Climate Change is a Social Justice Issue
an article by Lora Kwon
Dear Asian Youth,
Climate experts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have made it abundantly clear that our global average temperature must stay below 1.5° C. If not, we will be forced to deal with an onslaught of issues ranging from devastating wildfires and droughts to deadly heat stress, all of which will cost millions of taxpayer dollars and even more human lives. I always presumed that I would be long gone before climate change got that bad, but not only are we predicted to reach 1.5°C by 2036, we are actually on track to completely surpass this benchmark. 2036 is only sixteen years away. In sixteen years our generation will still be fully alive and forced to watch the disastrous, irreversible consequences of climate change sweep the world.
In other words, we’re completely screwed.
However, while the effects of climate change are widespread, it is important to remember that the effects of climate change influence the poor and working-class disproportionately. The rich are able to use their money as a shield to avoid most of the disastrous consequences. For example, when droughts impact our access to water and changes in climate conditions cause food shortages, only the wealthiest will be able to afford these resources. Furthermore, when climate change causes an increase in waterborne diseases along with illnesses transmitted by insects and rodents, those that can't even afford basic health care will be unable to seek treatment for these conditions. Not to mention that as floods, hurricanes, and wildfires sweep the nation, people who can’t keep food on the table, let alone pay for insurance will not be able to rebuild their lives. This pattern has already emerged throughout our country’s history. Just look at the victims of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. It has been 15 years since this incident, and the rebuilding of New Orleans is still a work in progress. While the richer areas have been restored, historically low-income neighborhoods such as Lower Ninth Ward, where the average resident was living on an annual salary of $16,000, have still not recovered. To make matters worse, 2020 is on track to be one of the warmest years in history, and we are going to be forced to see an influx of natural disasters among a range of other horrors. Previous devastations such as Hurricane Katrina have proven that people who are not wealthy have trouble recovering from these disasters. This socioeconomic inequality means that climate change is much more than an environmental issue — it’s a social justice issue.
Unfortunately, the people in government who are expected to fight for the working class, are the same people who have the money to avoid most of the issues associated with climate change. Not only do government officials get to avoid these issues, but they can profit from the cause of these issues. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but perhaps the lack of politicians advocating for the elimination of fossil fuels has something to do with the fact that politicians are spending money privately funded by fossil fuels companies. A prime example is Trump’s 2017 inauguration. According to the Center for Public Integrity, “oil, gas, and coal companies and executives contributed more than $1 out of every $10 raised for Trump’s inauguration, for which he raised nearly $107 million overall.” It doesn't end there. An investigative journal called Sludge revealed that as of December 13th, 2019, 134 members of Congress and their spouses own up to $92.7 million in fossil fuel stocks. Not to mention that House members own somewhere between roughly $29.5 million and $78.2 million in fossil fuel stocks, while senators have invested somewhere between $3.8 million and $14.5 million in this sector. Politicians are not impartial. In our corrupt government, those in positions of power continue to make money off the success of the fossil fuel industry. They have a motive for ignoring the need to address climate change. In fact, nothing is stopping them from trying to deregulate the fossil fuel industry and watching their stocks soar, so no wonder we have not seen nearly enough change to match the urgency of this global crisis.
Compare the United State’s inaction to the lengths that other countries have gone to combat climate change, and you will see that the United State’s government is allowing our country to fall behind. Sweden, for example, adopted a new climate policy framework in 2017. This framework includes the Climate Act, which states that the government will present a climate report each year, create a climate policy action plan every fourth year, and ensure that climate policy goals match budget targets. Long term, the Swedish government has repeatedly claimed that they are going to eliminate all fossil fuels by 2045. All in all, these actions have made Sweden the most sustainable country in the world. Other countries are following suit with similar goals. In 2017, Kenya banned all plastic bags. If seen with a plastic bag, one could be arrested, charged, or fined up to $40,000. Furthermore, France has recently gotten rid of single-use plastic and made statements that they would like to achieve a circular economy by 2025 and no carbon emissions by 2050. In comparison, the United States has not taken nearly enough action.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The United States could potentially be a leader in climate sustainability and in combating climate change if given a leader who does not have ulterior motives. After all, the US is in a position of wealth that allows our government to actually make a difference. The issue is that not enough funding is being funneled towards the environment. In 2017 for example, the EPA’s budget was $8.14 billion. $8.14 billion only accounts for 0.2 percent of the projected $4 trillion 2017 federal budget. Despite this startlingly low percentage, Trump has proposed cuts to the EPA’s budget, which would bring down the agency’s yearly costs from $25 per American to $18.81 per American.
For comparison, in 2019, our country spent 50.6% of our federal discretionary funds on national defense. Imagine what could be accomplished if even a small percentage of that money was used to prevent climate change instead.
Luckily, there are people within the government who are trying to direct more attention and funds to addressing climate change. A primary example is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a congresswoman who not only fights for the working class but has taken a pledge to refuse any corporate funding, including money from fossil fuel companies. She has proposed a congressional resolution called the Green New Deal, that urges our government to decarbonize the economy. The Green New Deal is not a piece of legislation, but it is simply a 14-page document outlining the congress’s goals for our future, and it is the first step to addressing climate change. At its core, it reflects what climate scientists have been advising us to do since the 1970s: eliminating all fossil fuels. This means finding clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources to meet 100 percent of the country’s power demand. Complying with this proposal will require everything from constructing new transportation systems, reevaluating building standards, changing the production strategy of materials, and reworking industrial agriculture. While initially, this will be a huge undertaking, once we instate this new system and renewable energy sources are considered the norm, our everyday lives will continue as usual. However, for this “new normal” to be achieved, we need to be willing to take this step forward; the Green New Deal is the only piece of congressional resolution that addresses the fact that our world is going into ruins. A rise in the fossil fuel industry is making climate change exponentially worse and we are too far gone to find the middle ground or attempt to make incremental progress. At this point, it’s all or nothing, and the Green New Deal reflects this urgency.
The other major part of the Green New Deal is that it ensures a socially just shift for the working-class. The 2019 US Energy and Employment Report details the number of Americans employed by the Traditional Energy Sector (fossil fuel sector). The Fuels sector employed 1,127,600, the Electric Power Generation sector employed 875,600, and the Transmission, Distribution, and Storage sector employed more than 2.3 million Americans. Millions of individuals depend on the fossil fuel industry to keep them employed and decarbonizing the industry would leave them unemployed. Furthermore, as the country takes on the task of decarbonization, wealthy corporations will jump in to build these projects and the good jobs will go to those who can afford the training, causing even more socioeconomic injustice. This is where the second part of the Green New Deal comes into play. The resolution states that “...the Green New Deal mobilization creates high-quality union jobs that pay prevailing wages, hires local workers, offers training and advancement opportunities, and guarantees wage and benefit parity for workers affected by the transition.” Offering these individuals the training necessary along with quality job opportunities with high wages not only addresses the issue of mass unemployment, but prevents an unfair economic cycle where the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. Furthermore, the Green New Deal goes on to state that these workers will also be given free health care, a right that ought to be promised to every American in a first-world nation. Despite what right-winged media (cough cough Fox News) says, giving these working-class Americans proper resources is not socialism. It is a socially just promise that nobody will be left behind during this transition.
The Green New Deal may seem drastic, but it is a piece of necessary action. Our country has been putting off addressing the issue at hand and this is the cost. The Green New Deal is expensive and difficult to implement, but in the words of congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “we’re going to pay for this whether we pass a Green New Deal or not. Because as towns and cities go underwater, as wildfires ravage our communities, we are going to pay. And we’re either going to decide if we’re going to pay to react, or pay to be proactive.”
If we choose inaction, then the poor and working-class will be the ones to suffer first. We have to fight for not only our own futures, but for the people who have the least power in our society. We need more people to attend climate change marches, use our platforms to preach the urgency of rising temperatures, and donate to organizations such as the Sunrise Movement which advocates for the Green New Deal. Furthermore, it is our responsibility to use websites such as policy link to urge the congressperson for our districts to move the resolution forward to hearings. However, over everything else, , we must show support for politicians who have our best interest at heart. Ensure that whoever you vote for refuses corporate funding from fossil fuels companies and promises to advocate for the Green New Deal. Our government has neglected the issue of climate change for far too long, so it is now up to us to force their hand.