Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Especially at a school like Swarthmore, taking a stance against climate change can be a daunting task. To criticize these movements is to stand on the wrong side of history, to assume the role of the ignorant ultra-conservative solely concerned with their own well being. This is an issue that threatens the survival of the human race, one that every one of us ought to face as we face dire consequences if we don’t do anything. I am moved by the enthusiasm of thousands of people who attended Climate March yesterday, including many fellow Swatties. However, the discourse surrounding climate change is often problematic as issues are simplified and not well understood. Those fighting for climate change are often too idealistic, failing to realize that policies that are proposed to combat climate change can have negative consequences on the environment, that environmental justice can exacerbate human injustice and silence the same minority groups they claim to be protecting.
Climate change is such a complex problem, a tangled web involving conflicting interests and different stakeholders, that it cannot be simply understood from a linear perspective. Often we think that simply through promoting environment-friendly policies we can achieve the harmony and prosperity of the entire human race. Yet the repercussions of combating climate change are huge, and not well understood by the general public. Merely shouting, “We need to protect tropical forests!” will not always make everyone will be better off in the end. The process of actually implementing environmentally friendly policies sometimes hurts unintended victims and can cause detrimental side effects to the environment itself. I feel that lots of people, before taking up the banners and devote themselves to activist movements, do not understand fully the issue they’re going to tackle, the complexity of relations between interest groups, the possibility that environmental change, though well-intentioned, will inevitably hurt some others.
Even seemingly positive steps towards fighting climate change can have unintended negative consequences on the environment itself. Although we have made significant scientific progress towards understanding the environment, the complexity of human interaction with nature means that we cannot be certain that seemingly pro-environment policy changes will achieve their desired outcome. Large-scale tree planting, implemented by many governments around the world, seems to be at first glance a perfect solution to both desertification and increased CO2 emission. However, studies show that such projects can reduce the local availability of water by changing water flow in the region. Furthermore, recent studies show that the dark color of trees can absorb more solar energy, thereby raising atmospheric temperature. We cannot reliably predict whether large-scale forestation would help to control the earth’s rising temperatures, when even global scientists have not reached a consensus on whether there is a causal effect between global warming and the conversion from forest to farming land in history.
In other cases, protecting the environment can produce unintended victims, and actually exacerbate human injustice, which can be seen from the recent gold rush in the Amazon forest in Peru. In recent years many poor people from underdeveloped Altiplano countryside went to the forest digging gold. The gold-mining industry, using toxic chemicals and often accompanied by illegal logging, was damaging the tropical forest. After protests and international pressure urging the government to do something, the government this year started a crackdown to preserve the vulnerable ecosystem, which is totally justified purely from an environmental perspective. But what about the poor farmer-turned- gold miners? They went to the forest to try their luck often because they were too poor to make a living at home, and after the gold mining was prohibited, they had nowhere to go. Generally people on the frontline of damaging the environment (loggers, miners, poachers, etc.) are in poverty; they chose the job often because they had no other options to make ends meet. Unfortunately, consequences of environmental policy changes are felt most strongly by people at the bottom; thus we have to acknowledge that there is often an intrinsic conflict between environmental justice and human justice; promoting environmental protection will necessarily have negative human consequences.
Recently in South America oil companies were planning to extract oil in the forest. Foreign NGOs such as Survival International (a human rights organization that campaigns for the rights of indigenous tribal peoples and uncontacted peoples) protested, saying that they were not only protecting the environment but also the well being of indigenous tribes, which had little contact with the outside world. They said that the entering of oil companies could cause dramatic harm to their lifestyle and culture. These NGOs’ protests, however, unintentionally silences some of the voice of the very people they’re trying to protect. Some indigenous tribes actually welcomed the oil companies because of the job opportunities and the prospect of building schools with their compensation. Yet in the current discourse of environmental activism, these voices are not adequately heard. Acknowledging these concerns makes people realize that environmental activism is not simply about good vs evil. It is a nuanced issue that requires balancing different human interests.
We do need to combat climate change; our survival depends on it. But we also need to develop a more nuanced understanding of the issues involved, the interest groups affected, and the possible repercussions pro-environment policies may have. We need to be aware of and acknowledge that some people could be worse off by actions aiming to protect the environment. We need to become more critical and mature protesters.