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Green New Deal Can and Must Be Global (Part II)

Part 2 of 2 Parts Reposting from AfricaFocus Bulletin

By William Minter and Imani Countess

Grassroots climate actions

Most climate activists have come to understand, at least in principle, that it is the most vulnerable groups that suffer the greatest impact from the climate crisis, whether their disadvantages come from nationality, class, race, gender, or age. This disproportionate impact is reflected in the leadership and rank-and-file of climate activist movements around the world.

Women, particularly women of color and young women, are no longer only leaders behind the scenes, as they were in the civil rights movement and many other historical social moments. Instead they have become among the most prominent and visible spokespeople for climate change activism. African women activists have taken the lead in environmental struggles on the continent, such as the resistance to oil pollution in the Niger Delta and to the proposed coal plant in Lamu, Kenya.

The climate strike initiated by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has gained supporters on every continent, including North America and Africa. While Thunberg has the most visible media presence, countless other activists, many of them indigenous, have been leading protests in various countries for years. Native American communities in the United States have been on the frontlines in seeking to block oil pipelines, linking these struggles to their own centuries-long commitment to protecting land and water. Teenage Lakota activist Tokata Iron Eyes spoke with Thunberg at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in October 2019. “Indigenous people have been leading this fight for centuries,” Iron Eyes told the audience.

Minimizing future climate damage depends on stopping the use of fossil fuels, most urgently coal. In China and the United States, as well as Western Europe, the decline of coal is well under way, a response to its inefficiency and the health damage from air pollution. But these major economies are also still financing and exporting coal technology. In June 2019, local activists in Kenya won a national court ruling that blocked a proposed Chinese- and American-backed coal plant in Lamu, on Kenya’s coast. Significantly, this was the result of local activist initiatives in Lamu, bolstered by strong links with national and international climate activist groups.

Kenya is also one of the countries leading in innovative forms of renewable energy. Most popular is off-grid solar energy, which is now lighting homes for millions of rural consumers in Africa and South Asia who otherwise would have no access to electricity. Some 5 million households in Africa and South Asia have enough power to serve appliances as well as simple lighting. Growth is rapid, but the potential market of people lacking access to electricity worldwide is still over 800 million. International donors, including the US Agency for International Development (USAID), are supporting off-grid solar, although Obama’s Power Africa Initiative primarily backed fossil fuel projects using natural gas.

There is great potential for further innovation in renewables. For example, cooking with solar electricity instead of wood or charcoal could help curb deforestation and prevent deaths caused by pollution from indoor cooking fires. To accelerate innovation, there is a need for collaborative transnational research that links technologically advanced countries with local researchers.

Implications for multilateral and bilateral foreign policy

If the United States were to give priority to the climate crisis, this would not only have implications for global climate policy; it would also affect our foreign policy more narrowly defined, reshaping bilateral relations with both large and small countries.

The effect of activist mobilization and lobbying is already apparent in the Democratic debate, with the campaign plans of both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren being particularly attentive to international obligations. When the Sunrise Movement decided this month to endorse Bernie Sanders, its statement also praised Elizabeth Warren, and its scorecard rated both candidates highly. Both candidates recognize that global commitments are essential to their visions of a Green New Deal. Sanders’s plan envisages a $200 billion commitment to the UN’s Green Climate Fund, while Warren’s plan includes $100 billion for a Green Marshall Plan.

Climate activists realize, of course, that implementing such ambitious plans will require not only presidential action but also parallel legislation from Congress. They already have congressional allies, who have introduced legislation affirming a 10-year commitment to fund the Green Climate Fund at levels appropriate to the international need. But the fate of such legislation, and its funding at a level approaching either Sanders’ or Warren’s proposals, depends on changing the composition of Congress. That is why activists are campaigning not only for Democratic victories in the Senate and the House, but also in the primaries for candidates who are champions of action on climate.

In bilateral relations as well, taking climate into account would have consequences. For example, the effects of Trump’s trade war have increased the costs of renewable energy goods dependent on U.S.-China trade. As rival global powers, the United States and China will inevitably have tensions in their relationship. But the potential for collaboration on renewable energy could be a strong countervailing force and a striking contrast to U.S.-Chinese collaboration on the climate-destroying Lamu coal plant. Corporations and scientists in different countries often collaborate even as they compete, and government policies can make working together either easier or harder. Among various factors that could put the brakes on a warming planet, few are as critical as a cooperative relationship between the U.S. and China, as noted by Wood Mackenzie Energy Transformation Outlook in August 2019.

Similarly, a comprehensive U.S. strategy aimed at curbing the use and production of fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy could lessen the intense geopolitical focus on Middle Eastern oil producers such as Saudi Arabia. This could potentially ease, though by no means solve, the complexities of that region. Unlike fossil fuels, whose distribution rewards some countries and penalizes others, renewable energy options such as solar and wind are more evenly distributed around the world. Moreover, when one country makes more use of sun and wind, it benefits the entire world as well. Mutually beneficial transfer of technology could take priority over competing for sales and access to fossil fuels.

Admittedly, smart green growth, with its heavy reliance on information and communication technologies, also makes use of raw materials such as cobalt and rare minerals, the scarcity of which poses its own problems. But those problems can be addressed, for example, by research into alternate battery technologies, which is already motivated by the shortage of cobalt and by public protests against human rights abuses in cobalt mining.

Maximizing new technologies requires political choices

Carlota Perez, in her pathbreaking studies of the role of technology in history, argues that a technological revolution based on prioritizing knowledge rather than material goods has the potential to address not only the climate crisis but also global inequality. This will only happen, Perez stresses, if states take the initiative in planning to maximize benefits to the wider society, instead of only considering profits to private enterprises. Advocates of the Green New Deal in the United States stress that this change requires paying attention both to those affected by the transition and to those who are particularly disadvantaged because of deeply rooted structural inequalities. Similarly, according to Perez, smart green growth will be impossible without a radical shift on a global level to involve the majority of the world’s population as both consumers and producers. “The technologies capable of driving a sustainable global golden age are available,” concludes Perez. “Unleashing them successfully requires an understanding of the historical moment and the willingness to make a clear socio-political choice.”

First, though, we have to build broad political support for such a choice. This requires us to understand not only the competing technologies of the past and future, but also the structural inequalities, both national and global, that have been violently imposed throughout history and that still shape the present. In the past decade, the United States has seen significant social movements emerge to confront the domestic inequalities of race, class, and gender. But the United States and other privileged countries have hardly begun to confront the parallel global hierarchies built on centuries of conquest, slavery, colonialism, and patriarchy. Understanding and contesting global inequality must go hand in hand with developing technological solutions to the climate crisis.

William Minter is the editor of AfricaFocus Bulletin. Imani Countess is an Open Society Fellow focusing on economic inequality. This is Part II of an essay on the climate crisis that was part of a multipart series, launched on AfricaFocus Bulletin in January 2020.  Part I focuses on the need for rich countries to step up. Thanks to Catherine Sunshine for her editing the series for AfricaFocus Bulletin.

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