The Left at a Crossroads

Eli Wallach, JHU SAIS Nanjing:

The idea that social and environmental issues are complementary is prevalent among the left and for good reason. The effects of climate change are most felt by poor communities, after all, and both climate change and the plight of the poor fall under the progressive umbrella of problems we need to “fix” through active policy.

The intertwining of social and environmental justice can perhaps best be seen in widely acclaimed leftist journalist and radical environmentalist Naomi Klein’s book-turned-documentary, This Changes Everything. The movie’s explanation on its website reads: “What if confronting the climate crisis is the best chance we’ll ever get to build a better world?”

The idea that humans can put a stop to climate change by radically changing the means of global production is exciting but incomplete as it largely ignores the fact that the effects of climate change are already taking place. This point can be attributed to the environmental movement more generally, as almost all of its emphasis historically has gone to attacking emissions at its source rather than mitigating its effects.

In recent years, however, due to increased severity and publicity of climate-related issues, environmentalists have begun to advocate for causes associated with climate-disaster relief and preparation. While this side of environmentalism is relatively new, there are some patterns that are already forming, perhaps most notable of which is the recurring prioritization of environmental safety over social justice.

Take the California drought as an example. It is widely known that the largest user of water in the Golden State is big agriculture. Naturally, in the midst of a historic drought, it has become commonplace to hear California residents call for reductions to its agricultural sector, especially in water-intensive industries such as almonds and avocados. However, if the government follows through on this potentially water-saving policy recommendation, who would be hurt the most? The answer is people who work on the farms, a population that happens to be one of California’s most vulnerable.

One can also observe the rift between environmental and social justice when considering natural disaster preparedness in developing countries. Studies have shown that climate change will hurt developing more than developed countries for a variety of reasons, including the increased occurrence of weather disasters. Inadequate infrastructure stands as one of the main reasons why post-disaster death tolls in developing countries are so much higher than in their more developed counterparts. The logic behind this is quite simple. A house that is built by a company following safety standards and using strong materials is more likely to withstand a natural disaster than a self-built slum dwelling. However, creating solutions to address this problem becomes more complicated. What if the best method of creating disaster preparedness in developing countries is the replacement of slums with newly built housing units? Would the potential safeguard against climate change-related natural disasters be worth the social cost?

Slum demolition for the purpose of strengthening housing infrastructure does not have to become a social justice issue. If the people residing in the slum are offered just compensation and living space in the newly built houses, then the slum demolition is arguably a win-win for both causes. However, I suspect the alternative case is more probable. Already, one can see the risks associated with climate change being used as a means to gain public and legal support for slum “improvements” or, in other words, clearance. Reported cases of this have occurred in Mexico City and Accra.

My point is not to say that environmental and social justice are diametrically opposed, but rather, that these two rallying cries of the left are not intrinsically complementary. As the effects of climate change become more and more severe and our responses to it become more and more urgent, I believe that this divergence will become more and more visible.

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