Government Inaction on Climate Change Hits World’s Poor the Hardest

With unprecedented fires, floods and heat waves sweeping the globe, 2018 is on track to be the fourth-hottest year on record. The regions most affected by the disastrous effects of global warming are overwhelmingly not the countries that have contributed the most to climate change. According to the 2018 Global Climate Risk Index released by the public policy group Germanwatch, the nine countries most affected by climate change in the past 20 years are developing nations, including Honduras, Haiti, Burma, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Indian government says more than 500 people have died as a result of flooding and heavy rains in recent weeks. In Iran, there is a chronic shortage of water, and it is estimated there is some form of drought in 97 percent of the country. We speak with Rob Nixon, professor in the humanities and the environment at Princeton University. He is the author of Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: With unprecedented fires, floods and heat waves sweeping the globe, 2018 is on track to be the fourth-hottest year on record. The regions most affected by the disastrous effects of global warming are overwhelmingly not the countries that have contributed the most to climate change. According to the 2018 Global Climate Risk Index released by the public policy group Germanwatch, the nine countries most affected by climate change in the past 20 years are developing nations, including Honduras, Haiti, Burma, Pakistan and Bangladesh. USA Today reports that, quote, “Pakistan contributes less than 1 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases blamed for causing global warming, yet its 200 million people are among the world’s most vulnerable victims of the growing consequences of climate change.” The Indian government says more than 500 people have died as a result of flooding and heavy rains in recent weeks. In Iran, there is a chronic shortage of water, and it’s estimated there is some form of drought in 97 percent of the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, in the US, a report by Media Matters found major broadcast networks mentioned climate change just once during the 2-week global heat wave in July, despite reporting on the heat wave at least 127 times. The analysis tracked news reports by ABC, CBS and NBC.

Well, for more, we’re going to Albany, New York, to speak with Rob Nixon, professor in the humanities and environment at Princeton University, author of Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, for which he won a number of awards, including the American Book Award.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Nixon.

ROB NIXON: Thank you, Nermeen.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about, I mean, this title, Slow Violence? What do mean by it? And relate it to what is happening to the environment in the developing world.

ROB NIXON: Yes. So, by “slow violence,” I mean violence of postponed effects, so violence that typically isn’t recognizable as violence because it’s not spectacular. It may be seen in media terms as drama-deficient. So, just to take one example, something like Agent Orange, where you have a 12-year war in Vietnam, and the casualties are framed by that public perception, but the impacts, the ongoing casualties and public health effects, last for decades and generations. So I think there’s something analogous going on with climate change, is that we have the postponement of the consequences. And so, what we’re looking at, in effect, is a kind of intergenerational theft of the conditions of life itself.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: What do you mean, in the second part of the title of your book? What is “the environmentalism of the poor,” and how does it relate to slow violence?

ROB NIXON: So, you know, I think there’s still a widespread public perception that even if environmentalism is an urgent cause, it’s a relatively elite one, and it is espoused disproportionately by the well-off. And so, what I was trying to do in the course of the book is to bring to the surface some of the genealogies of environmental activism by the poor, who are the people who are most impacted by the fallout of the failures to — global failures to mitigate and forestall climate change effects. And there are these — there’s very long and deep traditions of activism among those who have contributed least, as we’ve been saying, but are most precariously positioned in the front lines of the climate change crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to one of the most high-profile protests against government inaction on climate change. For the UN climate summit in Paris in 2015, Yeb Saño, the former lead climate negotiator for the Philippines, walked more than 900 miles, from Rome to Paris, as part of a People’s Pilgrimage for Climate Action — Saño, again, the top Philippines climate negotiator in 2013, when Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest cyclones in recorded history, devastated the Philippines, killing thousands of people, the devastation coinciding with the 2013 UN COP summit in Warsaw, Poland, where Yeb Saño made headlines with an emotional plea for action on climate change.

NADEREV YEB” SAÑO: Typhoons such as Haiyan and its impacts represent a sobering reminder to the international community that we cannot afford to delay climate action. Warsaw must deliver on enhancing ambition and should muster the political will to address climate change and build that important bridge towards Peru and Paris. It might be said that it must be poetic justice that the Typhoon Haiyan was so big that its diameter spanned the distance between Warsaw and Paris.

Mr. President, in Doha we asked, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?” But here in Warsaw, we may very well ask these same forthright questions. What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness. Mr. President, we can stop this madness right here in Warsaw.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was Yeb Saño, when he was the lead climate negotiator for the Philippines in 2013, speaking in Warsaw. Of course, Democracy Now! was there, covering every COP. The next year, when we were in Lima, Peru, suddenly Yeb Saño was no longer a climate negotiator for the Philippines, and the word was that his outspokenness led to his ouster. But it hasn’t stopped him from being a climate environmentalist, as he continues to march around the environment and for climate action, Rob Nixon.

ROB NIXON: Yes, you know, I think that what we’re seeing — and there was a noticeable shift around 2011 at the Durban climate summit. What we’re seeing is alliances of figures from the Global South. And some of them, as you say, subsequently get ousted. But the creation of alliances of people, say, from small island nations, from mid-level economies, from countries in the Sahel in Africa, some of these countries that are exceedingly vulnerable, getting together and trying to create some kind of choral effect, in an effort to be heard, where the most decisive players, like the US and China, are dragging their feet. So I think that there has been a shift in who is being heard, who is speaking out. And to a very large degree, the US is an outlier, both in the history of institutionalized denial of climate change, the anti-science, the funding of anti-science, and also, clearly, in terms of the consequential character of what US leadership would mean or would have meant.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Rob Nixon, I just want to turn to a couple of the statistics, which are so remarkable, that you’ve cited in terms of the massive disparities of countries that are responsible for — principally responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions and effects. You say California residents burn more gasoline than the 900 million inhabitants of all of Africa. That’s 54 countries combined. Meanwhile, a one-way flight from Los Angeles to New York produces more carbon emissions than the average Nigerian does in a whole year. So, could you elaborate on that and to what extent you think that’s being taken into account at all in discussions of climate change?

ROB NIXON: Right. I think there is an increasing acknowledgment that we need a concerted global effort, but within that concerted global effort we need to accommodate unequal histories of who has contributed to the greenhouse gases historically and who contribute in the present. And so, that is an absolutely critical component of what is an existential crisis for the species.

But what I would emphasize here is that the sort of institutionalized funding — if you like, institutionalized gaslighting — of America around climate science, through the funding by the right of climate skepticism, climate denial and, effectively, the bankrolling of inaction, this has coincided with a period of neoliberal globalization, so going back to, say, the late ’70s. And what we see there is the way in which the exacerbation of the climate crisis is inseparable from rising levels of inequality in society after society. So, I mean, just to take the US, we know that around 1980 the disparity between the average wage of a CEO and a worker was something like 1 to 80. That is now in the vicinity of 1 to 280. And this has been replicated in society after society. And so, I do think that we need to think through, simultaneously, the crisis in inequality and the climate crisis, because the people who are in the front lines are the most vulnerable, and typically they have contributed the least, historically, to the problem.