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Trumping the COP

The rise of Donald Trump adds urgency to the fight for climate justice—and reminds us what that fight is really about.
donald trump cop21

Donald Trump at a rally on Pearl Harbor Day in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, December 7, 2015. (Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

It’s hard to find words to match the weight of this moment. Two weeks ago, the nations of the world converged on Paris for the 21st annual Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21), in an attempt, once more, to strike an all but impossible global deal that might steer humanity off our catastrophic course. And they would attempt to do so in the wake of the November 13 terrorist attacks, in an atmosphere of violence and repression and fear—of what looked a lot like war. And yet, nevertheless, in the streets—and especially in those images of 10,000 people holding hands in a human chain, stretching along the route of a banned march—we saw what looked unmistakably like beauty and love and resolve.

I’m not in Paris. I can only watch and read, along with countless others, from across a rising and acidifying ocean. Not an easy task to begin with—climate coverage already has a hard time breaking through the clutter and din of American mainstream media—but this Paris summit entered its critical final days at the very same time that the run-up to the presidential primaries in the United States began a surreal and macabre crescendo. Even in ordinary times, this would be competition enough—but these are not ordinary times. As if the backdrop of fear and violence in Paris weren’t sufficiently dark, the world’s eyes have been diverted to the U.S., where, following the horrific ISIS-inspired mass-shooting in San Bernardino, California, a significant portion of the American electorate—and of the Republican Party—flirt with fascism.

In a sane world, the news that broke from Paris this week would have led front pages everywhere, as the major industrialized nations, responding to pressure from the poorest and most climate-threatened countries on Earth, voiced support for the goal of limiting warming to an improbable 1.5 degrees Celsius, rather than a disastrous two degrees. Instead, the news was dominated by Donald Trump, after he doubled-down on his call for an outright ban on Muslims entering the U.S. Not just desperate refugees from Syria (my country was already shutting the doors on them), but any and all people of the Muslim faith. Because, according to Trump, "they" are not to be trusted. "They" are a threat to "us."

The climate crisis reminds us that we can’t afford to lose the other fight—the one against everything that Trump and the system that created him represent.

Here is a new political fact that the climate-justice movement, in the U.S. and globally, needs to assimilate: Donald Trump is now an undeniable (and increasingly fascistic) force in American politics, and as he rends the GOP, the rise of an overtly racist, xenophobic, militantly nationalist third party in America has become a real possibility. We’re witnessing the American right turn a nightmare corner.

I’ve been a student and observer of American politics and culture for quite a while, and this is the scariest fucking thing I’ve ever seen in my country.

How to make sense, then, of these split-screen developments? On the one hand, in Paris, the world’s governments finally acknowledge the full-scale climate catastrophe that is bearing down on us all, and on the poorest more than any others (how else to interpret the parties' official recognition of 1.5 degrees—while those same governments fail to commit to anything close to a viable path for even two degrees?). On the other hand, a fascistic demagogue dominates a presidential contest within the climate-science-denying party that controls both houses of the U.S. Congress.

How to respond to this nightmare?

In short, the rise of Trump, and all that he represents, only adds urgency to the fight for climate justice. Trump’s rise makes unavoidable what many people I know in the climate-justice movement, most of them young, have been saying for some time: Namely, that in the face of our climate catastrophe, our historic fights for human rights and social justice matter now more than ever.

Of course, there are those, including mainstream climate experts and advocates, who don’t really like to talk about justice. They don’t like to talk about race. They don’t like to talk about inequality, whether economic, or social, or sexual. They don’t like to talk about the distribution of wealth at the national level, much less the global level—where, as none other than Pope Francis has recently reminded us, we owe the developing world, the poorest people on the planet, a massive ecological and climate debt. That’s the majority of the world’s population we’re talking about, a quarter of them Muslim, people historically and presently oppressed under a global economic system built upon colonialism and white supremacism, the same global economic system that is today driving climate chaos.

I don’t really like to talk about these things either. They put white guys like me on the spot. But if I’m serious about justice—and if I’m serious about climate, morally serious—then I have to face these things.

Because when I see the storms that we’re all heading into, the scarcity and instability and violence, and I see what those with wealth and power are prepared to do to hold onto that wealth and power—when I see my country scapegoating entire classes of people and closing its doors to desperate refugees—I know it matters all the more what kind of a government, what kind of a democracy, what kind of a society we have, what kind of a people we will be, as we head into that future.

Coming to terms with the climate catastrophe—really coming to terms with it, not just intellectually but morally, even spiritually—means facing up not only to scientific realities, but, just as much, to political realities. And the political reality that matters most right now is that our fossil-fueled, corporate-controlled political system has both failed to respond in any serious way to the certainty of catastrophic climate change, and, at the same time, has produced the phenomenon of Trump’s all too serious bid for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.

We’ve lost the "climate fight," if that means "solving the climate crisis" and saving the planet we know. It was lost before it began because it got started so late. The best we can do now is avert utter collapse and chaos. That’s the scientific reality.

Which means we can’t afford to lose the other fight—the one against everything that Trump and the system that created him represent. We need a political revolution. That’s the political reality, and the moral necessity, of this historical moment. It’s time now to fight—with all the beauty, love, and resolve we can muster—like there’s nothing left to lose but our humanity.


"Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change" is
Pacific Standard's year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.