In June of last year, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights predicted that by 2030, more than 120 million people will be pushed into poverty due to the impacts of global warming. Since then, the capitalist ruling class has already driven a very large chunk of this number of people into far worse living conditions. Neoliberal austerity policies in Brazil, Ecuador, and post-coup Bolivia have left millions without access to essential resources during the pandemic. Over forty million people have lost their jobs in the U.S., and Trump has reduced weekly unemployment benefits by $300. Austerity measures have been passed throughout Europe. India, Australia, and much of the rest of the capitalist world have thoroughly descended into an economic depression where the poor suffer most under the neoliberal paradigm.
Most of these developments don’t stem from the climate crisis, at least not directly. But they vindicate the UN researcher Philip Alston’s claim that mass impoverishment will result from the climate catastrophes of this next decade and beyond. If the bourgeoisie have institutionally forced these many tens of millions of people into poverty as a result of the crises the world has experienced in this last year, think of how many will become destitute as the climate feedback loop continues.
The stratified nature of who gets crisis support under capitalism has made the UN report’s vision of a coming “climate apartheid” inevitable. The billionaires can retreat to luxurious fortified hideouts. The generally wealthy can afford special fire protections for their homes, or at the very least the means to retreat from a disaster in comfort. The middle class, if there is one in the neoliberal world anymore, can at most afford to haphazardly flee in their vehicles. The very poor, and the homeless most of all, typically have to stay put. We’ve seen the results of this hierarchy of survival preparedness during Hurricane Katrina, where the poor were hiding out on their roofs while the rich were safe.
Even when the severity of a climate-related catastrophe isn’t as drastic as a storm or a fire, class disparity is becoming an immediately relevant factor in who can get access to what. The drought conditions in India and Iraq, whose economic systems have both been thoroughly ravaged by neoliberalism and neo-colonialism, are leading to the poorest being at risk of losing access to water while the wealthy remain untouched by the crises.
The dark fate that Iraq has slipped into is particularly foreboding to what most of the rest of the world will become like. After being destabilized by an imperialist invasion, and after having its economy turned into a tool for U.S. corporations to make profits off of, Iraq is experiencing what it’s like when a society that’s been deeply partitioned between the classes undergoes a climate meltdown.
Because of the neoliberal order that Washington imposed on Iraq after the invasion, Baghdad is divided between a “green zone” for the elites and a “red zone” for the poor. As severe heat waves become more common there, and the gap between those who can and can’t afford air conditioning becomes more important, Baghdad is becoming a hint of what things will be like in the other parts of the capitalist world where heat threatens the lives of the underclass.
“Baghdad hit 125.2 degrees on July 28, blowing past the previous record of 123.8 degrees — which was set here five years ago — and topping 120 degrees for four days in a row,” reads a recent Washington Post article. “Sitting in one of the fastest warming parts of the globe, the city offers a troubling snapshot of the future that climate change might one day bring other parts of the world….Indeed, one recent study found that by the year 2050, the climate of Phoenix could closely resemble that of Baghdad.” The class disparities in who can access crucial resources when faced with these kinds of climate catastrophes are a passive example of how the climate apartheid is forming. The more aggressive symptoms of living under capitalism during the climate crisis will come out as the stability of the social order comes into question, and as the capitalist state feels the need to clamp down on the lower classes.
The government-enforced deprivation of Palestinian resources by the Israeli settler-colonial state is one example of how climate change is already prompting capitalism to turn towards fascism and genocide. The food, water, shelter, and electricity shortages that Israel’s occupation has caused for the Palestinian population is making Palestinians more compelled to resist their oppressors, which has no doubt contributed to Israel’s recent anti-Palestinian massacres and to the perpetual tightenings of the apartheid enforcement apparatus.
In all the other parts of the capitalist world where the impacts of the climate crisis are most destructive, there are efforts to make the class hierarchy more closely resemble the horrors of Israeli apartheid. The inhumane camps for climate refugees, the deportations that end with dozens of migrants being killed, the border militarization, the intensive digital border surveillance, the mass surveillance related to disasters and environmental groups, the building of walls and hostile architecture to keep the poor out of wealthy areas, the creation of a highly militarized police state, the U.S. army’s plans for waging warfare when climate change produces social unrest-it’s all part of the state authoritarianism that this crisis will continue to make more intense.
In my home state of California, the emerging climate apartheid is still subtle, even as fires are now forcing over 60,000 to leave their homes and as heat waves cause tens of thousands to experience power outages. But as the escalating fires, heat, and droughts become accompanied by raised water levels, the fundamental reality-which is that the rich will be fine while the poor won’t-will lead to heightening class tensions. These tensions will result in the ruling class cracking down in drastic ways. Even in places like California, which is part of a core imperialist country and is one of the wealthiest areas in the world, the extreme human rights abuses and obscene living condition disparities that afflict occupied Palestine will increasingly be mirrored.
Alston warned that “the enjoyment of all human rights by vast numbers of people is gravely threatened” by what’s set to happen to the climate. The reason why is as simple as the nature of how those in power respond to threats to the social order: by waging war against the parts of the population most likely to foment revolution. In this atmosphere of heightening class warfare, everyone who’s been pushed into poverty by the climate crisis is seen as a prime target.
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