Magazine article Tikkun

Climate Disaster Demands an Ecological Left

Magazine article Tikkun

Climate Disaster Demands an Ecological Left

Article excerpt

The future catastrophes looming as a conse- quence of climate change are multiple and nearly un- imaginable in their horror: Prolonged temperature spikes, scorching heat, frequent raging wildfires, and drought disaster areas. Desertification in already dry areas and elsewhere torrid downpours, severe storm surges, and extreme flash floods. Snow pack and ice sheets shedding mass. Permafrost thawing. Oceans acidifying. Sea levels ris- ing, possibly three feet by century's end, inundating low-lying coastal areas, including those with major cities. Flora and fauna unable to cope with the changes. Species extinctions. A natural world in chaos.

We are in urgent need of a Left that recognizes the pri- macy of this environmental threat-and then organizes to bring about swift and radical change in response to it.

The catastrophes brought about by climate change will be not only biological and physical but also social. Rural people, displaced by extreme weather, will flee the baked country- side, perhaps for urban centers, while dwellers in flooding coastal cities will seek refuge in the interior. Climate change will exacerbate the existing social ills of our world, especially social inequalities. As always, the poor, already vulnerable, will be hurt the worst.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, climate change will "exacerbate poverty in low- and lower-middle-income countries and create new poverty pockets in upper-middle- to high-income countries with in- creasing inequality." Most ominously, it warns, starvation is a real prospect for many. Frequent heat waves will reduce the yields of staple crops by up to 2 percent each decade for the rest of this century. Rising food prices will hit "wage-labor- dependent poor households that are net buyers of food" the hardest of all.

Changing the Way We Live

Back in 2007, climate expert John Holdren gave us a useful framework for thinking about global climate change: "We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suf- fering," The New York Times quoted him as saying. "We're going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be."

Mitigation means preventing the worst-case scenarios by abjuring the use of fossil fuels and creating new systems of renewable energy, public transportation, and agriculture that don't depend on them. It's good that cities are grow- ing because, by concentrating population, they tend to have a smaller carbon footprint than rural areas, to be more en- ergy efficient, and to be hotbeds of sustainability innovation; however, we need to green those cities with urban farms like those in Cleveland, Chicago, and Milwaukee, yielding pro- duce to urban neighborhoods. And to make that happen, we need a Left that sees climate activism not as an expendable frill but as a central part of all future social and economic justice movements.

We need a Left that pushes us to radically rethink the way we inhabit the countryside. Sprawl and suburbs depend on the presence of the automobile; industrial agriculture de- pends on petrochemicals and on fossil fuels for shipping. We need to cluster dwellings and workplaces more tightly and locate sustainable food production facilities near the settle- ments where the food will be consumed. Ideally, in my view, we should move toward a configuration in which the major- ity of people live in small towns and cities situated near fields and small-scale farmlands. The local agriculture movement, now burgeoning in my home state of Vermont and elsewhere, is showing ways to achieve this sustainable balance. …

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