“I live in the Marshall Islands,” said Moneka De Oro, co-executive director of Micronesia Climate Change Alliance, at a climate protest in Guam this fall. “We’re small specks on the map. So no land is disposable. And it’s not just people being erased. All the species that live here will be swallowed by the ocean. It is a whole other form of death.”
At the October 2 protest in Guam, activists briefly blockaded the gate to the Anderson Airforce Base there. Dozens held signs acknowledging the Indigenous names of the land — Tailalo and Litekyan. The protest occurred to raise awareness that the military base destroyed 900 acres of limestone forest and poisoned the local water, as well as to raise awareness about the threat that the climate crisis poses to inhabitants of the islands.
Back-to-back scientific studies show that the climate crisis kills millions of people per year and devastates land on which many cultural communities live. Add to that the millions projected to die in the near future from heat waves, disease and starvation, and it is time to state the truth bluntly, we are in a slowly unfolding climate genocide.
Each year, 5 million people die from extreme climate events. A report from The Lancet Planetary Health cites both intense cold and heat, but as the climate crisis has accelerated, the scales have tilted toward heat waves. According to a 2022 report from the Vulnerable Twenty (a forum of 20 countries disproportionately affected by climate change), “unabated climate change will cause 3.4 million deaths per year by the end of the century.”
The hellscape that the data portrays is repeated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, viral articles like David Wallace-Wells’s New York Magazine essay “The Uninhabitable Earth” and widely viewed speeches by activist Greta Thunberg, especially the one at the UN where she hissed, “How dare you!” at complacent officials.
But maybe we need to see it again. Follow me. Imagine the Earth is a tiny pale dot spinning in space. On it lives everyone you love. The atmosphere in which we evolved and thrived in is really a tiny bandwidth of temperature. Since roughly 1850, the Global North has pumped so much carbon into the skies that the temperature warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius (1.1°C). Our feverish use of fossil fuels is on track to blow past the Paris Climate Accords goal of under 1.5°C to 2°C and it is very possible to hit 4°C.
What happens if we blow past 1.5°C? At 1.5°C, a billion people will boil in killer heat waves, and droughts will crack soil into dry crust. Mass migration will upend everyday life. Now turn the knob forward and each degree more transforms life into a surreal nightmare. At 2.5°C, say by the 2080s, whole swaths of the Caribbean, Mexico and the American South are unlivable. Miami is an aquarium. Dallas a cooked graveyard. In South Asia, coastal cities will be hit with heat waves, floods and cyclones that rip homes into shreds. In Africa, rainfall will thin to a whisper. Droughts and suffocating heat will drive hungry people to flee. Where will they go? Major cities will be erased by rising seas.
Stack the reports, and a common image is clear. The Global South has historically made the least carbon, yet it will be devastated first and worst. The Global North bears the greatest responsibility for the ever-heating climate. Yet its fossil fuel corporations and lackey politicians will keep in motion an economy that dooms the poorest people in the world to death.
The Banality of Evil
“Displacements of populations and destruction of cultural language and tradition is equivalent in our minds to genocide,” said former Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony deBrum in 2015. He was not alone in invoking the term. Increasingly activists and artists are shifting the category of genocide to crystallize the immense violence that poor people of color face from overlapping and escalating climate disasters. The environment has been attacked in numerous ways. Less known is how history of nuclear tests showered the islands with radioactive fallout.
Genocide — including the genocide against Palestinians currently underway in Gaza — occupies a terrifying place in our minds. In popular culture, many “see” it through films like Hotel Rwanda, Schindler’s List or The Killing Fields. The familiar plot line is that a rabidly racist political party — like the Nazis in Germany or the Hutu-led government in Rwanda — attain control of the state to target an ethnic minority or a rival group. Step by step, they corral the victims and commence a mind-numbing slaughter.
The United Nations defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” What makes it such is the killing of a group, inflicting bodily harm or mental harm to them, and stopping births or transferring children to others. Finally, the last act is inflicting on them conditions calculated to physically destroy the group in whole or part. So many examples of this stain our history, like the slaughter of buffalo relied on by Indigenous groups to near extinction by European settlers in the American West or the forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women.
The United Nations takes pains to narrow the definition. It demands proof of a special intent to kill by perpetrators. Without that element, however gross and immense the violence, it falls short.
First, we have to look at the facts of the climate crisis and how it plugs into the existing definition. Cranking up the Earth’s temperature 1.5°C, more likely 2°C, if not more, does inflict upon the Global South conditions calculated to physically “destroy, in whole or in part.” As heat waves, droughts and floods make land uninhabitable, many cultures will become impossible to sustain. Indigenous people as far apart as the Amazon to the Niger Delta in Africa will be uprooted and beg at the doorstop of wealthy nations as climate refugees.
Second is the issue of intent. Genocide, as currently defined by the UN, must show the perpetrators had special intent to kill the victims. Here is where we must redefine genocide. Mass murder can be the means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Oil company executives at the office in suit and tie don’t have to have a rabid racial hatred of the Global South. It is enough that they have a goal: make money. The killing of innocent people is a means to that end. And the means is genocide.
Why is this important? Already activists bring court cases against the fossil fuel industry. Adding genocide to their arsenal can be a powerful leverage. Just as important the word carries weight with the public and can ignite more protests.
To understand this, we must understand that those who carry out genocide are not always visibly foaming-at-the mouth, sadistic racists — they are sometimes banal-seeming officials like Nazi Adolf Eichmann, whose trial philosopher Hannah Arendt reported on. In Arendt’s 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, she noted, “Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth. He merely, never realized what he was doing.… It was sheer thoughtlessness … that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.” In other words, he was a cog in a machine that both “removed him from reality” and seemingly gave him the power to destroy a people with a clear conscience.
The evil at play in the unfolding global climate disaster is different but just as destructive. The climate crisis is shaped by our current era of bad faith. Global warming has been so documented for so long that the fossil fuels industry and its lackey politicians know exactly who they are hurting. They pretend not to. Exxon Mobil knew since 1977 and spent $30 million funding global warming denialism. In the late ‘70s, the American Petroleum Institute had a CO2 and Climate Task Force that read the science. In 1986, Shell had a 100-page whopper of a report that detailed the devastation that burning oil would cause to civilization.
Old companies and petrostates have a very clear intent to kill people in order to make profits. In 2022, taking advantage of the Russian-Ukraine war, Big Oil raked in $200 million. Exxon alone carried off $55.7 billion. The collateral damage from this profit are hundreds of thousands dying right now from global warming. By 2100, 83 million more will be killed.
The Urgent Need for an Invigorated Global Movement
“We have to show how vulnerable the oil industry is,” said Xochitl, an environmental activist in the 2022 film How to Blow Up a Pipeline, “By hitting something big.” After she and a crew of eco-saboteurs plant a bomb at a pipeline, she willingly let herself be arrested in order to make the media carry their message.
The film is a sign that the tradition of radical environmentalism has gained sympathy in the mainstream. It already has popular support among youth, who foresee with bitterness the ravaged planet they will inherit. Today, Indigenous militias protect the Amazon, the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion carry the baton from prior activists like the 1990’s Earth Liberation Front.
Yet they are hitting the same obstacles that former activists did. The police crackdown in an era of surveillance is swift, effective and brutal. Radical activists are driven by urgency to set up blockades, sit-ins and marches. It has not translated into a social movement of millions on the scale of the George Floyd Protests. And time is running out.
A new synthesis is needed. In order for more people to take on the corporate and political forces that are refusing to divest from fossil fuels, the impending genocide of the Global South has to be made visible to people in the Global North, and we must fight to overcome the classism and racism that block empathy for the people who are on the front lines of this intensifying new era of climate disaster.
One way is to join those who are on the front lines. When activists marched on the Anderson Airforce Base in Guam, they demanded an awareness of the ways in which we are at a historical turning point — and they also formed cross-country bonds to sustain our global struggle. De Oro said, “I took a moment at my ancestral village where my grandmothers lived to be with my mother and son. I was [in] community with my people and the world.” She added: “Activists from other islands like Okinawa joined. It was powerful to connect with people, it centers our connection.”
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