Global warming is happening now

Date of publication: 
26 November 2009

Weather is becoming extreme. By extreme, we mean heat is suffocating when it’s hot, rain turns into floods, forests and crops into deserts. Disease is spreading, life essentials like food and water are becoming scarce and human life itself is in the edge of extinction.

We are trying to find a way to survive: to guarantee a succession of our insignificant but (sometimes) wonderful human acts, to continue our potential of creation despite our tendency to destroy. Yet because this destructive selfishness has trumped collective action, we are dooming our chances in favor of the unsustainable capitalist system. Survival, like everything else in our society, is for sale for those who are able to afford it. And so, we are just delaying what would be inevitable if we don’t offer different solutions. The rich live in comfort, for now, while the rest are already dealing with the problems of global warming.

“These issues like climate change that seem abstract to many people are affecting people like me today,” said Jihan Gearon, a Dine (Navajo) and African American from Arizona who works as a Native Energy Organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network.

As part of the New Voices on Climate Change tour, organized by the Global Justice Ecology Project, Gearon talked to a group of concerned Providence citizens on how environmental destruction and climate change is affecting low-income communities of color in the United States by showing the current impact within Native American reservations such as her own.

In the Navajo Nation in Arizona where she grew up, coal-mining companies have been the largest employers for Native American communities, but have also caused the most damage to their lands and its people. In nearby Black Mesa, for example, Peabody Western Coal Company’s plant “emitted up to 40,000 tons of sulfur dioxide each year, making it the dirtiest coal-fired power plant in the West,” according to the EPA. Testifying on behalf of the Navajo Nation in the UN International Expert Group Meeting on Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change held in Australia last year, Kimberly Smith pointed out that “abundance of natural resources has eased the unemployment on the nation, [but] in exchange, we are plagued with water depletion, drought, relocation, toxic water, a rise in cancer, and other respiratory illnesses.”

A recent report by Physicians for Social Responsibility established that people who live near coal-mining operations fall victim to serious illnesses such as lung cancer, heart disease and stroke because of pollutants released into the air and drinking water supplies.

Not only do these “corporations contaminate water, which is precious in the desert,” added Gearon, “they have used a lot of the water from the underground aquifers that are essential to our livelihood.” The environmental organization Sierra Club estimates that Peabody Western Coal Company’s plant “had been consuming 1.3 billion gallons of that fresh water from the Navajo aquifer each year in order to create the coal slurry” before it closed at the end of 2005.

This water is now disappearing at an even faster rate because of the global warming caused by “325 million tons of CO2 that have been discharged into the atmosphere” throughout thirty years of the coal company’s operations.

(Also, see how the Peabody Western Coal Company pushed for a land resettlement law for the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation so that the lands that encompassed the coal would be under the Hopi jurisdiction that was willing to lease it to the coal company, creating bitter divisions between the two communities that are still a point of contention today)

“Over 35 percent of fossil fuel development happens around Native American communities,” Gearon said, as was going to be the case of a failed oil project in Alaska that could have affected Athabascan Indians’ traditional hunting and fishing and Canada’s tar sands that has already jeopardized the way of life of Fort Chipewyan communities.

Gearon reminded her audience that Native American communities have lived alongside nature, not in domination of it. Traditionally, they have used its resources, but not exploited them until there was nothing left. The land would provide what they needed, so there was no need to control it to do more than it should. It might have never been a perfect relationship, but their culture depends on this connection because this vision moves their way of life, their customs, morals and philosophies. Yet modern economic practices have encroached their land so much they can no longer depend on it for subsistence. These communities that had their lands stolen from them can only survive through mining because it is the only option available. It gives them jobs (though there is still a 50 percent unemployment rate in the reservation), but it brings contamination and it undermines their identity.

“We are economically dependent on the destruction of our culture,” Gearon said.

The Navajo Nation’s other source of employment (and suffering) is uranium mining, which was used mostly by the government to develop nuclear weapons during the Cold War era. And for fifty years, uranium contamination has left a painful imprint as these communities deal with radiation-related illnesses, mostly cancer, that will be a burden for generations. Now, the nuclear industry is reaping the benefits of the favorable view the US government holds about nuclear energy as a “clean” alternative in combating global warming. Yet all the process, from uranium mining to the production of nuclear energy, has not changed significantly to be newly baptized as “green”, which also applies to the myth of “clean” coal.

This only confirms that the fight against global warming is not being focused on what is good for people, but what is good for business. Everyone is talking about solutions, but all within a market framework. The dominant philosophy is “privatize to make it better” because it will supposedly make the “green” economy run efficiently. But instead of trying to preserve and expand the natural forests that could help mitigate global warming, there are more incentives to develop genetically modified trees that are supposed to be better at absorbing CO2, but which could simultaneously destroy that biodiversity. And if they do try to preserve those pockets of pristine lands, they end up infringing on indigenous people’s rights by kicking them out of their land to “protect” it, when they had lived there for decades without harming their environment, Gearon said.

Therefore, we have ended up with loopholes so corporations and individuals can escape from real responsibility by creating self-congratulatory solutions like “cap-and-trade” (selling off permits that would allow companies to continue pollution), and “carbon offsets” (doing something “good” like planting a tree to negate any “bad” destructive acts you have on the planet). When we come up with alternative fuels, we come up with biofuels that depend on crops like oil palm that are decimating rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia.

At this moment, we are living under the illusion that we are planning a “green” economy, but in playing by market rules, we are allowing these polluting corporations to buy the freedom to continue the emissions that need to end immediately. They are buying a section of the atmosphere that they can contaminate without hassle because it is now their property, even if it is killing us all. Because environmentalism is the new fad, the new product to be marketed and consumed, they can easily exploit our demands and colonize more of our lands, air and water while they do so. The rainforests might be disappearing and the atmosphere might not be good enough to breathe anymore, but as long at these corporations capture our imagination with fascinating new technologies that seem better for the environment, we believe that we are fixing the problem.

Yet testimonies like these by Jihan Gearon shows us the truth. This is not something that is happening far off in the future, it is happening now. We recognize it, but choose to ignore it, to put it off because it is not directly happening to us, not yet at least. An island in the South Pacific already has had its first climate refugees. Closer to home, Hurricane Katrina created what is considered to be the “world’s first climate change exodus”. But tragic floods and water scarcity does not happen right now to those with power, it happens with those without a voice who have been marginalized to the the most dangerous places and so will suffer first.

But Gearon does believe that a true green economy could work. “We need green jobs and a green economy to make things better,” she says. There’s a lot of solar energy potential in her reservation, she adds, “but do we want to create and continue the way of life of people in Phoenix with their pools and overconsumption? No, but how do we make sure we are not exploited again?”. The solution has to be local, she affirms, “finding out what works in your community and figuring it out with your community.” The Navajo Nation voted to approve legislation promoting community-run green jobs in her reservation, exploring skills within the community and exporting these trades without a “middle man” exploiting them and making all the money by apropriating their products and reselling them for much more. There has been “a lot of people making money off of us and we need to control that,” Gearon said. “So we need to take back ownership of our own area and become self-reliant.” See video below.

So we can condemn our commons in favor of the illusion of security inside our private properties while most of humanity suffers the consequences first, though they will affect everone eventually no matter how much money they have. Or we can act collectively to take back our space and create practices that rely less on stuff we don’t need, produce the basics (like food and energy) within our community, and protect ourselves from the devastation of being dependant on corporations that do not care the damage they cause. Yet our biggest challenge and hope is to stop the march into the global warming precipice.

“It’s about changing your way of life, and not just changing our light bulbs.” Jihan Gearon