by Kwaku Aurelien
Photo: The Texas Tribune
The 2030s promise to be the longest, hottest, and bloodiest decade in both America and the world over since the 1960s, and they have to be. Not because you or I want it to be, but because the Global North, which is responsible for 92% of excess global carbon emissions, will fail to slash emissions enough to keep Earth's temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels before 2030 — the deadline given in the Paris climate agreement. Chief amongst the Global Northern countries is the United States, which is responsible for 40% of the excess global carbon emissions and ranks 40th in its transition toward low-carbon energy, a far cry from the top six nations – Iceland, Denmark, Norway, France, Ireland, and Finland – which are all designated by MIT Technology Review as “high income” nations, but none are as distinctly wealthy as the United States. There has never been an honest effort made on the part of the Global North to solve the climate crisis. One example being when ExxonMobil lobbied the European Commission in an effort to influence the European Union Green Deal by eliminating the EU’s carbon vehicle tailpipe standards: “While there is no evidence that either Exxon or Commission officials acted improperly, the document gives rare insight into how energy majors engage with the lawmaking process, in ways that could effectively slow policies designed to curb carbon emissions.” The European Energy Forum (EEF) this past February got together with the International Association of Gas and Oil Producers (IOGP) and arranged a “dinner debate” to promote oil, gas, hydrogen, and carbon capture and storage (CCS) infrastructure within the Green Deal. The problem will never be solved by hypocrisy. If anything, hypocrisy will drive humanity further down the road to extinction. Yet, all these nations have done is attempt to solve it in hypocritical ways that would enable them to maintain their power. In her book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate,” activist Naomi Klein points out how the Global North and highly developed industrialized nations are able to claim lower emissions because they have outsourced large swaths of their labor forces to China, India, and other nations throughout the Global South. This enables them to point the finger at or pass the buck to the Global South while neglecting to clean up their own house:
“The emissions that went into producing, say, the television in my living room,
appear nowhere on Canada’s emissions ledger, but rather are attributed
entirely to China’s ledger, because that’s where the set was made… It [the
system] has allowed rapidly de-industrializing wealthy states to claim that their
emissions have stabilized or even gone down when, in fact, the emissions
embedded in their consumption have soared since the free trade era” (Klein
The more climate change exacerbates the living conditions of people throughout the world, the more it will feed their frustrations and culminate in a dangerously explosive atmosphere – proof of which we can find currently in Texas.
Currently, Texas is undergoing a nor’easter, weather uncharacteristic of what is supposed to be a state with warm weather year-round. The culprit — of course — is climate change. Many are confused, however, as to why climate change has caused the inverse of global warming in this particular case. The reason for this is that the polar vortex, an area of low pressure and cold air surrounding both the Earth’s poles, has been slowed as a result of what is referred to as “sudden stratospheric warming.” In layman’s terms, there was a considerable temperature spike in the stratosphere miles above the North Pole. This is especially disconcerting when you consider that atmospheric scientists are projecting that these uncharacteristic weather patterns will occur more frequently. For example, in his article “Polar vortex brought brutal cold to Texas. Could that happen in California?,” writer John Lindsey points out that California meteorologists are projecting “a deep trough of low pressure developing over the West Coast during the second week of March that could lead to freezing temperatures, much-needed rain and low-elevation snow throughout the Golden State.”
The Texas crisis is perhaps, more than anything else, an indictment of deregulation and its arbiter, capitalism. Proponents of deregulation claimed that it was supposed to guarantee dependable power at a cheaper price. This rationale was sufficient to shift Texas almost entirely from full-service regulated utilities to retail electric companies, beginning in 1999. Approximately sixty percent of Texas consumers flocked to retail electric companies under this program, the largest and most ambitious energy deregulation project in the nation. Deregulation was a farce even before Winter Storm Uri; the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) found that since 2004, deregulated Texas consumers paid $28 million more for electricity than their peers who used the state’s traditional utilities. Ed Hirs, an energy fellow at the University of Houston, aptly compared energy deregulation in Texas to “abolishing the speed limit on an interstate highway.” In response to current criticism, Republican politicians have been quick to deflect from the deregulation question and place the blame squarely on a Green New Deal that has yet to be implemented. This is not to exonerate the Green New Deal; it is an imperialist agenda. However, it represents the bare minimum that can be done and dealing with climate change will require much more radical approaches than the Green New Deal, approaches which will prove unacceptable to the Republicans and the United States government at large. In addition, at the beginning of the crisis, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) was able to avoid accountability by using the alibi of “rolling blackouts” – turning off electricity in select areas to save power – to hide the fact that they had leased their power grid to private companies. As of March 10, the Texas Supreme Court is contemplating whether to extend sovereign immunity to ERCOT, a claim which is being contested by Harris County attorneys. If the Court rules in favor of ERCOT, it would represent a big blow to the well-meaning people of Texas who are bent on justice, as well as to the national environmental justice movement. It would be impossible to sue ERCOT.
Additionally, the aftermath of Winter Storm Uri represents a clear example of environmental racism and de facto segregation. Our own co-founder and environmental justice activist, Alexia Leclercq, spoke to me regarding their activism in the Texas capitol of Austin on the ground with PODER (People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources). They tell me that Austin, where PODER is based, is stratified along racial lines. West Austin is predominantly White and possesses all of the characteristics of a traditional suburb. East Austin, where PODER has its headquarters, is predominantly Black and Brown. Its Rosewood district, as of 2019, had nearly 50% of its residents living below the poverty line. Life expectancy was measured to be about 72 years. By contrast, in an area five miles near Enfield Road in West Austin, 10% of residents live below the poverty line and life expectancy is measured to be about 83 years. This particular area, again as of 2019, was 88% White. Compared to this predominantly White area in West Austin, Rosewood has inferior jobs, inferior housing, and inferior education, which leads to inferior jobs. The racial stratification does not stop at Austin; Acres Homes, a predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhood situated in Houston’s northwest, suffered from a loss of power and frozen pipes. The New York Times finds that in Houston, minority communities more often than not are situated near industrial sites, leaving them exposed to pollution regularly but especially susceptible now given that air monitoring stations are down. Alexia tells me that while the government has dragged its feet, PODER and other local grassroots organizations have been working tooth and nail through the frigid cold to provide mutual aid and other services to the community. They also emphasized to me the disproportionate impact which the storm has had on disabled people. In doing my own research, I happened upon a USA Today article by writer N’dea Yancey-Bragg titled “They have chronic illnesses. Then, the power went out in Texas. ‘It's been emotionally exhausting.’” It cites the example of Hannah Giffin, a 24-year-old with four chronic illnesses who was forced to ration her oxygen after her family lost power and left her without the ability to charge her oxygen generator. “For people with disabilities and chronic health conditions, losing power can ‘be a matter of life and death,’” said Jane Buchanan of Human Rights Watch.
Compounding matters further is the fact that Texas’ prison population is suffering inordinately under the weight of this. Thirty-three prisons lost power and twenty suffered water shortages – figures contrary to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s claim that generators kept power on in prisons. Even more heartbreaking, local news outlets reported numerous deaths of incarcerated people during the freeze. This only adds insult to injury when you consider the fact that incarcerated Texans were testing positive for COVID-19 at a rate 40% higher than the national prison population, and succumbing to it at a 35% higher rate. All this debacle is doing is exposing the long-decrepit infrastructure of Texas’ prisons. The Marshall Project cites the example of the Wayne Scott Unit, a prison unit located south of Houston in Brazoria County, that the state of Texas elected to close rather than invest $30 million to repair. Infrastructure is the connecting theme tying each element together like a throughline, and poor infrastructure is not a malfeasance unique to Texas. Also suffering in the midst of Winter Storm Uri, albeit not covered in the mainstream media to the extent that Texas has, is Mississippi. A quarter of the denizens of the Mississippi capital of Jackson have not had running water for over ten days. In an NBC News article titled “Jackson, Mississippi, water crisis brings to light long-standing problems in the city,” writer Safia Samee Ali cites the example of Katasha Johnson, a 38-year-old mother of three who, together with her fiancé, is boiling water taken from a pre-filled bathtub to for handwashing and dishwashing. To many, this evokes imagery of a Third World country. However, many of these people overlook the fact that since America’s inception, it has been host to underserved and unsupported communities as well as what essentially amount to internal colonies. “Internal colony” is not an understatement; the relationship between Black and Brown residents of slums and ghettos and White absentee landlords who own the properties of those communities – communities they themselves don’t occupy – is a distinctly colonial relationship. It is not an accident that Jackson, a city that is 82% Black, is the only city in the state still having issues, per CBS News’ Janet Shamlian. City leaders estimate that it may cost upward of $2 billion to repair the city’s destitute infrastructure, a figure which when weighed against the city’s $300 million budget, is an albatross. The mainstream media, from Fox News, to CNN, to MSNBC, to ABC, to The New York Times, to The Washington Post, is conspicuously silent on this issue.
However, the debacles that have taken place in Texas and Mississippi are not failures of the governments of those states alone. The federal government must also be held accountable for its objective failure to recognize the fact that Texas and Mississippi are under their jurisdiction, and that it is therefore responsible for all of the suffering and death that is today ongoing in those states. If the federal government does not find it within its power to restore water to the city of Jackson, the Black people who put the present administration in office by voting for it 87% are within their rights to petition UN Secretary-General António Guterres and accuse the government behind Joe Biden of being derelict in its duty to protect their right to life, the most sacred of all human rights. Joe Biden was supposed to have made Black lives matter in America. What an amazing lie that was.
Winter Storm Uri is merely a taste of the utter devastation climate change can and will wreak if something truly substantial – i.e., slashing carbon emissions, ending deforestation, and above all else, overhauling the capitalist economic system – is not done to combat it. A study corroborated by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) found that climates akin to those of the Pliocene era will rear their head as soon as 2030 and likely by 2040 (1.8°C–3.6°C warmer than preindustrial temperatures). The elephant in the room is capitalism. The capitalist system, based on infinite growth on a planet with finite resources, engendered the climate crisis, and it is impossible for it today to solve the crisis. The present goal of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) is to preserve capitalism by inducing a “green economy” globally wherein GDP would be “absolutely decoupled” from resource use. In his article “Why Growth Can’t Be Green,” economic anthropologist and Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World author Jason Hickel breaks down why the phenomenon that has come to be known as “green growth” is impossible. Hickel cites three scientific studies, one by UNEP itself, which demonstrated that there are physical limits to how efficiently humanity can make use of natural resources. Many will be quick to argue: “Capitalism is fine, it’s crony capitalism that’s the problem.” However, a proper analysis will reveal that crony capitalism, nominally defined as the interconnection between corporations and politicians to create policies which heavily favor those corporations, is synonymous with “regular” capitalism. Capitalism requires the state to function, and in a world in which businesses starting from the ground up are unabated by regulations, those businesses will inevitably eliminate their competition, build their own security and media apparatuses and expand to the point where they have effectively reproduced the absent state. Capitalism has to be overhauled; however, the overhauling of capitalism is a long-range program. In the meantime, since the federal government has proven its unwillingness to alleviate the economic strain on poor and working class people, nor to restore essential facilities in a timely fashion, the American people are obligated to put forth the efforts necessary, be it grassroots organizing, mutual aid, cooperatives, or otherwise, that will promote political freedom.
As bleak as this all sounds, there is hope that things can get better. The Intergovernmental Science–Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) found that if we stray away from what it describes as “the current limited paradigm of economic growth,” we can build a global sustainable economy wherein resources will be utilized rationally where they are now utilized irrationally. It is precisely because there is hope that the 2030s promise to be such an explosive decade politically and socially, for people will not simply bend down and roll over as their planet goes to hell. They will do something about it. People are presently doing something about it; Alexia tells me that PODER is involved with local politics in Austin trying to see to it that equitable climate policy is implemented with an emphasis on public transportation and access to solar panels. In New Jersey, people are presently fighting for passage of the Cumulative Impact Bill, which would force the Environmental Protection Agency in that state to reject new industrial projects on the basis of cumulative impact on burdened communities. Nationally, activist groups are fighting for the Environmental Justice Act, which if passed and put into practice, would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include considerations of environmental racism and grant reparations to people based on negative health impacts. The fires of justice are burning as it is; the 2030s will see some kerosene added to make it burn even bolder and brighter.
Mutual Aid in Texas
Mutual Aid in Jackson, MS
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About the Author:
Kwaku Aurelien is a junior at the University of Connecticut majoring in English with the intention of going into law school and subsequently becoming a practicing environmental lawyer fighting on behalf of oppressed and marginalized peoples in the United States and throughout the world. To this end, he is often reading and watching the news to heighten his awareness. He seeks the delicate balance between human rights activism and law. It is a hard path, but he has the utmost confidence he can pull it off. Be sure to follow Kwaku on his social media pages:
Twitter - @The_Earthquake3
Instagram - @quake_aurelien