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  • Ethan Olson

The Climate Change Contradiction

Are the systems responsible for climate change a larger problem than climate change itself?


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Climate change is not about the climate. It is not about the extreme heat waves and the escalated power of monsoons. Nor is it about the prolonging of droughts and the contorted curve of an average temperature graph. It is about us. It is about the humans who caused it, and the impacts this process has and will have on society. The changes in intensity, frequency, and duration of heat waves, storms, droughts, flooding, and more — these are simply the middle step in a path created and walked by us.

That is not to say that changes in the climate are not and will not continue to be severe, painful, and distressing. But when it comes to the debate about how to confront climate change, people often look at the wrong problem.

Weather is neither good nor bad. Weather is not upheld by a moral code, and weather cannot be subject to ethical scrutiny. Weather simply is. Weather can be good for some — a spell of rain feeding a flourishing harvest — and it can be bad for others — that same storm flooding a low-lying neighborhood. But the rain, the snow, the wind, the heat, the cold, the humidity, these are not things that have conscious intent.

Although many will undoubtedly suffer and perish, humans can adapt to the impacts of climate change. We can erect seawalls along our coastal cities, install air conditioners in our homes, and thrust vast networks of irrigation piping through our deserts. Wealthy nations and individuals will, of course, be better equipped to do so. Still, it is not impossible to fathom a future in which humans manage to survive in a warmer world. We can slap band-aids onto our problems as they present themselves and be none the wiser for it.

Most would agree that this future (let’s call it Future A) is undesirable. So what about an alternative? What about a future that is both very different and eerily similar to its counterpart in an unexpected way?

In Future B, we tackle climate change head-on and we do so successfully. We decarbonize our economies, sequester billions of metric tons of carbon, and see the planet’s global average temperature slowly level off or perhaps decline. In this scenario, the credit is owed to an impressive catalog of technologies, advancements, and strategies that wean our energy systems off of fossil fuels and sequester greenhouse gasses. Big changes will need to be made to reach this future: installing vast amounts of solar panels and windmills, replacing gasoline-powered automobiles with electric vehicles, and revegetating massive swaths of scarred land across the globe. Anthropogenic climate change is no more — and it's all thanks to human ingenuity. So what’s the similarity between this Future B and Future A?

To understand this, we must first understand the two main schools of thought when it comes to climate change mitigation. These two perspectives are divided on their answer to one puzzling question:

Is climate change a bigger problem than the systems and processes that created it?

If it is, then this implies that strategies specifically focused on stopping global warming are an adequate response to the climate crisis: geoengineering schemes, carbon sequestration, and clean energy technologies may be enough to bend the curve. People on this side of the debate argue that the use of fossil fuels was the central mistake of 20th century societies. If only alternative sources of energy were chosen to guide the development of our energy, transportation, and food infrastructure - whether solar panels or nuclear power plants - our current dilemmas would not exist.

In this same vein, these solution “purists” argue that the way to solve the climate change crisis is relatively simple, at least in theory: replace our fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. People who concur with this “if only” argument usually bring a similar scope of focus to dealing with climate change impacts - or “adaptation.” It is only the direct consequences of climate change that should be addressed through climate change legislation, by climate change organizations, and via climate change funding. Flooding from sea level rise, health impacts from heat waves, and damage from hurricanes are all good examples.

But according to the second group of climate change organizers, this is not enough. Intersectionalists believe that efforts to confront climate change are futile if the systemic drivers behind our economies, relationships with the land, and way of life are not radically altered. A critical examination of extractivist, capitalistic, and imperial systems is where real change begins, the type of change that should alter the way we care about the planet and each other. It may seem contradictory, but intersectionalists believe that climate change is not a bigger problem than the systems and processes that created it. Accepting that axiom is the only way to quell unsustainable anthropogenic interference with earth’s systems. The approach supported by technocrats and self-proclaimed pragmatists envisions a future wherein parts of the machine can be swapped out for newer, cleaner pieces. The intersectionalists argue that the machine needs to be destroyed entirely.

Here lies the uncomfortable similarity between Future A and Future B: neither address the root cause of our socio-economic-environmental failures. Future A seeks only to adapt to climate change, while Future B’s laser-focus on mitigation neglects the reasons why humanity’s trajectory is unsustainable in the first place. Future B may “fix” climate change, but it will likely do so by relying on the continued exploitation and inequality afforded by modern capitalist systems. After all, the lithium for all those electric car batteries doesn’t grow on trees.

Intersectionality offers a third alternative, let’s call it Future C. In this future, we recognize that not only the emitters of greenhouse gasses are to blame, but also the systems that made these fossil fuels so prolific. Consider the pollution spewed by cars every day — a major cause of global warming. In Future B, solution purists might find a way to decarbonize all automobiles or sequester enough carbon in the ground to offset their emissions. The temperature of the planet will likely begin to slow down its upward trajectory, and it may even level off. Of course, intersectionalist know the real problem with cars.

The automobile industry exploded with growth in the middle of the 20th century, but not due to their impressive engineering, flashy appearances, or ability to invoke the envy of one’s horse-drawn, or strictly bipedal peers. Cars proliferated because people needed them. For the first time in history, a personal transportation unit became the expectation for people living in cities, which were quickly expanding after World War Two, particularly in the land-abundant Sun Belt states.

Urban planning institutions focused their efforts on creating suburbs, extremely low density neighborhoods outside of city cores. Intersectionalists know that the abundance of that land, of course, came from an imperialist invasion and theft of Indigenous territories. The neverending sprawl of these meandering cul-de-sacs and 2-car garages made walking to work, or any other place you needed to go, virtually impossible for the first time in history. The rapid expansion of these housing developments was fueled by white flight from city centers, and made possible by: exclusionary zoning laws that made it much more difficult for Black populations to purchase homes; redlining that redirected federal investment away from Black neighborhoods; and urban renewal projects that demolished vibrant Black communities to create the massive space needed for freeways. The suburbs, which occupy by far the largest amounts of land in American cities, were not created by chance or natural market forces — they were created for white people. Particularly, white men, who, in their daily commutes to denser urban cores, did not recognize the challenges suburbs imposed on the expected caretakers of the home: women. Meanwhile, the gasoline that fueled these automobiles came and continues to come from imperialist interventions in developing countries and the exploitation of workers in these societies.

Intersectionalists argue that the real solution to this aspect of climate change is not to simply replace our gasoline-powered automobiles with electric vehicles because doing so does not do anything to confront the deeper systemic problems of exploitation, environmental racism, and imperialism that car-centric design demands. Pure solutionists may very well mitigate climate change by switching to these cleaner vehicles, but the transition will be inequitable for those who cannot afford new cars, will do nothing for the housing crisis suburban sprawl has imposed on virtually every American city, and will rely on the unjust extractivism of lithium mining in Indigenous communities and developing countries.

Thus, what intersectionalists see in the fight to tackle climate change is the opportunity to simultaneously restructure outdated social and economic systems to ensure true sustainability for the planet. Intersectionalists recognize that these systems of inequity and exploitation reinforce one another, and that the scale of change demanded by the climate crisis places us in a unique moment of human history: if we are to completely overhaul our energy systems to decarbonize, what other long-established systems can we change?

Activists can receive great wisdom from Audre Lorde, a pioneering feminist and civil rights activist who helped establish the concept of intersectionality in the sixties and seventies, when she said:

“There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

As humans, we are not restricted to one singular future — we have the power to change ourselves and stop changing the climate. Of course, we can try to adapt to the problem, or simply stick a band-aid on the problem.

Or, we can get to the roots of the climate crisis and make the world a better place in the process.

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