Why UConn Needs a strong climate justice movement

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Summer, coming to a swift, torrential close as you read this, is leaving in its wake an unspoken yet overwhelming sense of despair for climate activists. We don’t speak of this despair due to a cycle all too familiar to anyone who has sat down to conceptualize the enormity of the political, social, and cultural tasks necessary to mitigate climate catastrophe in a realistic time frame (read: urgently and immediately). That is, despair begets nihilism, nihilism begets inaction, and inaction begets further despair for more of our friends, family, and community members. Upon reaching a critical mass of bemoaning would-be activists submitting to ecological collapse, the cycle ends. In its infernal drive to consume the riches of our world, capitalism distributes them into the ashy hands of the wealthy ruling class, leaving bitter smoke for the rest of humanity. Should our social organizations fail to stop fossil fuel emitters from pursuing profit over the security and health of the biosphere, the consequences will be outsized and numerous.

Hurricane Ida, which is battering North America from New York to Louisiana, is amplified by rising ocean temperatures. The latter, in conjunction with a heightened sea level, will render stronger hurricanes a staple of the climate catastrophe. Observing Texas’ disastrous handling of its own brush with irregular weather, a nearly anomalous snowstorm that shut down 70% of the state’s privately-owned electricity grid and indirectly led to the deaths of over 100 unhoused, innocent people, we can posit with a reasonable degree of certainty that many of our neighbors will be snagged by the consequences of two centuries of industrial exploitation of the earth. 

Climate scientists are also concerned with the current state of the Amazon rainforest — previously a sink of CO2 emissions, now a net emitter of them, largely due to forest fires ripping through indigenous communities meant to make space for cattle farms

Other consequences of climate change will include drought, crop failures potentially cutting off food sources from billions, and forest fires across dry, warm regions such as California. This fate could spell devastation in the short interval — mass extinction in the long interval.

We are not yet, however, at a point of futility; according to the highly visible report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The time to eliminate industrial and commercial greenhouse gas emissions and transition to renewables is now, lest we miss the opportunity through circular arguments in Congress, the Oval Office and in state and local governments. The report prescribes “limiting cumulative CO2 [carbon dioxide] emissions, reaching at least net zero CO2 emissions,” and “Strong, rapid and sustained reductions in CH4 [methane] emissions” to slow future climate change. Extinction is only a possibility if we fail to act; this is why the University of Connecticut community must cultivate a radical and unified environmental justice movement. 

As individuals, our impact on the trajectory of the climate crisis is insignificant, to be charitable; as a collective, however, the future that today seems impossible could tomorrow become a reality. Let us take a deep breath, reorient, and picture ourselves as singular points within a community of multitudes — an exercise I have to do often to stave off climate despair. If you are reading this, you are likely part of the UConn community — one which can possess a great deal of power if its arsenal is wielded properly. Institutions of living and learning such as the university are not only weathervanes for impending social change, but mechanisms by which we may bring about transformations in social understanding and social practice. 

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), spearheaded by Black student activists in the Jim Crow South, was a student organization critical to mobilizing support for the Black Liberation movement of the 1960s. Born out of Freedom Ride demonstrations and  student sit-ins to protest lunch-counter segregation, the SNCC quickly became deeply woven into the network of grassroots civil rights activism. SNCC, partnered with the anti-imperialist organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), also made inroads into the anti-war movement, popularizing such slogans as “Hell no, we won’t go!” in opposition to the drafting of Black students and workers into an unjust war that claimed the lives of at least two million Vietnamese civilians. SNCC, being the most well-staffed civil rights organization at its peak, challenged a racist cultural and legal structure not by working within it, but by confronting it head on and winning through a sophisticated network of attorneys, alternative media publications, demonstrators, and friends phone and radio equipment. Such a legacy of versatile and unrelenting solidarity with oppressed people at home and abroad should be taken to heart when UConn students visualize our fight against the existential threat of climate collapse.

The UConn community is in a unique position to demonstrate that systemic changes to our relationship with the climate is not a dead-end; rather, it is one of exquisite possibility. Environmental justice groups on campus such as UConn Fridays for Future and Eco-Husky have been eager to organize around mitigating climate change, whether it be with national actions or localized ones, such as an initiative to stop the renovation of the natural gas cogeneration facility providing power to campus in order to cut our dependency on fossil fuel energy. Climate courses at UConn such as the pop-up course, “Climate Crisis: Take Action” explicitly names the relationship between capitalism, colonialism, and global climate change, which seems like a bold choice for a school whose Board of Trustees chairperson, Dan Toscano, is a managing director at Morgan Stanley Bank.

While these initiatives are a fantastic start and absolutely worth pursuing, they represent only a small fraction of the ways in which the United States’ addiction for fossil fuels manifests itself; UConn’s public transportation system, homogenous ecology, investments in the fossil fuel industry and overall energy consumption are all factors to seriously take into account. Furthermore, it is integral that we understand UConn, too, as yet another point in the massive network that is the Northeastern power grid. While it is not possible to reach net-zero carbon emissions without a transformation within our institution, we cannot reach net-zero through our institution alone.

With all this in mind, what must we make of this? The notion of climate activism is so large as to make one’s knees buckle; my brain has a tendency to recoil before any attempt to piece together a summary of how we the people can wage a successful campaign against fossil fuel corporations, investment/finance capital, the military-industrial complex and their representatives in government. This is the first and most important testament to why the UConn community must unify into one active climate justice movement.

We don’t have time to sit about and contemplate solutions individually; by the time every activist has read the right books and listened to the smartest podcasts, we won’t have much more to save. A unified climate justice movement means that we formulate solutions unique to our local material conditions collectively — that is, through a dialogue that taps into a wealth of experience and research to democratically form a line of action; that our friends and comrades with hold us to our collective agreements line instead of allowing splits over petty spats; that we have the numbers both to affect change and to build the organizational infrastructure to secure more victories in more places throughout the state; that we will carry the spirit of SNCC and SDS through the struggle with us. 

This is a call for a movement as opposed to an endorsement of one because, as far as united fronts against ecological destruction by the ruling class go, UConn, let alone the state of Connecticut, does not have one. While a variety of organizations exist and operate under the modus operandi of climate justice, none pose a significant challenge to the very real threat of our dependency on fossils fuels, whether it take the form of a cogeneration facility at our school, or plans for a fracked gas plant in Killingly, Connecticut, which will include a pipeline over wetlands being rehabilitated by the Department of Energy and Environment Protection (DEEP). The bleak reality is that these initiatives can go underway because they have no opposition on the ground, especially if we confine ourselves to the cramped realm of liberal politics. Justice was endemic to the civil rights movement in spite of its fundamental antagonism with a white supremacist economic, political, and legal structure. In the face of the existential threat of runaway climate change, the climate justice movement cannot be content with operating inside the norms of a world dominated by fossil fuels. Instead, it has to overturn them, amounting to a radical transformation of all elements of industrial society, including agriculture, transportation, infrastructure, and economic growth, all of which are topics deserving of their own op-ed. As suggested by the term, our job is to create movement from one point as opposed to rotation around it.

In sum, the UConn community needs to recognize the short and long-term significance of organizing in a united front against the root causes of climate change. The technology to drastically reduce carbon emissions and the industrialized world’s consumption of energy is already here globally; what doesn’t exist, however, is the motivation of people in power to implement these technologies and methods of societal change. The job of a climate justice movement — the reason for which it is a movement and not an event — is to give leaders no choice but to succumb to collectively-crafted public demands. We will settle for nothing now to prevent submitting to nothing later.

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