Denial of climate science is only the symptom of a much deeper problem that confronts the planet. It is the endemic crisis-ridden capitalism that lashes about like an injured dragon, breathing fire here and whipping its tail over there. Fatally wounded, capitalism seeks regeneration through any means—whether by the seizure of precious natural resources or the cannibalization of human labour…the common factor here is to increase growth rates by greater exploitation of nature and humanity.
Vijay Prashad, ‘Introduction’, Will The Flower Slip Through the Asphalt: Writers Respond to Capitalist Climate Change, Leftword Books, 2017.
A strident belief in the value of capital and a lack of willingness to understand the impacts of climate change – let alone acknowledge them – haunts the writers in Will The Flower Slip Through the Asphalt: Writers Respond to Capitalist Climate Change. Throughout, vulnerable communities: from coastal residents of Mumbai’s plastic-littered beaches, to Palestinians subjected to genocidal state processes – all underwritten by environmental logics of land management – move in and out of focus. Sometimes, their vulnerability provides a jumping off point for broader theoretical engagement; in other moments, they become bystanders, targets of decisions made for, but ultimately without, them.
As people suffer the deadly effects of global climate change, we must examine these decisions (and their authors) to understand the systems and stories that created to normalize their persistent violence. This is particularly true for already vulnerable communities of color the world over. As they flee drowning islands, air so thick with emissions they cannot breathe, hang themselves on farmland denuded of nutrients, and become ill drinking from coal-yellowed rivers, it is impossible to look away from the innumerable human sacrifices we make to the wounded but insatiable dragon whose deadly fires are stoked by a knowing and violent ignorance of climate change.
Four days after his return to the U.S. from the G7 Summit, Trump officially declared that the federal government would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. The withdrawal provides one of the most explicit illustrations of the relationship between climate change denial and capital-centered global logics: a man who seized the U.S. presidency through storytelling about his business acumen and intimacy with the inner workings of international trade has, in the words of former Mexican president Vicente Fox Quesada, “[left] a dark legacy just to satisfy [his] greediness.”
In the days that followed, this story threaded its way across a world aching from the impacts of global climate change; from deadly flooding and mudslides in Sri Lanka to civil war-induced famine in Yemen, the recent Big Sur landslide and Cyclone Mora’s displacement of hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis, the world has provided horrifying reminders of exactly what climate vulnerability looks like in communities both singular and vast. Most alarming though, is the way Trump’s climate denial has entered public discourse: the federal government’s withdrawal is an act of war, a rebuke of, a failure of basic decency towards, the planet.
As a resident of Southeast Louisiana and a scholar who works with immigrant and refugee fishing communities in the Gulf of Mexico, I witness the direct effects of climate change on the planet. When my street floods during a light rain, when I read the local paper’s guide to preparing for hurricane season, or travel due south to fishing docks surrounded by oil refineries and saltwater suffocated cypress, I viscerally experience how the planet is changing under the human hand. What concerns me is how the term “the planet” travels; for most, it represents water, air, and earth. At best it is an abstraction, and at worst, a Western liberal fantasy of more resources disappearing into the ether, overconsumed, as it were, by a massified humanity that refuses to acknowledge exactly what those resources represent for the future of the collective populace.
To centralize “the planet” in storytelling about the future of the globe refuses one basic truth: that the people doing the work of “human-induced climate change” – which also relies on a human singular, an ‘everyhuman’ – are in fact few, powerful, primarily of the West and believers in the ultimate and unmitigated might of capital.
Throughout his Accord withdrawal speech, Trump centralized the U.S. economy, global trade agreements and local jobs, which for him entirely depend on resource extraction and factory production. Trump argued that the Accord is a “bad deal” for the American economy, citing the cost of members’ annual contributions and the Green Climate Fund, both of which are voluntary. On the one hand, this divisive language pits the U.S. against the rest of the world, which fails to support “our” values – capitalism and isolationist nationalism – and on the other, provides a barely adequate strawman for broader policies that deny the value of non-U.S. lives. His multiple invocations of India and China’s lax policies and failures to be properly disciplined by the Accord (all untrue) highlight a defensiveness not just toward other nations, but the people who do their best to survive there.
What Trump fails to realize in his denigration of other nations’ ability to “succeed” under the Paris Accord, which the Obama administration made as flexible as possible, is that increasingly, the rest of the world believes in the above ideals. Underscored by border-centric logics of nationhood, most Western nations—and many often considered “third world” by proxy of colonialism and its long-standing adherence to the value of local resource exploitation—are willing to make concessions to a future that promises “their” ultimate survival. In the U.S., these ideals show themselves in the enduring led poisoning of overwhelmingly Black residents in Flint, Michigan, the rerouting of the Dakota Access oil pipeline through a North Dakota Sioux reservation (otherwise known as Standing Rock), and Trump’s deregulation of coal mining that targets Appalachia, one of the most economically vulnerable regions of the country.
But this is not a U.S.-only problem. Trump’s withdrawal of the U.S.– a nation that produces more emissions per capita than any other – from the Paris Climate Accord will have lasting effects on every individual on earth. For the U.S. federal government to not only deny, but refute the clear linkages between its decisions and not just the futures, but presents, of everyone it touches through transnational and global trade, is nothing short of a formal declaration of war.
And this brings me to the crux of my problem with the narrative we have been sold throughout Trump and others’ marriage of the dollar and the future of the planet: it is inherently apolitical, and most importantly, ahuman. When global leaders make decisions that centralize Prashad’s vexed relationship, vulnerable peoples, both local and global, are left to fend for themselves. This, in fact, is the natural order that every iteration of imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism has worked to realize: some people, and their attendant places, are just worth the environmental sacrifice. Just as “the planet” has and continues to boil to the surface of discourse on climate change, so too does The Greater Good. The Greater Good requires China, India, and the entire African continent to resign themselves to third world-ness, victims of the IMF and global extraction regimes hell bent on ensuring that both figuratively and literally, sugar reaches every working class table in the West.
The Greater Good demands that immigrant, refugee, and other communities of color deny their basic human-ness and the places they are attached to in favor of the resources that divide their cities, boil far below their home’s foundation, and harm their children. It kills people and tells them it’s reasonable; forces them out of their cities, nations, homes, and calls this displacement a mere side-effect—a planetary gift much like the “gift of freedom,” wherein the U.S. government “gifted” Vietnamese refugees sanctuary after the 1975 Fall of Sài Gòn, incurring a debt they can never repay.
In denying climate change and refusing to address the U.S.’s overwhelming contribution to global warming, resource extraction, and exporting transnational capitalism at an alarming rate, Trump is demanding that we all – particularly people in diaspora and who are on the brink of displacement – incur a generations-deep, undying debt to what for him, has become a religion: capital for always and ever.
In light of the overwhelming crisis that is capital-centric climate change denial, we are on the brink of an international disaster, one that will harness one of the globe’s most plentiful resources: displaced and vulnerable peoples. For power to make the vast strides that it aspires to, there must be sacrifice. And that sacrifice is ultimately the missing link of the stories we have and continue to circulate about the environment: the people whom capital feeds on as already and always expendable.
de Wit, Rick. Climate Refugees. Medium. December 15, 2016.
Lambert, Kristin. The Paris Agreement: Spotlight on Climate Migrants. Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. December 29, 2015.
Lieberman, Amy. Where will the climate refugees go? Al Jazeera. December 12, 2015.
Tomlinson, Barbara, and George Lipsitz. American Studies as Accompaniment. American Quarterly, vol. 65, number 1, pg. 1-30. March 2013.