Who Will Be Left Behind?
Privilege vs. Poverty in the Ongoing Climate Debate
Since I was a little kid, I’ve been told to conserve water by taking shorter showers, save electricity by turning the lights off when I leave a room, buy recycled paper products and utilize reusable water bottles, compost my banana peels, take public transportation where it was available, buy organic food from local farmers, and waste as little as humanly possible. Just the idea that someone would neglect sorting through their recycling is, frankly, appalling to me.
My individually-focused do-gooder attitude allowed me to pat myself on the back for years— thinking I was the model citizen doing my part to save the world. This version of sustainability has been toted back and forth since the hippie movements of the mid-1970s. Most commonly associated with “green thumbs,” local farming movements, zero-waste lifestyles, vegan diets, and stingy policy measures limiting overall carbon emissions. What hasn’t been as widely discussed is that these images we associate with sustainability are typically white, cost-prohibitive, and privileged.
I was never taught how these Samaritan deeds were reserved primarily for those who could afford them. While I will be guaranteed government aid and inherit arable, fertile land with water rights — there are literally millions of people living in countries that will soon be rendered uninhabitable. Extreme weather, rising sea levels, and ongoing drought disproportionately affects those who cannot afford the remedies designed for these increasing catastrophes.
What exactly is the problem?
Given the recent climate talks in Poland, along with the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report — my mind goes immediately to who will be first affected by these imminent changes. In case you haven’t heard, 2018’s UN Climate Talks ended in controversy. Critics state that the current resolution does not account for how global warming will be limited to below 1.5ºC per the IPCC report. “At present our world is 0.8°C above pre-industrial levels...At current trends, 2°C warming could be reached within one generation” (SDSN). The general consensus is that we are not moving fast enough, and that sweeping policy changes must come from individual heads of state in order to properly address what is already becoming a global crisis.
One of the key issues the report addresses is the relationship between sustainability and poverty, and how the only way forward is to consider them inseparable.
“Ethical considerations, and the principle of equity in particular, are central to this report, recognizing that many of the impacts of warming up to and beyond 1.5°C, and some potential impacts of mitigation actions required to limit warming to 1.5°C, fall disproportionately on the poor and vulnerable” — IPCC
It should come as no surprise that it is not the affluent who will run out of clean water, want for food, or be forced to leave their homes. It is the people who have lived in the same places their whole lives, trying to make the best of what they were given, always fighting for the livability of their native environments.
According to Mercy Corps, “Three out of four people living in poverty rely on agriculture and natural resources to survive. For these people, the effects of climate change — limited water and food sources and increased competition for them — are a real matter of life and death.”
In 2015, Per Liljas of Time Magazine reported that residents of the Pacific island nation, Kiribati were already experiencing seawater flooding every 2–3 months. During these floods, potable drinking water disappears, animals are hung from trees in cages, and sewer lines flow directly into residential homes. Generous estimates put the entire island system underwater in as little as fifty years. We’re talking about over 100,000 people migrating due to climate change within our lifetimes.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the entire African continent will become especially vulnerable due to geographical location and widespread poverty. “By 2020, between 75 and 250 million people on the continent are projected to be exposed to increased water stress due to climate change…(in addition) Global warming of 2˚C would put over 50 percent of the continent’s population at risk of undernourishment” (UNEP).
Currently there is no precedent for asylum granted to refugees from climate change.
In addition, evolving green technologies and their related policy counterparts have a bad track record of rewarding the rich for being rich and punishing the poor for their poverty. If the offered solutions don’t consider those who have the most need for them, we have no hope of ensuring a livable environment for future generations. A true “equitization” of society is now required.
There are three main areas where climate change disproportionately affects vulnerable communities:
Agriculture — food systems, farming, and distribution of resources.
Technology — solar, wind, water, biofuel and sustainable living systems.
Policy — subsidies for sustainable technology, charitable relationships with vulnerable nations, caps on emissions, re-designation of land, and a separation of interests between lawmakers and industry executives.
By the estimation of the IPCC report, 10 million square kilometers (2.5 billion acres) will either need to be reforested from pasture land or transitioned to food crops — to meet the 1.5ºC warming target. This is especially important for nations that depend on agricultural exports to sustain their local economies.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), “An estimated 18 million acres of forest, which is roughly the size of the country of Panama, are lost each year.” Deforestation in order to make room for livestock grazing or energy-crops like palm oil not only harms the land but the local residents too. Clear cutting increases the risk of flooding, degrades soil fertility, displaces indigenous communities, releases stored carbon into the atmosphere, ensures the loss of biodiversity, and threatens local water resources.
We’re literally gambling with lives — putting those who depend on the stabilization of our current food system in danger, for the sake of the few who benefit from the status quo.
“Globally, there is enough cropland to feed 9 billion (people) in 2050 if the 40 percent of all crops produced today for feeding animals were used directly for human consumption” (FAO). Currently, our food systems are rigged in favor of industrial agriculture, focusing on production of feed crops over food crops. And it’s no wonder, the monoliths that are the meat and dairy industries (of the U.S., in particular) are extremely profitable. According to Marta Zaraska of the NY Daily News, “In 2011, in the U.S. alone, annual sales of meat were worth $186 billion.” Along with an additional $38 billion for governmental tax-funded subsidies. This is what we are paying for. Imagine what our agricultural landscape would look like if that money went towards subsidizing smaller scale organic vegetable and grain farms.
In the U.S., “about 39 percent of the nation’s 2.1 million farms receive subsidies, with the lion’s share of the handouts going to the largest producers of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice” (EWG). These subsidies are in place to ensure low-cost feed and fuel sources. This structure threatens our food system by destabilizing it through monopolization. The more we concentrate and streamline our ecosystems, the more vulnerable we make them to the effects of global climate change. The spread of new pests and diseases, along with topsoil erosion, overuse of pesticides and herbicides, stress on water availability, and decreases in nutritional value are all consequences of this consolidation.
Industrial factory farms are usually placed in rural and lower-income areas that can’t afford to fight back against the conglomerates which own them. The combination of waste from thousands of disease-ridden animals regularly treated with antibiotics has potentially lethal consequences to the communities they inhabit. Runoff from factory farms creates toxic living conditions for surrounding wildlife, contributing to massive algae blooms in local waterways, starving the ecosystems of oxygen. That waste buildup can also have serious consequences for human health, polluting the air and local drinking water supplies.
In addition, these operations typically have a monopoly on local employment opportunities — even with the reputations they carry. Exposure to high concentrations of “hydrogen sulfide, methane, ammonia and carbon dioxide,” puts workers and surrounding residents in constant risk for flu-like symptoms, brain damage, visual complications, respiratory disease, antibiotic-resistant Staph infections, gastrointestinal parasites, and premature death (Yurcaba).
In this way, we’re literally gambling with lives — putting those who depend on the stabilization of our current food system in danger, for the sake of the few who benefit from the status quo.
Technology & Policy:
“Poverty-environment initiatives…often lead to many separate micro-projects and “solutions” rather than changes to the systems and government policies in place.” — UNDP
“Green tech” and policy are impossibly intertwined, especially when it comes to government subsidies, proposed caps on carbon emissions, and grants for the development of new technologies. This is best illustrated via the state of California — a model for policy on cutting carbon emissions state wide and investing in sustainable technology. Their cap & trade program, the EV (electrical vehicle) tax credit, and the recent “gold rush” for “emerging energy solutions” are perfect case studies for our current solutions (Lipton).
In 2012, the state of California launched a “cap and trade” program for industry. It was designed to discourage corporations from using fossil fuels, and encourage them to transition over to cleaner fuel sources and green technologies. Companies must purchase permits called “carbon allowances” in order to release carbon emissions legally — with an overall cap on the number of permits sold that declines on a yearly basis. The intention was that the majority of the sales money would be reinvested into statewide climate change initiatives. Ideally, the prices of these permits would become too exorbitant for companies to shoulder the costs, and they would have no choice but to change. Unfortunately, it’s had mixed results (Kasler).
According to the California Air Resources Board, statewide greenhouse gas emissions dropped by 2.7% in 2016, bringing the overall rate below that of 1990 (Baker). However, the facilities that have been most heavily regulated lie disproportionately in areas with “higher proportions of people of color and poorer, less educated, and linguistically isolated residents” (PLOS Medicine). In addition, this legislation creates an individual tax burden on California residents — continuing to drive up gas prices. Companies that can afford to do so continue to pay for the permits without curbing their emissions. The incentive — for most — has not yet reached critical levels. Some are even allowed to offset their output by investing in environmental projects such as forestry stewardship (Kasler).
Take, for example, another burgeoning green technology market: electric vehicles. Currently, more than 99 percent of subsidies for electric vehicles go to households with incomes of $50,000 or higher, and nearly three-quarters go to households with an annual income of $100,000 or more”(Loris). The “EV Tax Credit” was implemented back in 2009, during the Obama administration. It was meant to to encourage consumers to “go green” with their next automobile purchase, and provide incentive for auto manufacturers to increase their electric vehicle output. The subsidies for companies would be capped after the 200,000th car sold, a threshold that Tesla, the household name for luxury and sustainability, recently passed.
The problem is, electric cars are still too expensive for the majority of Americans. Even with $7,500 in government subsidies on the table, “the 20-year cost of ownership of an electric vehicle runs $20,000 to $32,000 more than a gas-fueled vehicle” (Sigaud). Less than 200,000 electric cars were purchased in 2017, out of 17 million total automobile sales. To make matters worse, several states have adopted “zero-emission vehicle” mandates that require a certain percentage of sales be comprised of electric or low-emission vehicles. Companies that are unable to meet these quotas then must sell additional vehicles at a loss, or pay fines up to $5,000 for every credit short. Whereas companies like Tesla profit exorbitantly from exceeding these quotas, distributing primarily to an upper-crust market (Loris).
In terms of government investments in renewable energy sources, it’s a similar story. A bonafide “gold rush” for green technology emerged in 2009, along with a windfall of governmental subsidies for solar and wind power electric plants (Lipton). Solar panels may be the most widely used on an individual basis, but their benefits are often limited to wealthy homeowners. “New York is among the top dozen solar-producing states in the U.S., but in 2014,less than 4 percent of solar installations benefited New York households with incomes below $40,000” (Calma). Solar panels can cost anywhere from $10,000–$20,000 for the initial installation, and installation is currently unavailable to renters, which make up 97% of the U.S. residential population (Szekely).
With national and statewide solar and wind farms, government subsidies provided little to no financial risk for investors, guaranteeing income for years to come. According to the New York Times, “Similar subsidy packages have been given to 15 other solar- and wind-power electric plants since 2009.” The question of whether or not these projects even needed government funding is up for debate. Nearly all of these projects have been paid for primarily by tax dollars, and the majority of investors in these projects are financial and technological monoliths such as Goldman Sachs, Google, and and General Electric (Lipton).
So here’s my question: Do the benefits of these measures outweigh the initial cost to taxpayers or smaller corporations? Is this all worth it for the long game we’re playing? Or will these trickle-down minded policies hurt us in the long run?
Yes & No….Basically, it’s complicated.
Some Technologies ARE Worth It:
We’ve already discussed all of the current solutions that aren’t working, so let’s take a look at some that are — yes, they do exist. These are just three ideas that I believe are worth our time and our money.
Community solar is the way to go!
Take for instance OnForce Solar, a New York based solar energy company focused on implementing “community solar.” A system that allows residents to buy into the energy generated by a nearby solar farm without installing their own panels. Subscribers or members then receive credits from their utility companies based on the electricity produced by the farm. This system has had its drawbacks, with community projects overcharging for membership fees, and low-income residents proving more difficult to bring over from traditional utilities. However, the model at its core seems to be worth these initial stumbling blocks. Forty-two out of fifty (U.S.) states currently have at least one community solar project, and nineteen of those have policies that encourage the development of shared renewables (Calma).
Did you know we can literally grow meat in a lab?
We physically don’t have enough land to feed the entire world on sustainably raised livestock. Currently, animal agriculture “accounts for between 14.5 percent and 18 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions (worldwide)” (Friedman). Luckily, there’s this new thing called “lab grown meat.” It’s grown from the stem cells of a living cow or other animal, and then cultivated in a lab to produce muscle tissue. Best part is, lab grown meat “could cut emissions from conventionally produced meat by up to 96 percent and cut down on the land use required for meat production by 99 percent” (Davis). With the recent investment of Tyson Foods into U.S. Memphis Meats, we should start seeing this product in restaurants and grocery stores sooner than later. Given proper investment, this is a technological solution to an agricultural problem that could be a key player in ensuring worldwide food security despite climate change.
GMO’s aren’t all bad…
Instead of pouring subsidies into meat, dairy, and current industrial agricultural, why not invest in research towards developing all-around hardier rice, soybeans, and grains? Scientists have already identified a genetic mechanism called “CAM,” where a plant’s photosynthesis process changes so it only lets in CO2 at night, preserving water stores throughout the day (Gabbatiss). A team of researchers at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas have been working on a perennial wheat variety called “Kernza.” Which is not only more drought tolerant and disease resistant than conventional wheat, it also has a much deeper root system. This makes it better at preserving soil fertility, capturing carbon from the atmosphere, and preventing erosion. It’s also on track to surpass annual varieties in terms of grain size and yield within the next ten years (DeHaan).
There are inspired, invested people who are working at a local level to develop and implement systems that work for everyone. We just need to expand their models and direct appropriate funding their way.
We Just Need To Support & Implement These Ideas:
If done well, the next few years can be a major opportunity for growth and improvement, over regression and stagnation.
Climate change at its core is an economic problem. Costs associated with its consequences are projected to skyrocket in the coming decade. In terms of humanitarian aid, federal and local emergency services, infrastructure repair, and associated health care costs, expenditure estimates soar into the hundreds of billions worldwide. Local governments must focus their investments, subsidies, tax credits, and other economic incentives on growing industries that supply jobs and improve local environments above all else.
Sectors such as green building and design, engineering for water safety and conservation, renewable energy research and implementation, as well as natural scientists and technicians are all growing in profit margins and need for workers (Cook). Moving forward, initiatives must focus primarily on how to mitigate the effects of Climate Change on the most vulnerable — meaning that I, along with millions of other Americans, will need to check my privilege, and make some long overdue sacrifices.
This individually sustainable mindset has become detrimental instead of helpful. I can only ask, moving forward, that you, along with your immediate family and friends, visit local housing projects, march, vote, and fight these legal battles along with your neighbors. Donate your time and your money to organizations who are fighting the good fight worldwide. Invest in sustainable technology that benefits those who need it most. Ask about where you food is coming from, sign up for produce subscriptions, donate fresh produce to local food banks, then ask your city for a neighborhood or building-wide compost bin. Write to your governor or your senator and propose your own solutions, attend town halls, or join a community organization with similar ideals. Educate yourself, and then teach your neighbors about what you’ve learned.
Most importantly, get comfortable standing up for what you believe in.
I cannot stress enough that this is a global problem that requires a global solution. Yes, it will begin at the individual level, but it will drastically escalate over the next ten years. That’s the amount of time we have to turn this around. We do not have to be alone in this transition — in fact, it will be much easier and safer for everyone if we’re in this together.
If you have more ideas about how to help out your local communities, or you have an organization you’re particularly gung-ho about, please respond letting us know more about it and how we can help!