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Republished from NYTimes.com
By Eric S. Godoy and Aaron Jaffe
This year is on track to become the hottest ever recorded, and a growing number of environmentalists are using a particular type of language in response. Some are calling for a huge “mobilization” to “combat” climate change. In an article in the New Republic in August, Bill McKibben, the unofficial spokesperson of the climate movement in the United States, insisted in very literal terms that, we are at war with climate change.
In the United States, we are familiar with war metaphors; and they are often politically useful. We have been through wars on poverty, drugs, cancer and even Christmas. In these cases, metaphors are understood as metaphors, but when McKibben points to territory ceded, space invaded, cultural loss and human suffering, he intends to be taken at face value: “It’s not that global warming is like a world war,” he writes. “It is a world war.”
War rhetoric serves a valuable function. It stresses the seriousness of the harm, its structural nature and the need to struggle against it. Wars require people to sacrifice and to share responsibility for a joint effort larger than individual preferences and comforts. They can also motivate solidarity: The goal of defeating the enemy orients all activity, and whatever may divide or distract us from achieving that goal must be put aside. In the rhetoric-bag of political discourse, “war” is a forceful weapon.
McKibben is one of the most visible and motivating climate activists in North America. He has written an astounding number of influential articles and books, co-founded an organization leading an international fossil fuel divestment campaign, spoken across the country to full auditoriums and participated in high-profile protests, some leading to his arrest. Most recently, he called on all of us to unite with the Standing Rock Sioux against the Dakota Access pipeline. Our goal here is not to attack McKibben so much as the rhetorical strategy that he, along with others, have made increasingly popular.
The idea that climate change is a war is inaccurate, and a potentially counterproductive frame for organizing the resistance needed to secure a habitable planet. By stressing existential threat, war tends to divide the world into allies and enemies, against whom we need to risk all. McKibben insists that climate change is “a world war aimed at us all.” But aimed by whom? It is variably polluting industries, tepid or two-faced politicians, our own political passivity, and even the laws of physics. McKibben often writes as if nature itself was a bellicose agent.
This approach ignores the environmental movement’s earlier rhetorical and organizational strengths. As a political force, the movement grew from roots in the nonviolent soil of civil rights struggles, and was radicalized in antiwar protests and resistance against nuclear weapons. This legacy is not merely historical: it is alive and well in the language and action of ongoing resistance at Standing Rock.
Another problem with deploying such war metaphors is that doing so assumes a distinction between allies and enemies that disguises the unequal effects felt by “us all.” McKibben, to his credit, does recognize this.
For instance, he admits that the “first victims, ironically, are those who have done the least to cause the crisis.” Here he refers to the world’s poor, who have contributed only a small amount of the total greenhouse gases while richer countries produce higher carbon emissions. And some even benefit from doing so. The affluent enjoy “cheap” fuel and other products of industry, and shareholders profit from such sales.
Meanwhile, the most recent International Panel on Climate Change report notes that the poor and marginalized face greater food scarcity and price insecurity, and the threat of violent conflict connected to this instability. In actual war, too, the poorest and marginalized often find themselves on the front lines while the richer are insulated or even benefit; McKibben himself explains how this was true of United States industrialists during World War II.
In other words, the first victims are not suffering from the relentless assault of the physical environment alone, but of other humans who leverage their social position to displace wider costs and extract private benefits. Given McKibben’s dedication to protests like the one at Standing Rock reservation, he is well aware of these forces.
Humans are already divided into different groups or classes, with relative advantages and vulnerabilities. Climate change exacerbates this inequality, and our rhetoric ought to reflect this fact and resist false universalizations. Beyond the inherent injustice of disproportionate and unnecessary suffering, growing environmental inequality tends to the violences of displacement, resource-competition and actual war.
One thing we all share is that we secure existence in and through a relationship with our environment — all living things do. In recognition of this fact, Marx thought of the human body as part of the natural world and called nature an extension of our bodies. Following Marx, contemporary theorists like Jason Moore and John Bellamy Foster describe our changing, and dangerously unstable metabolic relationship with nature. Humans are a unique species in that we form complex relationships to regulate this metabolism as we produce our food, water, shelter and more robust needs.
As these relationships are organized today, and as the climate changes, the affluent can afford an increase in food prices, ship in bottled water during droughts and relocate businesses and homes when the seas rise, while those without access to such privileges have fewer options and disproportionately suffer.
What would winning a “war” against climate change even look like? McKibben suggests a huge mobilization to produce green technologies, solar panels, wind turbines and electric cars. He cites the public seizure and transformation of private factories during World War II that enabled the United States to produce bombers and other instruments that helped win the war.
Certainly greener technologies can help, but solar panels won’t purify Flint’s lead-ridden water or lower asthma rates in the Bronx, some of the highest in the country because of the proximity to trucking lanes. Technology alone can’t address the environmental injustice disproportionately confronting minorities. However, if we understand that the enemy is not our physical environment, but the unjust social relations that allow some to gain at the expense of and risk to others, then technological solutions can be a part, but only a part, of the plan. Crucial to this plan is gaining social control over the private, exploitative and even irresponsible direction of the human-nature metabolism.
For this reason, Naomi Klein has called for solutions that go beyond the technological. She emphasizes, not just green energy, but also “people power.” Her most recent book and film, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate,” feature a number of grass-roots movements resisting the forces that threaten people’s relationships with their environment — sometimes even in the name of “green” solutions, such as hydroelectric dam projects. We want to follow Klein’s lead in shifting the conceptual focus from technologies of power to relations of power. Despite his recent rhetoric, McKibben follows a similar course.
We urgently need to motivate action, but given the ambiguities and dangers surrounding war rhetoric, we need better orienting language. Perhaps, as some have suggested, “revolution” is the better path.
While world wars aim to decimate enemies and their capacities for violence, “revolutions” aim to transform violence and oppression by empowering people. Instead of a war against physics, a revolution in the control and direction of climate, natural resources and energy policy could enable democratic participation to redress past harms and guide environmental goals of the future. Such a revolution would affirm the right to a clean, healthy environment for all people; it would transform the relationships that regulate our metabolism with nature, relationships that now allow some to profit by denying this right to others. Solar panels alone won’t transform these relationships and secure this right.
McKibben worries that if the United States does not take the lead, China, already a significant developer of renewable energy, would win the renewables race. In this way American exceptionalism and national chauvinism lurks beneath the surface of so many universalist stances.
Like the arms races and technology gaps characteristic of the nearly catastrophic Cold War, such a national frame reinforces an us-versus-them mentality which reduces rather fosters much needed international coordination and popular organization. After all, even if we stop emitting today or if our renewable sector takes the lead, the world will continue to warm. A wider vision of global cooperation in which China, the United States and so many others work hand in hand to confront the global environmental challenges should supplant the narrow focus on American leadership. But is this likely within the context of nationalist war rhetoric?
“Revolution” can be just as motivating as “war,” but a green revolution would center the human-nature metabolism over and against the drive for profits. It would answer the question McKibben leaves open, namely, how we get from green technology to more just ecological and social relations.
In this light, Exxon and its climate science obfuscation is not so much an enemy as a paradigmatic symptom of the worst kinds of behavior generated by profit-driven systems. The enemy is the violence perpetrated by racial, gendered, political, juridical and existing economic metabolisms with nature. Their exploitative organizations would remain unconcerned with climate justice even if the nation were mobilized to mass produce solar panels and wind turbines. In other words, Climate change demands not only a race to develop and deploy new energy technologies, but a revolution to democratize all forms of power — fossil fuels, wind, solar, but most important, economic and political power.