OpEd: Time to change the system, not the climate

Note: This OpEd by Brattleboro resident and VWC field organizer Shela Linton was published today in the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. Linton and Senowa Mize-Fox of Burlington are representing the Vermont Workers' Center at the UN COP21 climate negotiations in Paris, as part of the It Takes Roots to Weather the Storm delegation.

Tomorrow kicks off the final week of negotiations here in Paris at the United Nations’ COP21 climate talks.

I’m here as one of two representatives of the Vermont Workers’ Center, joining a delegation of more than 100 grassroots leaders from the United States and Canada who have traveled to Paris to speak out against the proposed global climate agreement, which falls far short of what is needed to avoid global catastrophe.

Unlike many of the jet-setting conference-goers here in Paris, this is my first time crossing the Atlantic. I’m a single mom with two kids, born and raised in Brattleboro. Since I was a teenager, fighting for economic and racial justice has been a matter of survival. Through my work with the Vermont Workers’ Center and our national allies, I’ve come to see the interconnections between environmental and social justice issues and the need to build unity between our movements.

Our “It Takes Roots to Weather the Storm” delegation is here in Paris alongside thousands of others — peasant farmers, trade unionists, students, indigenous peoples, immigrants — who are raising the banner of “system change, not climate change.” We believe real climate solutions must address the root causes of climate change — breaking with the logic and institutions of capitalism, racism, and sexism, and building alternative visions based upon human rights and ecological stewardship.

Here in Paris, many of the proposals on the table will only serve to exacerbate social and environmental injustices. Rather than stopping pollution at the source, negotiators from the most powerful countries are pushing for markets in tradable carbon credits, which create pollution hot spots in low-income communities of color, and threaten land grabs in forested regions of the global south. Large-scale hydroelectric dams, agrofuels, waste and biomass incineration and even fracking are presented as forms of “sustainable” development, despite the grave impacts they have on the ground in local communities and ecologies.

From Paris to Montpelier, what’s missing is a frank acknowledgement that our grow-or-die market economy is fundamentally at odds with the interests of social justice and a livable planet. And given politicians’ vested interest in maintaining the status quo, it’s becoming clear that our very survival requires the kind of leadership and strategies that come from the grassroots.

In the United States, a growing chorus of grass-roots organizations and social movements are organizing for a “just transition” toward local, living economies where communities and workers are in charge. From Jackson, Miss., to Detroit, Mich., members of the Climate Justice Alliance and other networks are putting their heads together to develop real models of grassroots solutions that build on local strengths, culture and history.

The Climate Justice Alliance is calling on state and local governments to create millions of climate jobs, in areas like ecosystem restoration, durable and affordable housing, zero waste, regional food systems, clean community energy and public transit. These proposals would address the intertwined economic and ecological crises by providing family-supporting jobs to millions of unemployed people and mitigating climate change through reducing emissions while adapting our communities to extreme weather and economic shocks.

Vermont is already taking steps forward in many of these arenas. But without a transformative vision to address the root causes of climate change, these efforts will remain fragmented and ineffective. And so long as policymakers refuse to raise revenue from those who can afford it, green initiatives will only serve to reinforce existing inequities of income, wealth, and decision-making power.

Next May Day weekend (April 30-May 1, 2016), the Vermont Human Rights Council — an alliance of disability rights, racial justice, migrant justice, labor, and climate justice groups — is hosting a People’s Convention and Just Transition Assembly, bringing together hundreds of people to build a vision from the ground up of what an economy for people and the planet would look like in Vermont. I’m looking forward to contributing to that process through bringing new ideas and dedication back from Paris.

All my life I’ve seen my family and community struggle to meet our basic needs and survive under a system that doesn’t value our voices and our lives. And as Hurricane Irene demonstrated, the extreme weather associated with climate change is likely to compound the issues working class people are already dealing with.

Halfway around the world, far from my family and daughters, my main takeaway from Paris is that we can’t look to politicians to solve these issues for us. Generation after generation, grassroots social movements have gone up against insurmountable odds and won freedom and justice for our communities. It’s time for us to lead the way once again.