Sunday, May 27, 2007

The global nature of racism - Part II: Global Warming

Let me preface this post with a pet pieve of mine: why is it that once the Republican spinsters - you know the wordsmiths like Frank Luntz whom the party employs to coin their euphemisms in order to deflect heat from key issues - why is it that once terms get purposefuly and strategically changed by conservatives, many liberals adopt them instantly without a second thought, thus lubricating the conservative machine? I hear this on NPR and Air America all the time.

One example is abortion rights. Abortion rights used to be called "reproductive rights" or "reproductive justice," and "pro-abortion" used to be "pro-choice." The terms "abortion rights" or "pro-abortion "just don't sound right. They make it seem like all that pro-choice people want is abortions. Not so. These new terms antagonize opposing sides even more and narrow the debate. They are meant to repulse. Not helpful. So, if you are pro-reproductive rights and pro-choice, I suggest you refuse to reduce your stand to "pro-abortion."

My last "global nature of racism" post mentioned reproductive rights as key to some of the women affected by racism around the world. For many of them, being "allowed" to HAVE children is as important as the right to choose not to have children. Racially motivated coerced sterilization is very much a problem for many women of color still today - at home and abroad (More here and reader comment from Jennifer James here.) Thus, we would do right by all of us who believe in choice, to use a more inclusive term.

The other example, related to the main idea of this post, is "climate change." The Bushites wanted to turn down the heat of global warming so they could, unfettered, continue reaping their oil, nuclear energy and military complex profits and had their darling consultant Luntz coin the term "climate change" to be used in all talking points and in mainstream media. Much more innocuous, don't you think? So, let's call global warming what it is and not euphemize the phrase.

My point is, and politicians know this so well, that wording does shape the content and tone of both debate and legislation, and in turn affecs all of us. So, I think we should be more critical of the wording we use to discuss key issues.

The issue I want to discuss today is global warming. Namely, my point is that the global warming crisis disproportionately impacts groups of color, indigenous communities, and low-income people.

Today's New York times and Boston Globe feature an article about a group that is now among the first climate refugees in the United States. The people comprising this group, like the vast majority of Katrina refugees, are people of color. More specifically, this time the community in focus are the Newtok, Native people of Alaska.

The article reads:

The earth beneath much of Alaska is not what it used to be. The permanently frozen subsoil, known as permafrost, upon which Newtok and so many other Native Alaskan villages rest, is melting, yielding to warming air temperatures and a warming ocean. Sea ice that would normally protect coastal villages is forming later in the year, allowing fall storms to pound away at the shoreline.

Erosion has made Newtok an island, caught between the ever widening Ninglick River and a slough to the north. The village is below sea level, and sinking.

. . . Studies say Newtok could be washed away within a decade.

And continues with the residents discussing the racist treatment of the tribe by the federal government:

Residents here emphasize that they are a federally recognized American Indian tribe, and they shudder when asked why they cannot just move to an existing village or a city like Fairbanks.

They say their identity is rooted in their isolation, however qualified it has become over the last century by outside influences. It was the government, they say, that insisted decades ago that they abandon their nomadic ways and pick a place to call home.

The current village site was once only a winter camp, and the people of Newtok say they are not to blame just because they are now among the first climate refugees in the United States.

"The federal government, they're the ones who came into our lives and took away some of our values," said Nick Tom Jr., 49, the former Newtok tribal administrator. "They came in and said, 'You aren't civilized. We're going to educate you.' That was hard for our grandparents."

Meanwhile, the Bush administration is fighting tooth and nail any kind of pressure on them to curb carbon emissions. Just yesterday, according to Common Dreams, Greenpeace published "a leaked document showing the United States has raised serious new objections to a proposed global warming declaration for next month’s Group of Eight summit." In the document, "US officials representing the administration of President George W. Bush reject . . . the idea of setting mandatory emissions targets, as well as language calling for G8 nations to raise overall energy efficiencies by 20 percent by 2020."

This from the government of a country which constitutes just 4 percent of the world's population, but that is responsible for about 25 percent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the main cause of global warming. (Souce: Ms. Laura Orlando: The Melting Point published in the spring 2007 issue of Ms.).

Does the U.S. government care about the Newtok tribe? And on a larger scale, is the government taking steps to prepare for the climate refugees, from within this country and without, that will inevitably begin seeking relocation in just a few short years? No, too busy instituting anti-immigration policies, halting anti-global warming action and destoying the Alaskan wilderness with oil drilling. The Bushites can't even repair the damage once it's been done. Take the New Orleans levees, for example, which about the year ago the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declared restored to "pre-Hurricane Katrina strength." Recently, however, the New Orleans levees and flood walls were inspected by engineering professor Bob Bea of the University of California, Berkeley along with National Geographic magazine, who found the "riddled with flaws." The walls are so full of weak spots, in fact, that a storm even weaker than Katrina could breach the levees if it hit this year, say leading experts in the field.

Meanwhile the Newtok, thinking ahead, according to the New York Times plan to "move piecemeal rather than in one collective migration, which they say will save money. . . They say he government should pay, no matter the cost -- if only there were a government agency charged with doing so. There is not a formal process by which a village can apply to the government to relocate."

While Native Alaskan tribes try to protect their homes from shifting and sliding on mud while watching the water around them encroach on the land and the animals around them drown in the warming waters, governmental policies on every level continue to ignore the looming crisis, encouraging destructive policies and failing to take a stand against global warming. As Mary Christina Wood, professor of law at University of Oregon said: "County commissioners are approving trophy home subdivisions and destination resorts as if global warming didn't exist. State environmental agencies are approving air permits as if global warming didn't exist. The Forest Service is approving timber sales as if global warming didn't exist. And the electric power industry is racing to build more than 150 new coal-fired power plants across the U.S., banking on federal approval as if global warming didn't exist."

On a global scale, the emissions coming from the U.S., the pollution U.S. companies export elsewhere, and the wars U.S. is waging in the Middle East and elsewhere, are directly responsible for much of the global warming, causing suffering and displacement of largely poor people and people of color around the world. But this is just the beginning. Everyone will feel the heat eventually.

Wood summarizes the already visible and possible future effects of global warming:

"United Nations reports show rapid melting of the polar ice sheets, Antarctica, Greenland and glaciers throughout the world. The oceans are heating and rising. Coral reefs are bleaching and dying. Species are on exodus from their habitats towards the poles. As a result of global warming the world now faces crop losses, food shortages, flooding, coastal loss, wildfire, drought, pests, hurricanes, heat waves, disease and extinctions. An international climate team has warned countries to prepare for as many as 50 million human environmental refugees by 2010. Scientists explain that, due to the carbon already in the atmosphere, we are locked into a temperature rise of at least 2 degrees F. This alone will have impacts for generations to come, but if we continue business as usual, they predict Earth will warm as much as 10.4 degrees F, which will leave as many as 600 million people in the world facing starvation and 3.2 billion people suffering water shortages; it will convert the Amazon rainforest into savannah, and trigger the kind of mass extinction that hasn't occurred on Earth for 55 million years."

And this quote really brings it home:

"Global warming threatens all of our basic survival mechanisms -- food, water, shelter, and health. British commentator Mark Lynas, author of High Tide, summarizes it this way: If we go on emitting greenhouse gases at anything like the current rate, most of the surface of the globe will be rendered uninhabitable within the lifetimes of most readers of this article."

Native tribes in Alaska and Hurricane Katrina and Rita refugees, among whom the African American individuals were hit harder than whites, acorrding to a recent study are the first groups among our midst to feel the might of our man-made climate mess. By the way, about 86,000 families are still homeless as a result of the hurricanes. Globally, the communities most affected as of now are the South Pacific due to the recurring hurricanes and cyclones; South Asia with its deluges, droughts, mudslides, annual flooding and even droughts; and Africa with its perennial and long-drawn African droughts. But other regions are registering dramatic changes as well. The Himalayan glaciers are melting as are the polar caps.

I agree with Wood when she describes the attitude of most Americans as blase towards global warming. We may be reading about it, thinking about it, talking about it, and dreaming about it at night (At a party I went to recently, the vast majority of the guests came to realize they were having recurring global warming nightmares almost nightly). But despite all this, very little is being done by the masses and the government in this country

As Wood says:

The reality today is that most Americans are too absorbed in their own routines to make time for global warming. We parents tend to be an especially busy group. We are so consumed with taking our children to soccer games and piano lessons that we don't think ahead to how our children will get food and water, and be safe from storms, disease, and all of the other life-threatening circumstances that planet's heating will bring them. By living out the American dream, we are essentially signing our own children up for a draft for their lifetimes. But this war will be the most frightening because it has no end in sight for even their descendants, and all of Nature's survival resources will be scarce. Unfortunately, it's no consolation that we are good, devoted parents who just aren't that interested in global warming. Nature won't recognize our children as conscientious objectors to climate crisis.

To be sure, there are some Americans who are engaged and responding with small changes in their lives. They ride the bus more often, they refuse to buy bottled water, they turn off lights. This brings them comfort, thinking the problem is on its way to being solved. These people are important models, but national defense cannot be put on the backs of a few good soldiers. Most concerned citizens are doing nothing to enlist the rest of society in climate defense.

. . . Overall, our society is nowhere near decarbonizing. Climate defense entails carbon math. We lose this war for countless generations to come if we can't get our total planetary carbon levels down before the tipping point. Each day that passes, the window of opportunity to avert global catastrophe closes a little more.

Action must be taken at the highest legislative level.

Josh Lynch has a nice comprehensive piece on the It's Getting Hot in Here blog, which "features student and youth leaders from the movement to stop global warming and to build a more just and sustainable future." Josh's piece outlines some actions that can be taken domestically to curb global warming and prioritize green energy.

We must take individual actions, but more importantly press the government to make action to slow global warming and to aid affected groups a priority - for our children and for those worldwide in harms way because of the greed and racism inherent in the American Dream.

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