Why a focus on climate change and class struggle must be central to debates at COP28

COP28 opens in Dubai later in the week and debates about how to address the climate crisis are in the news. But in the air-conditioned halls of the conference centre there will be little talk of class struggle. Technical solutions dominate – offset markets, carbon capture and alternative energy technologies will be the focus of multiple panels and workshops. Hosted by a petrostate whose economy and politics is intimately linked to destructive fossil fuels, discussions about addressing the underlying causes of climate change in fossil fuel-dependent capitalism will likely be far from the agenda.

Yet, climate change is unquestionably an issue of class, power and privilege. As a recent Oxfam report has vividly shown, it is the ‘polluting elite’ that causes by far the most damage. Only 1% of the world’s population cause as many emissions as the poorest 66% of people on the planet. Climate in equalities are stark. Therefore, a focus on who causes the damage and why surely must be the focus of any climate debate.  

This is why a critical agrarian studies perspective is crucial. Drawing on diverse traditions of analysis, critical agrarian studies ask who controls resources and who benefits and who loses? Focusing on processes of accumulation and resulting social difference, questions of class, gender, race, livelihood and location are central concerns.  In debates about climate change these coalesce in rural worlds where some of the effects of climate change are most acutely felt, whether through droughts, floods, rising sea levels or heatwaves. Across the world it is rural people, many relying on the land for their livelihoods, who are often the most vulnerable to climate change. A focus on agrarian questions is therefore essential.

Rural livelihoods and climate change

A just-published open access book provides an important resource to inform these debates. Over 26 chapters and 678 pages, many examples examine the consequences of climate change for rural lives and livelihoods, creating, as a chapter from India suggests, ‘climates of uncertainty’ for rural people, resulting in, for example, livelihood practices of female migrants being redefined in terms of ‘climate refugees’, as another from Bangladesh chapter explores. The book’s chapters also raise important questions about what a ‘just transition’ entails, highlighting the agrarian struggles that ensue in post-coal energy transitions in diverse settings from the United States to India.

Together, the chapters highlight the differentiated nature of impacts and the complex patterns of vulnerability experienced as the climate changes, making a focus on the social causes of climate change and class conflict essential, as several chapters explain. For those reliant on land and natural resources to make a living, the consequences of climate change can be devasting. Even though it is the 1% who are causing most of the damage, and historically a select number of countries who have contributed most to emissions, it is those in marginal rural areas who are often the most exposed.

Climate solutions?

As well as documenting the devastating and differentiated consequences of the climate crisis, the book also examines the impacts of growing array of ‘climate solutions’ being deployed in agrarian settings – the many technical fixes being discussed in Dubai. Too often these are designed simply in terms of the efficacy of global emissions reduction, wrapped up in the policy frameworks of ‘net zero’, IMTO and the rest, in turn resulting in carbon offsetting schemes, afforestation projects, BECCSxx, alternative energy and an array of so-called ‘nature-based’ solutions, as a number of chapters explore. Remote sensing, big data and modelling techniques that are widely used to justify, plan and design such solutions frame rural worlds as spaces for climate intervention, as chapters on carbon accounting, ‘datafication’ and climate scenario development discuss. Through displacing responsibility for emissions reductions often to rural areas in far-off places, such approaches act not only to salve the consciences of the polluting elite, but impose impacts in rural areas, frequently in the global south. Such interventions thus may have major consequences for rural people, removing land, extracting resources and disciplining recipients as part of project protocols and plans.

Chapters in the book cover a wide range of examples of the impacts of such ‘solutions’, including the consequences of carbon forestry projects in China, investments in nature-based solutions in Peru and extraction of lithium for batteries across Latin America. External investors, supported by states, make deals with local elites to appropriate land and extract resources, creating new forms plantation as solar parks are established, for example. No surprise then, that class struggles ensue around carbon offset projects, mining investments and the installation of renewable energy infrastructure as land and resource access is reconfigured in the name of tackling the climate crisis, whose causes lie elsewhere.   

Contesting adaptation

As emissions continue, global temperatures rise and the climate changes, the imperative of adaptation has risen up the agenda. A plethora of adaptation projects are now central to climate responses in rural areas globally. Everything these days needs to be ‘climate smart’ it seems. Conservation agriculture, soil and water management, flood protection, tree planting, livestock management and so on are all incorporated into climate adaptation schemes, part of attempts to reduce the impacts of devastating climate change on rural societies. However, such efforts, now central to rural development investments the world over, may also have negative and uneven consequences, as chapters on Rwanda, Kenya and Ecuador explore.

The labour of adaptation efforts may be considerable and almost always falls unevenly, especially on women and the marginalised. Even when adaptation is ‘locally-led’ or ‘community-based’, the implications for who gains and who loses is important, as communities are never homogenous, unified entities. Once again, even seemingly benign adaptation interventions may precipitate class- and gender-based conflicts in the countryside. This in turn raises questions around what adaptation might look like if approached from below, when ‘nature’ is recast as territory, as part of alternative conceptualisations of environmental care or in the context of indigenous struggles over land, as a number of chapters explore.

Climate change, capitalism and agrarian struggles

The book’s introduction sets the scene and makes the case for linking debates about climate change with critical agrarian studies perspectives, examining both underlying causes in terms of the ruthless dynamics of capitalist accumulation and the resulting devastating differentiated impacts across regions and within societies. This requires a much greater focus on politics, power and, yes, class-based struggles in a highly unequal world. The introduction sets the scene:   

Climate change is perhaps the greatest threat to humanity today and plays out as a cruel engine of myriad forms of injustice, violence and destruction. The effects of climate change from human-made emissions of greenhouse gases are devastating and accelerating; yet are uncertain and uneven both in terms of geography and socio-economic impacts. Emerging from the dynamics of capitalism since the industrial revolution — as well as industrialisation under state-led socialism — the consequences of climate change are especially profound for the countryside and its inhabitants.

Complemented by an excellent new preface, the book is a compilation of articles published as part of the Journal of Peasant Studies’ forum on climate change and agrarian struggles. Many of the papers were presented at a major online conference on Climate Change and Agrarian Justice held over three days in September 2022, attended by just under two thousand people from 105 countries (check out some of the session recordings here). The concerns raised by the book, even if not central to the elite COP28 negotiations over the next couple of weeks, are, as the vigorous debates at the conference showed, a major concern amongst many engaged researchers and agrarian and environmental social movements across the world. As one chapter argues, this requires both the ‘environmentalisation of the agrarian question and the agrarianisation of the climate justice movement’, which in turn suggests a creative reimagining of a global post-carbon politics, the reframing of marketisation narratives and a recasting of climate security debates, as several further chapters outline.

Bringing this rich material together and making it open access thanks to support from the European Research Council provides the opportunity to inject a much-needed critical and agrarian focus into climate debates. Maybe not in Dubai, but certainly in the actions beyond. So please do download and read the book, and if you are heading to Dubai maybe some of the ideas can be introduced into the debate!

Download the book here: https://library.oapen.org/handle/20.500.12657/85297

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

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