombs literally blow up trillions of dollars that could be used for education, food production, public health, medical treatment advances, and scientific discovery.

The new paradigm of a Department of Peace actually has a history dating back to 1793, when one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush, wrote an essay calling for establishment of a “Peace-Office for the United States.” Its support in this millennium dates back to 2001, when Rep. Dennis Kucinich began the first of many yearly introductions of a bill in Congress to establish a Department of Peace.  Since 2013, it has been introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee and has 40 cosponsors. The idea also figured prominently in Marianne Williamson’s 2019 presidential campaign.

Imagine, for a moment, the different world we can co-create if the bulk of the US budget is redirected from the military to a “moonshot” to figure out ways to draw down carbon from the atmosphere and return carbon concentrations to pre-industrial levels.

Immigration and Climate Refugees

In the past couple of years, the U.S. has already seen immigration driven in large part by climate breakdown as alternating droughts and floods have drastically lowered production of both cash crops and subsistence food crops, casting many people already living on the margins into poverty, food insecurity, even outright starvation. Desperate families from Central America, many of whom are being torn apart at the border by the current U.S. administration, are fleeing not only poverty and drug cartel violence, but the literal drying up of their agricultural production.

Similarly, Europe has seen an increase in the numbers of people seeking refuge from dire climatic changes, as well as conflict, in the sub-Saharan region of Africa and in the Middle East. The developed nations, the biggest polluters and greenhouse gas emitters per capita, need to take responsibility for helping the people who are suffering first and worst—the Global South, people of color in developed nations, the poor everywhere, and indigenous people everywhere.

Women’s Rights and Reproductive Choices

Studies have shown that the single most effective way to reduce carbon footprint is for women to choose to have fewer children. Put simply, more educated women are more likely to prefer smaller families, and to have the knowledge and means to make this choice. This is one of the primary conclusions of the book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming.  The two-fold approach of full access to higher education for girls and women, coupled with information about and easy access to family planning tools, can go a long way towards reducing human impact both on climate disruption and on biodiversity loss through habitat loss, fragmentation, and increased urban concentrations of human population.

Climate breakdown also increases gender violence. In the wake of climate-related disasters, it is women and girls who suffer most. One study shows that sex trafficking increases by 20-30% in a given area after a climate disaster. When food and water are scarce, girls and women are vulnerable to exploitations as unscrupulous people pressure them to trade sex for sustenance.

This excerpt from a recent article by Tebany Yune in Mic says it all:

“We need to recognize the unequal effects of the climate crisis on women,” agreed Mary Robinson, chair of The Elders, an organization of senior peace and human rights activists. However, Robinson added that lawmakers should also note “that women’s participation brings with it creative and sustainable solutions to both the climate emergency and social injustices.

“Tackling climate change and environmental degradation without the full inclusion of women will not succeed: gender equality is a prerequisite to the collective effort needed to address the climate emergency.”

Health Care Access

The climate crisis intersects clearly with the health care access crisis in the U.S. Global heating is causing an increase in disease vectors. These range from the spread north out of the tropics of various mosquito species that carry malaria parasites, Zika virus, and dengue fever to the stirring up of unknown viruses and long-dormant bacteria in Arctic regions as the permafrost melts. Already, one boy died and at least 20 others were sickened by anthrax in Siberia’s remote Yamal Peninsula. There are fears that eradicated diseases such as smallpox and Spanish influenza can emerge as old graves are uncovered by melting permafrost. Then there is the increased range of ticks carrying Lyme disease, and the Lone Star tick that can cause the alpha-gal allergy to red meat.

Among developed nations, the U.S. is uniquely incapable of stopping or coping with a major pandemic, due to its for-profit “healthcare” system that excludes millions. If a pandemic of a virus previously not encountered by humans really gets out of hand, what’s going to happen when all those people with no insurance and those putting off medical care due to high co-pays and deductibles don’t go to the ER until they are dying and/or highly infectious? And what about undocumented people who are terrified of deportation? And people living in homeless shelters, encampments, and on the street?

Sooner or later, even those in gated communities are going to encounter someone, perhaps a domestic worker or a gardener, who comes to work sick because they can’t afford either medical care or time off work. No one will be able to hide away.

Isn’t taking care of ALL of us through universal health care the best way to halt the spread of dangerous pathogens? A humane public health policy will help to prevent and contain illness and epidemics and to offer compassionate and competent treatment to those who do fall ill.

Common Sense Gun Control

In a warming world where extreme heat can exacerbate violence, do you really want people to have access to military-grade assault weapons? I get that there are people who hunt and fish for subsistence, or to enhance their food supply. They don’t need AR-15’s, AK-47’s, or silencers to kill a deer to fill their family’s freezer.

Agricultural Policy and Food Security

Let’s stop polluting our soil and food supply with pesticides, herbicides, and manufactured fertilizers that poison our bodies and cause dead zones and algal blooms in oceans and lakes from agricultural runoff. Let’s retrain the people who will no longer be working in fossil fuel production in satisfying and well-paid work that benefits society. These Green New Deal-type jobs can range from installing solar panels and wind turbines to producing healthy and wholesome food. Displaced workers can be retrained to restore the health of every nation’s soil—a much more important bank than the imaginary wealth of stock markets and central banks. In West Virginia, coal miners are being trained to become bee-keepers. We can create robust local economies that can trade with each other. Envision a garden on every rooftop, in amongst the solar panels.

Decolonization: Ending Environmental Racism and Sacrifice Zones

The U.S. is rife with sacrifice zones due to economically-motivated policies of environmental racism. Let’s examine just a few. The legacy of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation (Dinétah) has left the land ravaged and poisoned, and has caused hundreds if not thousands of needless deaths from cancer. Overflows of chemicals and/or factory farm waste during floods have caused toxic soups in the aftermaths of disasters from Hurricane Harvey in Houston to Hurricane Florence in North Carolina. Then there are the numerous pipelines criss-crossing indigenous land from Standing Rock to Canada’s Trans Mountain. And oh yes, the lead-contaminated water of African-American majority city Flint, Michigan, a city that by the way was used for target practice in war games—without warning to its citizens—as documented in Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 11/9.

Even in the paradisiacal green hills of the Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Kauai, there are sacrifice zones—always near Native Hawaiian villages and schools—of Monsanto GMO experiments,  high concentrations of restricted-used pesticides, and military testing ranges. And let’s not forget the hazardous waste site left by the naval bombing range in Vieques, Puerto Rico. And the Amazon, and Africa, and Australia. The list is long.

Climate justice will redress the balance. True climate justice will bring us all together. We must not allow ourselves to be split and divided by the corporations that seek to poison us all—though not equally—and to drain the land that sustains human and all other life of every last bit of nourishment and vitality.

Post-Capitalist Co-ops in a Green Society

It’s become clear that the old paradigm of predatory capitalism isn’t working (well, did it ever?) Ultimately, it won’t even work for the .01% of the super wealthy, the Davos crowd. For awhile, they will be able to send their children to private schools, hire private fire protection, and fly in private jets. But if climate disruption continues unchecked, even they will not be able to protect their children and grandchildren. In large cities like Cairo, Delhi, and Beijing, the wealthy may have air conditioning to filter the pollution, but they have to go out sometimes, so it’s going to affect them as well.

The great lesson is that we are all in this together, along with every non-human animal child, from koalas to kangaroos, snow leopards to wolves, coyotes to cats, and every plant-being on the planet.

What if we transformed to the co-op model, with decentralized worker-owned businesses? What if employees owned hemp farms, food farms, wind farms, and community solar arrays? What if all utilities, rather than being investor-owned and beholden to the bottom line—safety and security of their customers be damned—were community-owned?

The Climate Crisis Touches Every Area of Life, and so does Climate Healing

Though the climate crisis threatens to clutch at every one of us with greedy hands, these hands can be transformed into the gentle hands of climate healing. Human creativity is truly infinite, and in the face of this existential threat, I can’t believe that we are not collectively and heroically going to rise to the occasion.

I am daily inspired by many activists

Some activists are of my own generation, women and men who have been marching, working, and dreaming for 50 years, since the first Earth Day. Others are youth, teens, and elementary school children, from all communities and cultures. Many are indigenous, brimming with the Traditional Ecological Knowledge of their ancestors and willing to share it with all.

A couple of weeks ago, I was particularly inspired and impressed by Lyla June Johnston, who is from the Diné (Navajo) Nation on her mother’s side. I’ve known Lyla for a few years through our mutual friend Kalika, another young Diné woman who is dedicated to creating a thriving future for the planet. Lyla is an accomplished Renaissance woman, her talents ranging from poetry and performance to activism and anthropology. She’s an author, educator, musician, public speaker, PhD student, and community organizer. And by the way, in her spare time she’s currently running for state representative of District 47 here in New Mexico.

On the opening day of our legislative session, Lyla began a seven-day Fast for the Future, for the next seven generations. I know that her strong spiritual life will sustain her through this fast and through the political contest she has entered, running against the Democratic Speaker of the House, Brian Egolf.

Lyla fasting – Version 2
Lyla June Johnston, fasting for the future.

When I go to support Lyla on the fifth day of her fast, she’s doing well but trying to be quiet to conserve her energy. She’s got a radio interview in the afternoon, and people are gathering hoping to hear her speak on the steps of the Roundhouse, our state capitol building. She sits and meditates for a bit, and then decides to speak.

Lyla asks us to gather in a circle. She talks about Equity, the fifth point in her Seven Generations New Deal, a work in progress that she hopes many will contribute to. Equity means confronting environmental racism. Although the indigenous people of New Mexico have suffered the effects of environmental damage first and worst, in some ways the whole of New Mexico has been a sacrifice zone for the fossil fuel industry as well as the uranium mining industry.

Lyla believes the U.S., the world’s primary carbon emitter, has a moral duty to take responsibility for both cleaning up the harm and leading the change. And she wants to see every community included in the healing and the solutions.

She talks about how the English language designates the man she is running against, Brian Egolf, as her “opponent.” But in her Diné language, he is her “older brother.” She speaks respectfully about him, at the same time making clear in a positive manner their differences in approach and policy. While they may both agree on the value of Community Solar, Lyla is adamant that fracking must be banned, and Mr. Egolf has not called for a ban.

I feel that Lyla grasps and expresses the scope of not only the climate emergency and biodiversity loss emergency, but the spiritual crisis of separation from the Earth that got humanity into this dire situation.

For me, it’s clear that the incremental approach advocated by well-intended old paradigm politicians won’t work. It’s not fast enough or light enough on its proverbial feet to address the dire and urgent situation that we are in. Incremental solutions might have worked in the 70’s, or even the 80’s, but in 2020 we are faced with the need and the opportunity to co-create the most unprecedentedly rapid and radical transformation of all areas of society in the history of humanity, in the next 10 years.

We need leaders, from a rainbow of possibilities, who grasp both the urgency of the challenge and the full spectrum of possible and positive solutions. I’m immensely grateful and humbled by Lyla and all the others who inspire us.

PLEASE NOTE: Since I first wrote and posted this, Lyla June Johnston has decided to redirect her campaign’s momentum to support the youth-led climate movement, particularly in support of Youth United for Climate Crisis Action (YUCCA) here in New Mexico.

Debra Denker is the author of the ecotopian cli-fi novel Weather Menders.

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