Reflections on the Fight against Climate Change

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.


  1. Thank you for offering a well-reasoned argument for recognizing the complexity of the issues involved in combating climate change. The approach is an encouragement to think carefully and broadly about solutions in anticipation of potential harmful consequences and to include in the considerations the voices of those whose well-being we seek to protect. Maurice

  2. Thank you for writing the piece- I always appreciate a call for a more nuanced analysis and you bring up some important points and considerations. That said, I disagree pretty strongly with your characterization of the goals of the environmental movement.

    The principles of Environmental Justice and a Just Transition are based on keeping in mind the human impacts of environmental protection or degradation, unlike the principles of conservation, or broader environmentalism which often emphasize ecosystems to the point of ignoring human lives. I agree with you that the governmental response to gold miners in Peru seems truly horrible, and is an egregious violation of environmental justice principles. That said, I place more blame on the capitalist system and neocolonialism that impoverished the miners in the first place, and would rather see the government help provide them with good jobs in another business than gold mining.

    When capitalism and colonialism play with environmentalism, the result is consistently terrible. One example of that toxic interplay is carbon offsets, like the ones that Swarthmore is currently relying on to get to its carbon neutrality goal by 2035.
    Here’s pretty good article on the topic:

    The labor unions that marched on Sunday can tell better than I how a transition to a renewable energy fueled economy is a great boon to labor and employment, and the folks in appalachia can tell of how few and how terrible the jobs are in the modern coal mining industry. If you want to learn first hand about the folks on the front lines of the extractive industry, I invite you to come on one of Mountain Justice’s fall or spring break trips to Appalachia.

    I can’t speak for 400,000 people, especially such a diverse crowd, all with their own reasons for being present, but at its core I think the march aims to highlight and protest 1) the horrible injustices of the extractive industry on the local communities, including oil spills, fracking poisoning water, displacing communities for fossil fuel infrastructure, power plants spewing toxins in poor communities, toxic waste disposal failures poisoning people, increased cancer rates near infrastructure, poison water and air near coal mining infrastructure, etc. and 2) the disconnect between the sad reality that the fossil fuel industry plans to burn five times the amount of carbon as it would take to push the planet past 2 degrees of warming, and the lack of governmental or industry action to really address that disconnect. The impacts of surpassing 2 degrees (or even 1 degree) are disproportionately harmful to the global south and those who don’t have the resources to protect themselves or bounce back from disasters.

    Slightly less important, the article you posted about trees and water flow in the conclusion seems to have a pretty positive outlook on planting if you are careful with the species and tree density.
    Here is a comprehensive rebut to your article on how facilitate climate change, signed by 32 scientists.
    Its true that leaves absorb more sunlight, but trees transpire water at a much faster rate than it naturally evaporates, creating cloud cover which reflects sunlight.
    You can also check out Tim Flannery’s book, The Weather Makers, which contains a pretty comprehensive discussion of the intersection of trees in the Amazon rainforest, water cycles, and climate change.

  3. Hey – Just gonna leave this here (from recent Swat alum) in addition to Nathan’s badass commentary.

    “The People’s Climate March was, more or less, what it sounds like: a popular gathering of people from all walks of life vitally concerned about the climate crisis. In the context of the march, “climate crisis” isn’t a reference only to carbon emissions or rising sea levels. That the climate has taken a turn for the worst might be the most apocalyptic, but certainly not the first negative feedback from a model of economic development that’s left basically everyone who isn’t extraordinarily wealthy out in the cold.”

  4. I too agree that nuanced analyses and informed action is always desirable. And I appreciate very much the research and thought that went into your column. The fundamental flaw in the rationale, however, is fairly simple and maddeningly ubiquitous among people who question the “debate” never mind the urgency of the matter: Homo Sapiens are not the center of the universe and our so-called stewardship of this particular planet within that universe is self-centered, self-referential, arrogant and all around abysmal. We will inflict injustices, cruelties and atrocities upon each other for one reason or another in perpetuity — the environmentally related ones are a drop in the bucket. What WE need to do is to stop thinking about WE. (I quote you as example: “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.”) WE need to quit fiddling while Rome burns. Estimates are that between 1,000 and 10,000 species are going extinct ANNUALLY. You will live to be 100 years old, if you’re very lucky. Is your species and your species alone really the be all and end all when it comes to your sense of purpose for your existence?

    • Who cares about other species anyway? The only reason to keep them around is if you get off at night to the thought of diversity. But species diversity doesn’t actually matter as far as humans are concerned – what the fuck have koalas done for me???

  5. I can’t help wishing that Sam Wang had called it “global warming,” not “climate change.” The latter phrase is nebulous to the point of meaninglessness: “Climate change” can’t be measured, warming can.

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