Confront the class behind climate change!

WW Commentary

Buffalo, New York

I returned on June 1 from a delegation to the People’s Republic of China, landing in JFK airport in New York City after nearly a month out of the country. On the train home to Buffalo, we were delayed by about two hours due to brush fires. I thought this was odd, having lived in Western New York my whole life. Wildfires were never something I remember having to be concerned with, but I didn’t think much of it.

When I arrived at the train station, the friend who picked me up mentioned how dry it has been, that it hadn’t rained at all in the weeks I’ve been gone. Again, I found it strange, because droughts are also not something we tend to deal with here. I brushed it off, thinking that maybe I just never paid it any attention. 

A few days later, I awoke to the comforting smell of what I thought was a campfire, not uncommon on Buffalo’s West Side in the summertime. But when I looked out the windows and saw the skies and streets thick with smog, I knew something was wrong. This was something I had only seen before on the West Coast.

With climate disasters intensifying across the U.S. and the planet, from California wildfires to more hurricanes in the Southern gulf, many people here have taken comfort in the idea of the northeastern U.S. being a sort of refuge from natural disasters, particularly near the Great Lakes. But vicious blizzards — like the ones that struck Buffalo this past winter, leaving over 100 people dead — and now the smoke from Canadian wildfires drifting down to choke the East Coast, shatter that illusion of safety.

Global warming is no hoax

It is crystal clear that climate change is deadly real, and that there is nowhere to hide from its disastrous effects.

Rising temperatures and lack of rainfall are causing wildfire seasons in the U.S. and Canada to begin earlier and last longer. The wildfires in Canada, which have been spreading for about six weeks, have burned through an area bigger than the entire state of Maryland. If this pattern continues, Canada will have its most destructive wildfire season in recorded history.

New York City climbed to the top of the list of worst air quality measurements in the world, peaking at an Air Quality Index rating between 350 and 400 on June 7, depending on the source of measurement. On the same day in Buffalo, the AQI reached at least 242. AQI is used by U.S. government agencies to measure air pollutants, with anything over 100 considered “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” over 150 considered “unhealthy” for everyone, over 200 “very unhealthy” and over 300 “hazardous.” 

At the time of this writing, on the afternoon of June 8, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia are being hit hardest, all with over 200 AQI, with the cities of Lebanon and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, topping 300. An increased rate of hospitalizations for people with respiratory issues has followed the week of smoke.

Just like with all disasters caused by imperialist monopoly capitalism — be they the climate catastrophe, war, poverty or hunger — the system breeds the problem, while individuals are left to fend for themselves. Unwilling to change the capitalist economic relations that underlie the problem, the ruling class’s only solution is to tell us to wear a mask or buy an air purifier, ignoring that many people lack the money or transportation to go out and buy a purifier.

Climate catastrophe and white supremacy

During the outbreak of COVID-19 (the pandemic which is ongoing but largely ignored by the government at this point), people were told to stay home to avoid exposure to the virus. The most vulnerable in our class are forced to commute across cities on public transport, compelled by economic necessity to work regardless of air quality or other factors. This leaves Black, Brown, Indigenous and migrant workers — and all workers who do not have the option to work from home — at a particular risk. Houseless individuals are also at high risk. 

This is just one way in which climate collapse is intimately tied in with systemic white supremacy and capitalist colonialism, as part of the global imperialist system with the U.S. ruling class at its helm. 

The archetypal force of imperialism — the U.S. military — is also one of the largest polluters on the planet. Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples and migrants have always faced the brunt of imperialist violence, as well as climate destruction. Meanwhile capitalists like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who are responsible for the mess, absorb themselves in their fantasies of a great escape to outer space, leaving the planet they’ve ravaged to burn to ash behind them.

The overwhelming majority of humanity — the working class and oppressed people of the world — cannot afford to be as shortsighted as their capitalist oppressors. We must understand that there is no easy escape for our class, and that the only way forward is a radical transformation in the mode of economic production. That is, a break from capitalist relations based on endless accumulation of profit and toward a socialist economy that puts the needs of the people and planet first and foremost.

This type of solution is possible, and many radically progressive measures have been taken by socialist countries, from the People’s Republic of China making a systemic transfer away from fossil fuels, to the countrywide effort toward mass reforestation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. 

Decades of industrial pollution have been turned back in just a few years in China. The sky’s the limit for what we can do through planning on a socialist economic foundation. Only this type of systemic approach can address climate collapse at the scope necessary to save the whole planet.

It’s not too late, but it will require a deliberate effort on our part. By “our” I mean the whole working class. Every one of us has a role to play, not simply by recycling or buying an electric car but by organizing with our co-workers and neighbors to put a stop to this system and usher in a new world in which we can all flourish.

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