Climate Justice and Movement Building: An Interview with Brian Tokar

Photograph Source: Fibonacci Blue – CC BY 2.0

Brian Tokar is an activist and author, Lecturer in Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont, and a board and faculty member of the Institute for Social Ecology. He is the author of several books, including Toward Climate Justice: Perspectives on the Climate Crisis and Social Change (Revised edition, 2014). He is also an editor, with Tamra Gilbertson, of the 2020 collection, Climate Justice and Community Renewal. His articles on environmental issues and popular movements have appeared in web-based publications such as CommonDreams, CounterPunch, and ZNet, as well as in more than ten recent books.


Adam Aron: What was your personal journey to focus on the ecological and climate crisis?

Brian Tokar: I was lucky enough to go to a high school in New York City that kids from all around the city can take a test to get into. It was very multicultural and it was a very political place. Then I went to university in Boston in the early 70s and became active in a variety of movements. Anti-war and anti-militarism were the main focuses and also anti-nuclear issues. US activism against nuclear power, really started here in New England and spread across the country.

The US government’s response to the Arab oil embargo was to say they were going to build hundreds of nuclear power plants and they were mostly in rural areas. And here in New England we saw an incredible alliance of people who had gone back to the land in the 1970s, with traditional rural dwellers and supporters from the cities. And it turned into a huge movement with some of the biggest civil disobedience actions in US history. It embraced the kind of decentralized organizing that, as a young person who was starting to read in social ecology, I increasingly saw as a big part of the solution – both in terms of confronting the issues at hand, but also in terms of the kind of social transformation that’s absolutely necessary. And at that time I started following energy issues very closely.

I was a graduate student in biophysics and I was reading the scientific press and was following accounts of early climate research. Even then the predictions for where we were headed were really astounding, but hardly anybody outside the scientific world knew about it, of course, until 10 years later, until the late 1980s. But that got me thinking about the climate predicament, its relationship to energy issues and its broader social and political implications.

Then, for many years, I focused on other things. For example I worked on toxic chemical issues during the years that environmental justice was just being formulated in the mid-1980s. Around 2005 I started learning about the emerging paradigm of climate justice and how people were making important connections to a much wider critique of the whole system as an extension of climate politics. And that’s really been my main focus ever since.

AA: Can you distill the concept of climate justice down to some essence?

BT: On the most basic level climate justice focuses on the disproportionate impacts of the climate crisis on the most vulnerable people in the world who are also the people who absolutely contribute the least to the problem of excess emissions of CO2 and all the other greenhouse gases, so it’s bringing a social justice lens to our understanding of the climate crisis. That compels us to focus on those disproportionate impacts and understand their implications on very many levels.

As I’ve written in my various books and articles over the years, climate justice brings together a number of distinct currents. Probably the predominant one around the world is from movements of indigenous and other land based peoples who most embody those disproportionate impacts and whose responses to climate disruptions have been incredibly important and inspiring around the world. Here in North America, many of the most articulate voices of climate justice come out of the long term environmental justice movement, which is of course mainly a movement of people from communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by environmental threats, starting in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. It began with issues of toxic chemical contamination and exposure to toxic waste facilities that had, in many cases been abandoned, but people were having to deal with the effects of long after the responsible companies had left their communities. That movement has continued to broaden over the years and has given us an understanding of the central role that race relations play in people’s disproportionate exposure to all environmental threats, including climate-related ones.

AA: Is the climate justice framing a strategically useful way to build a movement of movements?

BT: Yes. I would focus on two reasons. First, I think it brings the climate crisis closer to home when we’re able to focus on the ways in which it directly impacts on people’s lives. When I first got involved in climate politics in the mid 2000s, the effects that most people were talking about were very remote and ones that not everybody could really identify with. The polar bear was the primary symbol of the climate movement 15 years ago, and people generally like polar bears, but in terms of a sense of urgency, in terms of people’s priorities and the direct impact on people’s lives, the polar bear images are pretty remote. And focusing on the social justice dimensions really brings it home.

The second reason I think it’s an asset to the movement is that it focuses people’s attention on underlying systemic issues. And that contribution can be traced back to the late 1990s global justice movement, which I view as the third main current contributing to climate justice. It strengthens the climate justice lens and urges us to focus on the underlying causes of the problem, the ways in which the entire social and economic system that we live under perpetuates all the worst manifestations, the underlying causes of the accelerating disruptions to the climate system. And I think movements that focus on systemic causes are inherently more effective and have the potential to bring the kind of fundamental change that is absolutely necessary if we’re going to not only reduce emissions, but also craft a way of life that is conducive to living well under conditions of less pollution, less consumption and certainly much lower fossil fuel use.

AA: What’s the problem with market mechanisms and why is this a climate justice issue?

BT: For proponents of this approach, the market is the only way to modify human behavior. The reality is that the capitalist market is has always been very highly manipulated. The most powerful players, namely the largest corporations and financial institutions, really hold all the cards when it comes to operating within the constraints of the financial system. And we have to think outside the box and see how the neoliberal turn became all pervasive. The idea that we need to use the mechanisms of the market as an alternative to public policy is an approach that’s failed everywhere it’s been tried. And that’s true in climate policy as much as it is more broadly.

There have been attempts since the Kyoto Protocol was crafted in 1997 to use the market to mediate climate policy and it’s been an absolute failure. It has created loopholes and has made it possible for the most powerful players to continue business as usual, while putting up a smokescreen of responsibility. That’s, not to say that, under some carefully designed and controlled conditions that putting a price on carbon might not help bend some practices in the right direction. There’s a lot of debate about that within the climate justice movement. Some say, maybe it can work in a limited way. Others want to reject carbon pricing outright.

But certainly the buying and selling of pollution permits is problematic. It actually predates carbon trading, it goes back to policies established by the EPA as far back as the late 1970s. And it really became enshrined in federal policy with the Clean Air Act amendments under the George Bush Senior administration in the early 90s, where they allowed utilities to buy and sell permits to emit sulfur dioxide as a way of controlling acid rain. And when you compare the US acid rain program with measures against acid rain, for example in Europe, where they didn’t use emissions trading, where it was done strictly through regulation and other forms of public policy, they curtailed their sulfur emissions much, much faster. And there were fewer side effects and distortions resulting from the inherent manipulations of the trading system.

AA: What would you say is the proper role of technology in the climate crisis?

BT: Over the 40 odd years that I’ve been following energy policy there have been tremendous changes in technology. Back in the late 1970s solar energy was primarily the purview of hobbyists and inventors working on a very small scale. With the first public push for renewable energy, under the Carter administration, there were small solar companies. Then large concerns like General Electric started to buy them out and just ran them into the ground because they weren’t profitable enough.

It has all changed dramatically over just the last 5-10 years. Now the marginal cost of new electric generation from solar and wind is cheaper than any other source, and we’re approaching the point where it’s cheaper to build new solar and wind facilities than even to keep operating existing fossil fuel generating capacity. Battery technology is advancing at a phenomenal pace, for electric vehicles and larger scale energy storage, and all those technologies are part of the solution.

But they’re not the whole solution. I think we’re seeing the development of renewable energy being skewed in a way that favors gigantism, that favors the interests of large investors and large technology companies. And that’s a problem. We’re seeing more solar and wind energy being developed to add to existing energy production, rather than reducing fossil fuels in many, perhaps most cases. So in order to address those problems that again are built into the economic system, we need a much wider critique. We need to discuss how technologies are developed and controlled who owns them, in whose interests are they developed? We need to democratize the whole process of technological decision making, which is currently in the hands of huge corporations for the most part. Those actors will only continue to develop renewable energy to the extent that it’s profitable, and that’s the wrong criterion for a decision that has such profound implications for the future of life on earth.

AA: What is the relative importance of a top down statist response in the United States versus local engagement by the grassroots groups?

BT: It’s an important question because we know the US government has been in the pockets of big money and big industry for so long. Certainly one of the first things we need to accomplish is to undo those policies. The World Bank estimates there are three or $4 trillion a year in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry worldwide. The US is one of the main culprits. So we need to undo those bad policies. On the other hand, the US government is also a huge purchaser of goods and services. The more it can shift its priorities, its incentives and its purchasing towards toward renewable technology, that would over time very significantly lower the cost and make these technologies more widely available. But, ultimately, I think the more fundamental changes that are needed are invariably initiated at the local level and happen in spite of what the US government does or doesn’t decide to do. We currently have an administration in the US that has a significant progressive base that it is making some serious efforts to listen to. They are implementing policies that are significant steps in the right direction and that’s terrific, but that certainly wasn’t true before 2021 and it may or may not be true three years from now, or five years from now.

Serious change comes from the local level. The anthropologist Arturo Escobar calls it the radiating outward of changes that happen in many different ways in different locations around the world and social ecology proposes the development of confederations of liberated communities as a key part of this. We also know that changes at the local level have an incredible catalytic effect, even on US national policy. You know the fight for a $15 minimum wage started with a local initiative in Seattle. And other cities have been establishing their own climate policies in defiance of various administrations going back to George W. Bush.

We know that the basic environmental laws that we take for granted here in the US didn’t just come out of nowhere. Richard Nixon, who was the President in the early 1970s, did not have some kind of revelation that made him an environmentalist all of a sudden. He was an incredibly cynical, conniving, reactionary politician from the beginning to the end of his career. The environmental laws that he signed in the beginning of the 1970s were the result of many, many years of mobilization at the local level, and the passage of local anti-pollution measures throughout the country. There were major lawsuits against polluting corporations and the cumulative effect of all of that was a political climate, where eventually even he had to do something. The most powerful interests in this country agreed that they’d rather have a uniform set of rules at the national level than to keep having to fight these local battles over and over. That’s how we got the Clean Air Act. The Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and all the others. Changes initiated by movements organized from the local level outward can have a tremendous catalytic effect and, ultimately, I think are far more likely to bring us the kinds of fundamental changes that we ultimately need.

AA: What is Social Ecology and how does it inform your perspective on the response of the US to the climate crisis?

BT: Social ecology is a very holistic social and political outlook that starts with a strong ecological critique of business as usual. That helps us see how environmental problems are fundamentally social and political at their roots. It has a political strategy known as communalism. It advocates the kind of organizing from below, the kind of decentralized movement building that we’ve been talking about throughout this conversation, and ultimately it reclaims the best aspects of the hundreds of years tradition of utopian thought.

When talking about the climate crisis, the first thing social ecology offers is to insist that we need to focus on the systemic dimensions of the problem; on the institutions that are responsible; on the structures of capitalist economics that have made things the way they are, and the obstacles to the realization of real alternatives that the system continues to lay before us. And it also encourages us to develop our movement organizations to follow an image of the kind of society that we want to live in. We want cooperation instead of competition, harmonious relationships among people and communities and the rest of nature, as opposed to hostility and competition. This goes back to the anti-nuclear movement in the seventies and the global justice movement in the nineties, as we’ve seen. Policies must be shaped by the needs of people in communities, not by the current dominant institutions, not by panels of experts, although we certainly need to have our understanding informed by the best available knowledge. Social ecologists have a fundamental critique of the origins and evolution of relationships of hierarchy and domination at all levels of society and we try to understand what makes them work and how we can transcend them. Social ecology is very consistent, for example, with community based popular control over energy systems and technology as well as over the economy more broadly.

AA: Do you sometimes feel defeated by the social scale of what is needed to deal with the ecological and climate crisis? How do you sustain yourself through those down periods?

BT: It can feel like the climate system is operating on a clock that is unrelenting and it doesn’t slow down even when we pass a small measure that helps us move in the right direction. We really do need to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels and other destructive industries and sometimes that seems impossible. Sometimes the obstacles seem overwhelming, but what gets me through it is looking back at the broad history of social movements. And the tremendous changes that we’ve seen over the last century, even in the 60 plus years that I’ve been around we’ve seen changes happen that were once viewed as impossible. And I have a lot of confidence that when people organize, when people build movements that are resilient and build communities that are able to think ahead to different ways of organizing our lives, I think the potential changes are quite dramatic and I think the possibility of things changing more quickly in the future is very real. We’ve certainly seen that over the year of the coronavirus pandemic where things have happened fairly quickly; we now have a consciousness that profound change is really possible and that it can happen quite quickly. And in both the distant past and the recent past we’ve seen improbable changes happen.

AA: So you gain sustenance from just looking at the fact that there is a burgeoning mass movement dotted about the world?

BT: Absolutely. When we started organizing around climate justice back in the early period of 2006 to 2009 it was mostly just an idea. Now there are local groups and national scale groups all over the world that strongly identify with the mission of climate justice and are finding ways to implement these ideas in their own communities in their own countries. They are forcing politicians and the powers that be, to change the way the way decisions are made and to ultimately shift things toward a much more survivable direction.