In a few days, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) will vote on whether or not to host a climate debate. If the committee votes to take this on, it will have agreed to host the first-ever presidential debate dedicated solely to addressing the climate crisis.
This vote comes after months of escalating pressure from grassroots organizations—the Sunrise Movement, for instance, held a multi-day sit-in outside of the DNC in June, demanding that the climate crisis be given its own debate. The DNC leadership’s reluctance to do so has hinged on a common misconception about the crisis: that climate change is a “single issue,” with limited repercussions beyond itself, and therefore does not warrant its own debate.
So why is climate change different? Aren’t there plenty of other equally important issues worthy of our time and attention? Well, the answer is both yes… and no. Yes, the current debate format fails to provide space for in-depth policy discussion of any issue, and that’s a problem. However, it would be wrong to see climate change as just one more of the issues failed by the current debate set-up. In fact, it would be wrong to single out climate change as its own separate issue at all. We know that climate change is causing rising temperatures, intensified hurricanes, and epidemic droughts. But climate-fueled planetary emergency is also the context in which all issues exist. It’s the stage we’re standing on—and the stage is on the verge of collapse.
Climate chaos intersects with all the top issues of our time, including, but not limited to, the economy, immigration, mass incarceration, and health care. Accordingly, addressing climate change means more than building a few solar panels and windmills: it means understanding all other issues through the lens of planetary emergency, and the havoc this crisis is causing. It means understanding these overlapping and exacerbating root causes when developing appropriate policy solutions. Without doing so, we can’t hope to solve any public problem; but if we take that challenge on, we’ll make progress that seemed impossible before—and save ourselves in the process. So, I’ve compiled the following: four reasons why climate change is not a single issue.
1. Green Is the Color of Money—and of Good-Paying Jobs.
Anyone who has worked outside knows how much the environment, and changes in that environment, affect our ability to work. The same is true for our economy as a whole. In fact, experts already have a lot to say about how much is at stake if we don’t change course. Failure to drastically reduce emissions could create more harm to the U.S. economy by 2100 than the Great Recession of 2008 did. Indeed, the recent National Climate Assessment found that by the end of the century, if left unaddressed, global warming could cost the U.S. economy $500 billion annually from decreases in labor productivity, agricultural crop damage prompted by changing seasons, extreme weather events incited by warming ocean temperatures, and infrastructure damage caused by floods and storms. For example, it’s estimated that Hurricane Harvey in Texas alone, which was intensified due to climate change, cost around $125 billion. As the planet continues to warm, we can expect to see these losses affect millions of American farmers, workers, and families losing their homes and livelihoods to a preventable crisis. Such economic disruption will only further marginalize low-income people, who are disproportionately people of color.
On the flip side, mobilizing to address the climate crisis can have vast economic benefits. Wind turbine technicians and solar installers are already two of the nation’s fastest-growing occupations, and the Green New Deal, the only policy proposal on the table that meets the scale of the climate crisis, promises to create millions of new good-paying jobs. Many American workers have already recognized the value of such policies: coal miners in West Virginia, for instance, are advocating for the Green New Deal as a vehicle to bring much-needed economic stimulation to their communities through a green jobs guarantee. In addition to uplifting individual workers, this type of policy would also offer critical macroeconomic benefits by setting a floor for wages and benefits across the labor market. A just transition that prioritizes the needs of those on the frontlines of poverty and pollution promises to distribute the benefits of this economic stimulus in an equitable fashion.
2. Climate Change Is Accelerating Immigration.
Much has been made, and should be made, of the Trump administration’s racist immigration policies; but we must also acknowledge the causes and circumstances that have encouraged, or forced, so many to leave their countries for another. Namely, climate change silently looms as the most powerful influencer of immigration in the twenty-first century. The immigrants that the administration’s proposed wall are meant to keep out are a case in point. Many of the Central American immigrants choosing to risk their lives to come to the United States are doing so because their native homes have become unlivable due to an increasingly chaotic climate. In 2018, over 2 million people in Central America experienced food shortages, in part due to climate-fueled drought. Additionally, Honduras, one of the main countries of origin for immigrants currently arriving in the United States, is also rated as one of the most weather-battered countries in the world, and ranks number two in the Global Climate Risk Index.
Such conditions are only expected to worsen in the coming years, for Honduras as well as the rest of the world. Experts predict that by 2050, 143 million people could be living as climate migrants, displaced from their homes by rising seas, failing crops, and water scarcity, to name but a few of the many climate-fueled instability factors at play.
These factors aren’t affecting us later: they’re affecting us now. And their impact is worldwide. There are already millions of climate refugees suffering today, including in the Middle East, where climate change was one of many triggering factors inciting the war in Syria. That conflict has created the largest refugee crisis of our time, with over 5 million Syrians forced from their homes. The connection to climate change is clear: in the years preceding the war, Syria faced an unprecedented, devastating drought that was exacerbated by global warming. As a result, people were displaced and desperate—conditions ripe for violence.
3. There’s No Climate Justice in the Criminal Justice System.
It’s no secret that the devastating effects of climate change are felt disproportionately by those with the least power in society. And it’s difficult to imagine a more marginalized group than those our society continuously dehumanizes through incarceration. We are finally, as a nation, beginning to reckon with the impacts of our criminal justice policies on communities of color, and we have substantial work to do to right these injustices. But, we still hardly hear about the intersection between mass incarceration and the effects of climate change. Those who are incarcerated are in fact subject to numerous climate-related environmental injustices, including:
- Toxic waste exposure. Over 80 percent of inmates at Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution, which is located in the center of a toxic waste dump and, as is also true of the U.S. prison system as a whole, is known for disproportionately incarcerating people of color, have reported experiencing severe respiratory afflictions. Such symptoms are consistent with the impacts of exposure to toxic coal waste. Additionally, an ICE detention center in California which has housed hundreds of immigrants in the United States’ latest iteration of mass incarceration was built on top of a superfund site. The EPA denotes an area as a “superfund site” when it is contaminated with hazardous or otherwise toxic waste which can have detrimental public health effects. People incarcerated at this specific ICE detention center report experiencing a wide array of toxic waste exposure-related illnesses.
- Labor exploitation during climate crisis response. As climate-fueled natural disasters become more common and stretch our emergency response capacity, exploitation of prison labor has been used in order to staff disaster response. For instance, during the climate-fueled wildfires that took place in California last fall, the state deployed incarcerated individuals as firefighters to help control the flames. These incarcerated firefighters were doing critically important, and very dangerous, work while being paid just $1 to $2 per hour. This injustice is aggravated by the fact that upon release, these inmates can’t apply their acquired skills in finding a job because California makes it practically impossible for formerly incarcerated people to become licensed firefighters. Such collateral consequences are common across the country, with 47,000 laws limiting people with criminal convictions from reintegrating into society. (My Next100 colleague Zaki is an expert on these issues.)
- Unsafe living conditions. While incarcerated firefighters labor on the outside, incarcerated folks stuck inside of prisons during natural disasters are often among those most impacted when such disasters strike. For instance, a report by the ACLU found that incarcerated people at the Orleans Parish Prison were among the worst-impacted by Hurricane Katrina: prison officials abandoned their posts, leaving those imprisoned there trapped in flooded cells during and after the storm. Such injustices have persisted in states across the country, including Florida, South Carolina, and Texas when hurricanes struck those states. The collateral consequences discussed above frequently extend these unsafe conditions well past the end of a person’s sentence: upon release, beset on all sides by limitations and structural discrimination, formerly incarcerated individuals are acutely vulnerable to homelessness, which increases their exposure to natural disasters and the impacts of extreme heat.
4. When the Climate Gets Sicker, So Do We.
While much of the recent public debate on health care policy has focused on Medicare for All and how to expand coverage—critical issues—we too often overlook the fact that many of the health threats we are facing today have been created, or massively amplified, by climate change. In 2016, the Zika virus brought panic and illness to my home state of Florida. I remember watching non-stop news coverage of emerging cases, hearing of babies being born with birth defects, and pregnant women fearful to travel. I felt a sense of dread for what was to come. The Zika outbreak offers a glimpse into a future in which people wearing masks in the street and attending mass vaccination drives is the new normal for communities ravaged by climate-fueled public health pandemics. Researchers have pointed to climate as an exacerbator of numerous insect-borne illnesses, including both Zika and Lyme disease. Warmer temperatures expand the areas where ticks and mosquitoes can reproduce, further broadening the areas in which they can spread disease. Some even argue that Zika could become a permanent threat in Florida due to warming temperatures.
It’s not just animal-borne illnesses that climate change will worsen. The Fourth National Climate Assessment projected that by the end of the century, heat-related deaths could cost the United States over $140 billion dollars. A report by the World Health Organization underscores and expands this conclusion: it found that between 2030 and 2050, hundreds of thousands of lives could be lost to climate-related health problems, including extreme heat exposure, malnutrition, malaria, and air pollution. Climate and air pollution also increase the likelihood of people developing asthma and allergies, as skyrocketing asthma rates in the Bronx, a borough of New York City, demonstrate.
The predictions are clear—if we continue to choke the planet with fossil fuels, millions will die. Taking action now to slow the onset of the climate crisis, including shutting down fossil fuel operations, will have immediate, widespread health benefits.
Reading the Signs—and Debating What to Do Next
It’s possible that in an ideal world, we wouldn’t need a climate debate. Our political leaders would simply discuss every issue in the context of the world as it is: in a state of planetary emergency that is exacerbating each of our other challenges. Moderators wouldn’t be pressured to ask more climate questions, they would simply ask questions that acknowledge that reality. And candidates would respond with policy solutions that speak to the intersecting crises of our time. But, to my dismay and the misfortune of humanity, we don’t live in an ideal world. The least we could do is have a climate debate.