Donald Trump, and the Slow Violence of Climate Change


Credit: National Wildlife Federation

While Donald Trump embraces the modern equivalent of playing the fiddle while Rome burns, the world is hurtling towards the Biocrisis.

In catastrophic times (Stengers, 2015) like these, apocalyptic scenarios have become the norm. We only have four years until our “carbon budget” is blown – according to McSweeney and Pearce (2016):

“Four years of current emissions would be enough to blow what’s left of the carbon budget for a good chance of keeping global temperature rise to 1.5C.”

1.5C being the target of the COP21 Paris climate conference that aims to “significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change” (Pearce, 2016; King & Henley, 2016) and thus avoid the threat of “runaway” climate change. Global greenhouse gas emissions need to peak within the decade before precipitously dropping for this target to ever be reached (Walsh et al., 2017).

Meanwhile the Antarctic ice shelves continue to crack and fragment (Mooney, 2017), potentially accelerating sea level rise, and a “massive global permafrost melt” is underway that will release huge amounts of carbon dioxide that were previously buried in the frozen soil (Knight, 2017; Kokelj et al., 2017).

As climate change accelerates the Trump administration embraces the largest driver of this death spiral – fossil fuels – by repealing climate change legislation and planting an ExxonMobil CEO as Secretary of State (Lavelle, 2017; Stokes & Bowman, 2017; Meyer, 2017). Trump will make “America Safe through Energy Independence” by decimating public lands with accelerated fossil fuel extraction (Streater, 2017).

Like a ghastly cannibal cult, in the words of Carl Sagan (1997), “we subsist on the dead bodies of our ancestors and distant relatives”.

While the greenhouse gas levels rise, so will the seas – and so will the number of refugees seeking safety and stable climates (Out of the Woods, 2016). Climate change will displace millions and “reshape” the coastal geography of countries (Hays, 2017; Hauer, 2017), a fact now admitted by conservative policymakers and security experts (although such concerns focus on the dangers of terrorism and the loss of coastal military bases) (Milman, 2016; Nett & Rüttinger, 2016; Goodman, 2017). Indeed the first ever grant for climate refugees was issued in the USA just last year, allocating $48 million for the residents of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana in what is “the first allocation of federal tax dollars to move an entire community of climate refugees” (Hunziker, 2016).


Scientists look down at a river of meltwater flowing from southern Greenland. Photo by Justine Evans/Alamy Stock Photo

As communities are forcibly relocated by the harsh realities of climate change, so too will others have their land stolen from them – except not by slow disaster, but by pipeline construction and fossil fuel extraction. Construction of the controversial Dakota Access pipeline was restarted by Trump recently (Brown, 2017), a week after a pipeline owned by pipeline equity co-owner Enbridge ruptured, spilling hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil in Texas (Horn, 2017). Sunoco, another player in the construction of the pipeline, has had hundreds of leaks (Hampton, 2016). The sheer number of pipeline spills, leaks, and failures in the USA is grotesquely astounding – thousands of incidents in the last thirty years, resulting in hundreds of deaths and billions in damages (Joseph, 2016).

Resistance and acts of sabotage against the Dakota Access pipeline continue to hamper its ability to reliably transport oil (Sexton, 2017; Nicholson & Karnowski, 2017).

Despite these struggles, pipelines are continuously being built in order to “unleash rich reserves of shale gas” so that the USA may “become one of the world’s top natural gas exporters” (DiSavino, 2017), despite problems concerning accurate shale gas reserve estimates and over hyped production forecasts (Rogers, 2013; Hughes, 2013). It is important to note at the forefront of these struggles, and those most affected by them, are indigenous populations (in the USA and the rest of the world), who still face an enduring legacy of colonialism and violence (Hall, 2017; Out of the Woods, 2017).

A Picture and Its Story: Documenting Standing Rock

“Water protectors” demonstrate against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters

It is the poorest and most vulnerable who, just as under capitalism, will suffer the most with climate change. As Malm and Hornborg (2014) write,

“…witness Katrina in black and white neighborhoods of New Orleans, or Sandy in Haiti and Manhattan, or sea level rise in Bangladesh and the Netherlands, or practically any other impact, direct or indirect, of climate change. For the foreseeable future – indeed, as long as there are human societies on Earth – there will be lifeboats for the rich and privileged. If climate change represents a form of apocalypse, it is not universal, but uneven and combined.”

Similarly Stengers (2015) writes of “the possibility of a New Orleans on a global scale” where the wealthy survive and the fate of the poor is left uncertain – “but as for the others…”. Just because all humans share one planet and one atmosphere does not mean we are in this together (Purdy, 2016). To believe so depoliticises climate change – the apocalyptic imaginations so frequent in the headlines today “foreclose a proper political framing” by presenting global warming as a “humanitarian cause” that “is not articulated with specific political programs or socio-ecological project or revolutions” (Swyngedouw, 2010).

As the wealthy get wealthier, carbon emissions grow (Jorgenson et al., 2017). An average US citizen “emits more than 500 citizens of Ethiopia, Chad, Afghanistan, Mali, or Burundi” (Malm, 2015). A wealthy individual’s carbon emissions may be ten times higher than a poorer person (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2010). But this is the exact economic and social class of people who, as Davis (2008) warns, are capable “of creating green and gated oases of permanent affluence on an otherwise stricken planet” as the rest of us suffer.

The world’s poorest countries have contributed less than 1% of the greenhouse gases that endanger our stable climate system (Steffen et al., 2011). So we should call climate change what it truly is – violence, genocide against the poor, and inaction equals annihilation (Solnit, 2014; Klare, 2017). Where can we draw our tales of resistance and hope to guide us into the future?

(As this is written the 410 ppm threshold for atmospheric carbon dioxide levels has been reached, the first time since millions of years ago (Kahn, 2017). We are in the Biocrisis, inundated in it. The Biocrisis is the Anthropocene.)


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Wilkinson, R., Pickett, K. (2010). The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. Bloomsbury Press, New York.


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