[Vision2020] Call climate change what it is: violence

Ted Moffett starbliss at gmail.com
Fri Mar 31 19:35:54 PDT 2017

Vision2020 Post: Ted Moffett
Call climate change what it is: violence

Rebecca Solnit <https://www.theguardian.com/profile/rebeccasolnit>

Social unrest and famine, superstorms and droughts. Places, species and
human beings – none will be spared. Welcome to Occupy Earth

If you're poor, the only way you're likely to injure someone is the old
traditional way: artisanal violence, we could call it – by hands, by knife,
by club, or maybe modern hands-on violence, by gun or by car.

But if you're tremendously wealthy, you can practice industrial-scale
violence without any manual labor on your own part. You can, say, build a
sweatshop factory that will collapse in Bangladesh
and kill more people than any hands-on mass murderer ever did, or you can
calculate risk and benefit about putting poisons or unsafe machines into
the world, as manufacturers do every day. If you're the leader of a
country, you can declare war and kill by the hundreds of thousands or
millions. And the nuclear superpowers – the US and Russia – still hold the
option of destroying quite a lot of life on Earth.

So do the carbon barons. But when we talk about violence, we almost always
talk about violence from below, not above.

Or so I thought when I received a press release last week from a climate
group announcing that "scientists say there is a direct link between
changing climate and an increase in violence
What the scientists actually said, in a not-so-newsworthy article in Nature
<http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v476/n7361/abs/nature10311.html> two
and a half years ago, is that there is higher conflict in the tropics in El
Nino years, and that perhaps this will scale up to make our age of climate
change also an era of civil and international conflict.

The message is that ordinary people will behave badly in an era of
intensified climate change.

All this makes sense, unless you go back to the premise and note that
climate change is itself violence. Extreme, horrific, longterm, widespread

Climate change is anthropogenic – caused by human beings, some much more
than others. We know the consequences of that change: the acidification of
oceans and decline of many species in them, the slow disappearance of
island nations such as the Maldives
increased flooding, drought, crop failure leading to food-price increases
and famine, increasingly turbulent weather. (Think Hurricane Sandy
<https://www.theguardian.com/world/hurricane-sandy> and the recent typhoon
in the Philippines
and heat waves that kill elderly people
by the tens of thousands.)

Climate change <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-change> is

So if we want to talk about violence and climate change – and we are
talking about it, after last week's horrifying report from the world's top
climate scientists
– then let's talk about climate change as violence. Rather than worrying
about whether ordinary human beings will react turbulently to the
destruction of the very means of their survival, let's worry about that
destruction – and their survival. Of course water failure, crop failure,
flooding and more will lead to mass migration and climate refugees – they
already have
– and this will lead to conflict. Those conflicts are being set in motion

You can regard the Arab Spring
in part, as a climate conflict: the increase in wheat prices was one of the
for that series of revolts that changed the face of northernmost Africa and
the Middle East. On the one hand, you can say, how nice if those people had
not been hungry in the first place. On the other, how can you not say, how
great is it that those people stood up against being deprived of sustenance
and hope? And then you have to look at the systems that created that hunger
- the enormous economic inequalities in places such as Egypt and the
brutality used to keep down the people at the lower levels of the social
system, as well as the weather.

People revolt when their lives are unbearable. Sometimes material reality
creates that unbearableness: droughts, plagues, storms, floods. But food
and medical care, health and well-being, access to housing and education –
these things are also governed by economic means and government policy.
That's what the revolt called Occupy Wall Street was against.

Climate change will increase hunger as food prices rise and food production
falters, but we already have widespread hunger on Earth, and much of it is
due not to the failures of nature and farmers, but to systems of
distribution. Almost 16m children
in the United States now live with hunger, according to the US Department
of Agriculture, and that is not because the vast, agriculturally rich
United States cannot produce enough to feed all of us. We are a country
whose distribution system is itself a kind of violence.

Climate change is not suddenly bringing about an era of equitable
distribution. I suspect people will be revolting in the coming future
against what they revolted against in the past: the injustices of the
system. They should revolt, and we should be glad they do, if not so glad
that they need to. (Though one can hope they'll recognize that violence is
not necessarily where their power lies.) One of the events prompting the
French Revolution was the failure of the 1788 wheat crop
which made bread prices skyrocket and the poor go hungry. The insurance
against such events is often thought to be more authoritarianism and more
threats against the poor, but that's only an attempt to keep a lid on
what's boiling over; the other way to go is to turn down the heat.

The same week during which I received that ill-thought-out press release
about climate and violence, Exxon Mobil Corporation issued a policy report.
It makes for boring reading, unless you can make the dry language of
business into pictures of the consequences of those acts undertaken for
profit. Exxon says

We are confident that none of our hydrocarbon reserves are now or will
become 'stranded'. We believe producing these assets is essential to
meeting growing energy demand worldwide.

Stranded assets that mean carbon assets – coal, oil, gas still underground
– would become worthless if we decided they could not be extracted and
burned in the near future. Because scientists say that we need to leave
most of the world's known carbon reserves in the ground if we are to go for
the milder rather than the more extreme versions of climate change. Under
the milder version, countless more people – species, places – will survive.
In the best-case scenario, we damage the Earth less. We are currently
wrangling about how much to devastate the Earth.

In every arena, we need to look at industrial-scale and systemic violence,
not just the hands-on violence of the less powerful. When it comes to
climate change, this is particularly true. Exxon has decided to bet that we
can't make the corporation keep its reserves in the ground, and the company
is reassuring its investors that it will continue to profit off the rapid,
violent and intentional destruction of the Earth.

That's a tired phrase, the destruction of the Earth, but translate it into
the face of a starving child and a barren field – and then multiply that a
few million times. Or just picture the tiny bivalves: scallops, oysters,
Arctic sea snails that can't form shells in acidifying oceans right now. Or
another superstorm tearing apart another city. Climate change is
global-scale violence, against places and species as well as against human
beings. Once we call it by name, we can start having a real conversation
about our priorities and values. Because the revolt against brutality
begins with a revolt against the language that hides that brutality.
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