Climate Change Shifts Small Towns to the Frontlines

If you've spent as many hours in meetings and on phone calls with climate change activists as I have for the past few years, you'll have heard the word “frontline” a lot. It typically refers to communities and people who are currently dealing with the direct impacts of fossil fuel extraction, tranportation and burning. Many of these people have been marginalized over the years because of their race, class, culture, or creed, and because of that history, have been saddled with the refuse of our fossil-fuel intensive economy: mines, incinerators, pipelines, toxic manufacturing plants, nuclear waste, refineries, and/or coal-fired power plants.

People in the Coal River Valley of West Virginia, for example, have been fighting to end mountaintop removal coal mining, and all its attendant sludge dams, property destruction, toxic runoff, and more, for many years. I remember visiting Whitesville, a ramshackle town on a winding road in the middle of the state as a college student almost 10 years ago, taking photos of what had previously been a majestic mountain, but now looked like a great bombed-out hole in the woods with toxic sludge filling the valley next to it, held back by a leaky earthen dam 200 feet behind the local elementary school. It was powerful and shocking, and though many of the local people fighting against mountaintop removal mining were poor, threatened and marginalized by the coal companies and nearly every local, state and national government official, they had managed to inspire thousands outside their communities to stand with them. It was clear to me, and to many other young college students who have since wound their way through West Virginia to meet with movement legends like Larry Gibson and Maria Gunnoe, that this pitched battle, and the many others like it, is an early warning sign for a larger war between civilization and the fossil fuel industry. Those tireless West Virginians are literally at the front lines of that fight.

I'm not one to use war metaphor lightly—my Jewish grandparents lived through World War II in Nazi-occupied Romania, and still talk about that era as if it had passed just a few years ago—but I can't seem to find any other suitable metaphor. On one side are the robber barons of oil, coal and gas, who take advantage of the most vulnerable people in our country while dumping carbon into the atmosphere for free and rigging the political system in their favor. On the other side are those same vulnerable people, largely poor, black, brown and young, a few enlightened elders, a bevy of nerdy scientists. If the fossil fuel companies were even remotely interested in becoming energy companies, investing in solar, wind, geothermal and efficiency instead of coal, oil and gas, this wouldn't even be a war. But as it turns out, their business model depends on burning carbon until there isn't any left to burn, and so we have a real fight on our hands, albeit an uneven one. As Bill McKibben writes in Rolling Stone, “It's obvious how this should end.”

Economists often talk about the benefits that the industrial revolution brought to human civilization, but the costs of our 100-year dalliance with the fossil economy couldn't be higher: hundreds of mountains blown up for coal; thousands of leaky hydrofracking wells popping up on farms and in forests to harvest gas; millions of acres of boreal forest stripped and turned into what looks like Mordor to mine tar sands for oil; billions of gallons of toxic oil spilled from tankers and deepwater driling rigs into our oceans; human health catastrophes from a cancer epidemic on the Gulf Coast to an asthma epidemic in nearly every community near a coal-fired power plant. Most of these costs are borne by people already marginalized in our country, and so the geography of this war has largely played out in those mountains and forests, in those valleys and industrial zones. But the geography of this war is changing.

Impossibly, climate change makes the stakes even higher everywhere, because carbon dioxide doesn't care to stay where its emitted. Whether it's from a coal plant in Beijing, a refinery in Baton Rouge or a tailpipe in Bangalore, it heats the planet everywhere. That heat doesn't impact everybody equally (at least not yet), but it does change the makeup of that small group we call “frontline” communities. It's not just the indefatigable appalachians who live in the coalfields or indigenous people fighting tar sands anymore—it's the people of Kiribati, whose government recently purchased a tract of land in Fiji to resettle their population as the seas rise; it's millions of people in Pakistan who in 2010 were rendered homeless when record floods washed away much of the country; it's working class people whose lives and livelihoods were washed away by Hurricane Sandy. Fossil fuel companies are no longer just responsible for the innumerable human rights and environmental catastrophes involved with business-as-usual; we now know they're changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere by dumping carbon into it, putting civilization as we know it at risk.

It's hard to see this as anything but a war—one in which Mother Nature is on both sides of the battlefield, and one in which most people who don't work for fossil fuel companies, and especially those on the front lines, are bound together whether we like it or not. It's clear from the past year of record heat, droughts, fires, floods and storms worldwide, that our understanding of “frontline” is outdated. Nobody in Breezy Point, Queens, a working-class neighborhood largely populated by NYC police and firefighters, had every thought of themselves as the “frontline” of the climate fight, for good reason: they weren't. But Hurricane Sandy flooded their neighborhood, and an electrical fire burned down their homes as they watched, unable to do anything to stop it.

The people of Breezy Point don't resemble most frontline communities: there isn't any fossil fuel infrastructure near them, they're largely white and middle-income, and they live in the wealthiest city in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest country in the world, and yet in a climate tweaked by the fossil fuel industry, they are a new frontline in this war. Like so many thousands of other communities dealing with the impacts of climate change, and the millions more who will be impacted directly around the world in coming years, they are part of the new geography of the frontlines.

My point here isn't to render meaningless the word frontline, or to disparage any community, large or small, that is fighting back the fossil fuel industry. Those courageous battles have been critical to inspiring a broad, diverse coalition in nearly every country on the planet to fight for a safe climate, and the leaders of those struggles have taught us so many lessons along the way. Now is the time to take those lessons and build a powerful, unified movement, strong enough to win the war so we no longer have to fight one pipeline at a time, one mountain at a time, and one coal plant at a time. Every person in this movement has his or her own truth, and each battle we fight together for a safe planet is worthy and authentic in its own way.

As the geography of this war is changing, our movement must change too. Let's fight together so we have a chance to win.

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