Misconstruing environmental protest movements in authoritarian regimes

CCTV Tower

John Upton has a new post at Grist today about the rising number of protests in China over environmental issues, particularly air and water pollution. In the post, Upton writes:

The people of China are pissed. On the long list of injustices they endure, from internet censorship to having their homelands flooded by reservoirs, nothing is inspiring more uprisings than the abuse of their environment.

In general, he’s exactly right. There have been a significant number of protests and demonstrations over environmental issues in China in recent years. Serious environmental crises have continually nagged the Communist Party. The 2005 Songua River Spill and the government’s subsequent cover-up, for instance, created significant backlash. Several Chinese newspapers even criticized the government heavily for attempting to hide the severity of the benzene spill. Additionally, there are more official Chinese NGOs & civil society organizations focused on the environment than any other issue.

CCTV Towers Side by Side

Side-by-side images of the CCTV Towers in downtown Beijing. The image on the left is from January 12, when air quality index values exceeded 750. The image on the right is from August 2008 (photos courtesy of Marketplace).

However, these outcomes don’t stem from an overwhelming environmental ethic among Chinese citizens, per se. Rather, they are based on the fact that, in many authoritarian states, the environment is a relatively safe, depoliticized issue to organize around. Dr. Judy Shapiro, an expert in Chinese environmental issues (and professor at AU), has made this argument quite persuasively in her book China’s Environmental Challenges. As she points out in the book:

[T]here is a rich relationship between environmental activism and the development of civil society in general. Given that in China civic groups that focus on human rights and democracy are quickly suppressed, some activists have found the “space” for organizing around environmental issues to be greater. As a result some creative people who wish to engage in public participation have turned to that area.

This is not unique to China, however. Erika Weinthal, a scholar of environmental policy at Duke, has shown that a similar effect occurred during the latter days of the former Soviet Union. After Gorbachev’s glasnost policy opened space for dissidents to speak more freely about the many problems facing the USSR, a number of activists began organizing around environmental issues in Central Asia. On pages 107-108 of State Making and Environmental Cooperation: Linking Domestic and International Politics in Central Asia, Weinthal writes:

The topic of the environment enabled many Central Asian writers and intellectuals to promote national issues that had been festering for some time. [Uzbek writer Pirmat] Shermukhamedov and other Central Asian intellectuals rallied around the Aral Sea as a proxy for long-suppressed questions of cultural survival and regional self-determination…

These nationalist movements considered the cotton monoculture to be the manifestation of Soviet exploitation and the lack of control Central Asians had over their own destiny.

Clearly, much of the laudable and courageous environmental activism occurring in the developing world is not based purely in an environmental ethic. Activists in these states have drawn the connection between environmental exploitation and the denial of their basic human and political rights. But instead of pursuing the latter issues, they have, smartly and strategically, pushed for environmental causes because they perceived there to be more space in this field.

I don’t mean to  make this argument to suggest that people in developing countries are not concerned about the environment. I am just trying to help clarify the reality of environmental activism in the developing world. I think that the connection between environmentalism and social justice in much of the Global South demonstrates that the siloing of the environment as some singular sector or constituency, as has occurred too often in the US (see Candy Crowley’s embarrassing statement about “all you climate people”) is completely arbitrary and inappropriate. But, at the same time, we need to be precise with our arguments and not proscribe our own values and sensibilities on other people.

Moving beyond the mitigation vs. adaptation debate

Women in Bangladesh attend to a mangrove nursery as part of the country's climate change adaptation efforts (photo courtesy of UNEP).

Women in Bangladesh attend to a mangrove nursery as part of the country’s climate change adaptation efforts (photo courtesy of UNEP).

Last week, there was a blog post at AlertNet titled “Climate Conversations – Is acceptance of climate change adaptation an admission that mitigation has failed?” The title caught my attention, and I read the piece with some dread; I thought we had already moved beyond this debate. Fortunately, the piece does not rehash this tired argument.

That said, the fact that climate activists still have to use raise this question is disheartening. I had thought that recent international actions hard largely shelved this line of thought. For instance, through the 2001 Marrakesh Accords, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) noted the need to explore adaptation and created the Least Developed Countries Fund to support the development and implementation of adaptation plans. Subsequent UNFCCC actions supplemented this:

    • Marrakesh established The Adaptation Fund, though this body did not officially begin operating until 2008. The fund recognizes the vulnerability of developing countries to the impacts of climate change and is supposed to “finance concrete adaptation projects and programmes.”
    • The 2007 Bali Action Plan (PDF) formally established that adaptation represents a key component of the international response to climate change and called for increasing resources for this purpose.
    • The 2010 Cancun Adaptation Framework stated that “adaptation must be addressed with the same priority as mitigation” and called for additional action and support to make this a reality. Cancun also launched the Green Climate Fund, which is supposed to supplement the Adaptation Fund by promoting “low-emission and climate-resilient development pathways” and providing support to developing countries for adaptation.

It is clear that the international commitment has made a commitment to adaptation (at least vocally). The otherwise highly disappointing Cophenagen Accord that emerged in 2009 included a commitment from developed countries to mobilize “USD 100 billion dollars a year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries” (emphasis mine). It remains highly unclear where those funds will come from, and, to date, the developed countries have come nowhere close to meeting their pledge. Yet, the commitment is on paper, and it demonstrates that adaptation is here to stay.

Generally, climate researchers argue that we must “adapt to what we cannot mitigate, and mitigate what we cannot adapt to.” The international community has agreed that we should not go beyond 2°C warming. This is the point at which adaptation becomes exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. However, it has become increasingly clear in recent months that we are on the verge of blowing past this cutoff. The World Bank has argued we are on the path to a 4°C world, and PriceWaterhouseCoopers projects that our current emissions trajectory puts us on a path to 6° of warming. Even the normally conservative International Energy Agency notes that business as usual will exhaust the carbon budget for 450ppm by 2017.

British climate scientist Kevin Anderson has argued that the difference between 4°C & 6°C is essentially irrelevant; 4°C will likely quickly give way to 6°C due to a series of feedback mechanisms. As such, once we hit 4°C, it becomes “extremely unlikely that we wouldn’t have mass death,” as this level of warming “is incompatible with an organized global community.” (Listen to Anderson speak about this risk below).

Clearly, the conventional mitigation-adaptation equation does not fit this formula. It is missing another key variable – suffering. As (my professor at AU) Dr. Paul Wapner has argued, “We need to mitigate, we need to adapt, but no matter how much we mitigate and no matter how much we adapt, there is going to be suffering. There already is and it’s inevitable.”

One can see this suffering globally. The World Health Organization has estimated that, as early as 2004, climate change was already responsible for 140,000 premature deaths per year.  Last year, DARA International’s Climate Vulnerability Monitor increased this projection to roughly 400,000 climate-related deaths annually. The IPCC estimates that climate change will make an additional 132 million Asians malnourished and increase the number of people in Sub-Saharan Africa facing water stress by 350-600 million by 2050.

Damage in Tegucigalpa, Honduras following Hurricane Mitch in 1998 (photo courtesy of NOAA).

Damage in Tegucigalpa, Honduras following Hurricane Mitch in 1998 (photo courtesy of NOAA).

These estimates are based on current warming and/or mid-range projections (at or below 2°C). It’s abundantly clear that mitigation is essential for sustaining an inhabitable planet. Yet, the increasingly obvious effects of extreme weather, much of which is tied to climate change, also make it clear that we must adapt now. Climate-related disasters reduced the US’s GDP by 1% in 2012; the effects are significantly worse in developing countries. Hurricane Mitch, which struck Central America in 1998, “set back development in Nicaragua by 20 years.”

All of this information makes it clear that, for climate change, mitigation and adaptation are not an either/or proposition. We need both, and we need them now. It’s time to leave this mitigation vs. adaptation debate back in the 1990s, where it belongs.

Concern trolls at the Washington Post bash environmentalists

The Washington Post editorial board habitually tries to cast itself as constituting the reasonable middle in major policy debates, including climate change. Over the past several months, the Post has made it clear that the only acceptable tactic to mitigate the carbon emissions driving global warming is a carbon tax. Sticking to this script, the board published a new editorial bashing the environmentalists fighting the Keystone XL pipeline.

According to the Post:

The [State Department’s Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement] underscores the extent to which activists have trumped up a relatively mundane infrastructure issue into the premier environmental fight of this decade, leading to big marches and acts of civil disobedience to advance a cause that is worthy of neither. The activists ought to pick more important fights. Until they do, the president should ignore their pressure.

As I explained in a previous post, it’s certainly fair to claim that the Keystone XL pipeline is far from the central battle in the fight climate change. Instead, I argued that Keystone was a smart fight, because it was “a tangible target,” and a fight in which we stand “at least a decent chance of winning.” But I digress. In its conclusion, the editorial board argues:

Instead of indulging in distractions, Mr. Obama and his friends in the environmental movement should push for policies that could make a significant difference by cutting demand for carbon-intensive fuels. As we argued Sunday, a carbon tax is a cause that really is worth fighting for.

WaPo claims that a carbon tax is the only cause worth fighting for. Yet, like other pieces attacking Keystone opponents, the editors cram their policy prescription into one sentence, providing no explanation on how we are supposed to secure their mythical carbon tax. If WaPo has a secret strategy that no one else has proposed on how to get to this point, I think that I can speak for the environmental movement by saying, “we’re all ears.”

But the editors have nothing to contribute on this front. They ignore the fact that increasing partisanship in recent years has largely been one sided. Rather than acknowledging the clear evidence for this asymmetrical polarization – which shows that the GOP has become vastly more conservative than Democrats have become liberal – WaPo opts to lob cheap shots at environmentalists. Rather than making reference to conservatives like Norman Ornstein, who have noted on the op-ed page of the Washington Post no less, that “the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party,” the editorial board publishes this piece.

I could reference the fact that the Washington Post continues to publish the wanton climate denialism of George Will. Rather than acknowledging Will’s continued falsehoods and inaccuracies, the Post‘s editors have defended him, claiming they have “a multi-layer editing process and checks facts to the fullest extent possible,” and that they “have plenty of references that support” Will’s claims.

Additionally, I could note – as Mike Grunwald at TIME has already pointed out – that the Post trumpets the carbon tax while heralding Virginia’s terrible new transportation plan as a “signal achievement” that will make Bob McDonnell’s term as governor “a long-term success.”

But, even more than that, I want to point out the fact that the Post chides silly environmentalists for not supporting its beloved carbon tax, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Perhaps the Post could run a Google search to confirm that fact that the vast majority of environmentalists concerned about climate change do in fact support putting a price on carbon. Take Bill McKibben, the head of 350.org and a leader of the fight against Keystone, for instance. I managed to pull the following articles in which McKibben expressed support for a carbon tax and/or placing a price on carbon:

  • From the San Francisco Gate: “A version of the “fee and dividend” idea is a favorite of NASA climate scientist James Hansen and climate activist Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org.”
  • From Oilprice.com“Oilprice.com: You say no-one is strong enough – what policies would you like to see put in place – what could the politicians do? Bill McKibben: A price on carbon sufficient to keep 80% of current reserves underground, rebated directly to citizens.”
  • From Yale E360: “The only way that it works fast enough to make a difference is if the carbon carries a cost. That’s been the problem all along. Carbon didn’t carry a cost, hence we are in the trouble we are in. The question is how do you do that in a way that doesn’t bankrupt everybody and that lets you do it politically…So the soundest proposal, probably, is to take that money, and write a check to everybody in the country every six months.”
  • From Orion Magazine: “But if 10 percent of people, once they’ve changed the light bulbs, work all-out to change the system? That’s enough. That’s more than enough. It would be enough to match the power of the fossil fuel industry, enough to convince our legislators to put a price on carbon.”
  • From The New Republic: “Or, we could limit government’s role to simply imposing a price on fossil fuel that reflects the damage it does. This wouldn’t even need to be a traditional tax: One proposal gaining ground is to take every dollar produced by such a levy and rebate it to each citizen, using government as a kind of pass-through.”

The whole exercise above took me about five minutes to piece together. Yes, Washington Post editorial board, a carbon tax (in some form) is, in fact, a good idea. It’s an idea that enjoys nearly universal support among environmentalists. But those of us fighting the pipeline also understand that we can’t just wave a magic wand to place a price on carbon. Cap-and-trade failed in the Senate because the conservative opposition to the bill was far more organized, vocal, and aggressive than the environmentalist movement on its behalf.  The movement against the Keystone XL pipeline is an effort to counter this, to level the playing field. If the Washington Post’s editorial board really wants to see a carbon tax enacted, it would be far better off getting out of the way of the activists trying to make it happen.


Upcoming conference presentations

I will be presenting at two upcoming conferences for DC-area graduate students later this month.

March 22, I will present my paper, Breaking the Conflict Trap: On the Factors Contributing to Civil War Recurrence, at the 2nd annual Graduate Student Research Conference at George Mason University.

Map of the affected areas & epicenter of the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake. Courtesy of the BBC.

Map of the affected areas & epicenter of the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake. Courtesy of the BBC.

The following Tuesday, March 26, I will present initial details from my current research project, Where DDR Meets DRR, at the Graduate Research Symposium, sponsored by the Journal of International Service and the AU SIS Graduate Student Council.

My presentation will focus the theoretical framework that I have developed, which explains a set of potential pathways linking disasters to conflict in conflict-affected states. Additionally, I will present preliminary evidence of the conflict dynamics of the international response effort to the 2005 Pakistan Earthquake. This work will form the basis of the capstone research for my Master’s program.

I will upload the Powerpoints for each presentation to this site after I have completed them.

Climate change will reduce labor productivity, increase inequality

Last week, an article came out in the journal Nature Climate Change (Climate Central also has a good summary of it) that discussed the likely effects of climate change on labor productivity. The authors examined the effects of heat stress during peak heat stress months in tropical and mid-latitude regions.

They concluded:

We estimate that environmental heat stress has reduced labour capacity to 90% in peak months over the past few decades. ESM2M projects labour capacity reduction to 80% in peak months by 2050. Under the highest scenario considered (Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5), ESM2M projects labour capacity reduction to less than 40% by 2200 in peak months, with most tropical and mid-latitudes experiencing extreme climatological heat stress.

Individual labor capacity during minimum & maximum heat stress months. (Courtesy of Dunne, Stouffer, and John 2013)

Individual labor capacity during minimum & maximum heat stress months. (Courtesy of Dunne, Stouffer, and John 2013)


While these findings are new, they mirror earlier work on the effects of climate-related extreme temperatures on income and production. In their 2008 paper (PDF) “Climate Shocks and Economic Growth:Evidence from the Last Half Century,” Dell, Jones, and Olken studied temperature and precipitation data from 1950-2003 in order to determine the effects of extreme temperature and precipitation on a country’s economic performance.

Their results suggested that each 1◦C increase in average temperatures in any given year tends to reduce economic output by 1.1%; however, this effect only appeared in low-income countries. Using this historical relationship, they projected the long-term effects of global warming on economic output in poor countries, based on mid-range climate projections through the end of the century. In the key paragraph of paper (page 23), they note:

“With a 10-year adaptation horizon, the median growth rate among poor countries appears 0.6 percentage points lower through 2099 compared to the case of no warming. Extrapolated over 100 years, this implies that the median poor country’s income will be about 50% lower than it would be had there been no climate change.”


The authors found no similar effect for high-income countries, suggesting that climate change will further exacerbate global economic inequality significantly. The central cause for this result is the differing natures of the economies in high- and low-income states. According to the World Bank, agriculture accounted for 26.2% of GDP for low-income countries from 2008-2010. For high-income countries, this number was just 1.3%.

Economies in low-income countries are heavily dependent on natural resources, particularly agriculture, implying that workers in these areas are directly susceptible to direct effects of higher temperatures and changes in precipitation. The negative effects will stretch beyond just agriculture, however. Climate change will likely negatively effect forestry and fisheries, among other sectors. In the least developed countries (LDCs), revenues derived from natural resources account for 20.3% of GDP. The most developed countries – the 27 members of the OECD – derive just 1.5% of their GDP from resource rents.

Climate change will emerge as an environmental justice issue and will continue to threaten the fragile human and economic development of the world’s poor. Low-income states will suffer the most from climate change, despite the fact that they have done the least to contribute to it. LCDs emitted just 0.25 metric tons of CO2 annually from 2007-2009; high-income states, in contrast, accounted for 11.97 tons of CO2 emissions during this period – nearly 48 times higher.

Clearly, climate change will have major economic and development impacts. But its most serious, perverse impact will be moral.

What can social movement theory teach us about the Keystone XL fight?

keystone xl protest

I was going to do a full-blown piece on my thoughts about the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline, but I have decided to scale it down. Suffice it to say, I am opposed to the pipeline; I have been at each of the 4 large-scale public rallies against KXL in DC, and I have friends and colleagues who were arrested during the initial civil disobedience in August 2011. For two excellent primers on the arguments against the pipeline, check out this post from David Roberts at Grist, and KC Golden’s piece on the Keystone Principle (i.e. first, do no harm).

12,000 of us rally around the White House against the Keystone XL pipeline in November 2011.

12,000 of us rally around the White House against the Keystone XL pipeline in November 2011.

That said, I do want to explore what social movement theory can inform us regarding two components of this issue: the symbolism of the pipeline and the composition of the movement against it. While I know that some commentators do not agree that constructing a social movement is the right strategy for the fight against climate change, I respectfully disagree. I fail to see how we can pressure the White House and Congress to enact policy tackling climate change without apply concerted, continual pressure to that end.

First, on the symbolism of the pipeline. We know that in order to build a broad social movement, we need to choose a rallying point around which people can organize. This rallying point should be a microcosm of the larger issue, a tangible target (something that people can see, touch, and understand), and a fight in which activists have at least a decent chance of winning. Civil rights activists didn’t start their fight by pushing for the Civil Rights or Voting Rights Acts in Congress. They staged sit-ins at lunch counters and the Montgomery bus boycott.

Dr. James Hansen was arrested in August 2011 during a two-week long civil disobedience against KXL.

Dr. James Hansen was arrested in August 2011 during a two-week long civil disobedience against KXL.

The fight against Keystone XL is in this same vein. The pipeline is a microcosm of the larger fight against climate change. It is being pushed by a powerful fossil fuel company – the primary source of greenhouse gases – and will create a 1,700-mile gash across the face of the United States. It will promote the expansion of the Canadian tar sands industry, which clear cuts Alberta’s carbon-fixing boreal forests and is currently poisoning the air, water, and soil of the region’s First Nations, leading to severe cancer clusters against Canada’s indigenous peoples. The tailings from tar sands are so toxic that mining companies have had to install air cannons in tailings ponds, because birds can die from simply landing on the surface of these ponds. Additionally, while some may dispute about the concrete impacts of the pipeline on the climate, we know that producing bitumen from tar sands generates around 20% more greenhouse gases than conventional oil. As renowned climate scientist James Hansen has noted, Keystone XL could spell “game over” for our Holocene climate.

Even from a linguistic standpoint, Keystone XL presents a good target for a budding social movement. “Keystone” hints at the notion that this pipeline lies at the heart of the Canadian tar sands industry; if we can beat this project, it could help bring down the whole house of cards. The “XL” portion carries a few implications. It signifies both the scale of the fight we have taken on – the habitability of our Earth is ultimately at risk – and the size of the opponent we have engaged – the fossil fuel industry is the largest, most well-financed industry in history. As Bill McKibben is fond of saying, Exxon has made more money than any entity “in the history of money.”

Secondly – and contrary to those who have argued the fight has somehow distracted from more productive action on climate change – the ongoing action against KXL has helped to coalesce a broader coalition on climate change and helps to enhance the breadth and scope of the environmental movement. As I have noted in several conversations and debates with fellow greens (including Jonathan Foley from the University of Minnesota, who is always good natured & engaging), the 40-50,000 of us who marched against the pipeline on February 17 broaden the green tent and create space for those of us fighting from the inside.

Furthermore, all of the post-mortems on the Senate cap & trade bill (including the controversial Climate Shift report from AU professor Matthew Nisbet) criticized climate activists for placing all their eggs in one basket. The Keystone fight is part of a broader, more diversified strategy to fight climate change on multiple fronts. Whether its direct action against the Southern leg of KXL, efforts to stop coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest, or the commitment of mayors to make their cities more resilient in the face of climatic change. In the face of a massive opponent like a changing climate, there is no virtue in being big and consolidated. We need to diversify, decentralize, and go to ground; this is at the heart ofthe KXL fight and the larger strategy being employed by 350.org.

As Bill McKibben wrote in Eaarth, “The wind has begun to blow harder, and hence we need to lower our wind resistance. The sun has begun to burn more brightly, and hence like other animals we need to reduce our size.”