Brookline Climate Week 2014: Climate Justice and the Human Rights Struggles of Our Times

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On Thursday evening, as part of Brookline Climate Week, Brookline Booksmith hosted a talk by climate writer Wen Stephenson who acquired local notice most recently for his article in the sadly defunct Boston Phoenix entitled “The New Abolitionists: Global Warming is the Great Moral Crisis of Our Time.”  Currently a contributor to the Nation, Stephenson helped found the Massachusetts chapter of 350.org.

Beginning with the Frederick Douglas quote, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress”, the talk laid out an argument for the immediate need for more radical activism against the industries and policies that continue to encourage fossil fuel consumption.  The foundation for this argument is not simply that climate change is in fact now a crisis, but that it is an issue of morality.  Stephenson relayed findings from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research that by 2020 12% of the world’s population will experience absolute water scarcity and 24% will experience chronic water scarcity.  The implication of that prediction is that more than one-third of the world will have trouble growing enough food.  He noted the World Bank has stated that a 4˚C rise in surface temperature was beyond human adaptation and that we are on track to exceed this.  Stephenson asks if a just society is still possible if that will be our reality?

The answer he tells us lies not in the environmental movement but in a new kind of movement that harkens back to a time when justice and morality were linked to a cause which more directly appeals to everyone’s sense of right and wrong.  Stephenson argues that human rights and social justice movements of the 19th and 20th centuries are the type that would in that way transcend the notion of “environment.”  And the key element of those movements was the level of commitment by their proponents – radical commitment – that may lead to personally negative consequences.  The mental shift that has to take place is that of starting to view the actions of the fossil fuel industry and their government lackeys, where public information has been tampered with and the future – especially for the poorest people – has been robbed, as crimes.  Stephenson says further, to galvanize a movement, it must be acknowledged that our media has failed to address the climate crisis and our political representatives have failed to take action.  The responsibility then falls to grassroots activism.

Even if an individual comes to all these conclusions, there are still issues to contemplate before evolving into a real radical activist.  “Radicalism is not risk free.”  Imprisonment is a real possibility – as evidenced in the film screening earlier this week about the actions of Tim DeChristopher.  I would add to that the likely labeling and ostracism of your peers – something I still struggle with.  Being “green” or “eco-friendly” is fashionable among many, but only to a point.  If you start talking to your friends and co-workers about drought-induced mass starvation, abandoning coastal cities, or even just reducing your carbon footprint by giving up your car they tend to look at you like an “extremist” and write-off what you’re saying.  Besides the current injustice being a motivator, one also has to really believe, as Stephenson stated, that there is a possibility of a just world in the future for which to fight.  So then, do you believe it is not too late?  As I have heard it repeated in other forums, the climate justice movement is only going to succeed if it is integrated with solutions to other problems – political division, local development issues, globalization, economic justice, human rights, etc.

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