The great tragedy of the climate crisis is that we have the solutions to slow and reverse warming. We know it is happening, and there is a broad international consensus in favour of action. Even the economics is on the side of positive change now, with clean energy hitting price parity in key markets around the world.
Unfortunately technologies and policies do not compete in a neutral space. The market is heavily biased towards the energy incumbency of fossil fuels, and their power structures have a disproportionate influence on politics too. From aviation expansion to cattle ranching, it is difficult to persuade people to stop doing something if it is making them a lot of money.
There was a particularly naked example of this recently in Phoenix, Arizona. As I’ve written about in the past, Phoenix is sometimes described as the least sustainable city in the world. It doesn’t really have any business maintaining a large population in the middle of the desert, and it’s only been possible because of fossil fuels. There have been attempts to reduce the city’s environmental impact and make it more resilient, including a light rail system. And then comes Proposition 105.
This local proposal would have cancelled the planned light rail expansion. It would have banned the city from any further construction, expansion or improvement of the network. Basically, the city would not be able to spend any more money on light rail, with funds redirected into other transport infrastructure such as roads.
On the face of it, the campaign was run by businesses in the south of the city. They objected to roads being reduced from four lanes to two, in order to accommodate the light rail lines and inter-connecting bus rapid transit lines. But behind the scenes was the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, which in turn is funded by the fossil fuel magnates the Koch Brothers.
I don’t know anything about local politics in Arizona, so I can’t comment on whether or not the local businessmen had a legitimate grievance. But it’s clear that oil money saw the opportunity and got involved. Cancel the expansion and tie the city’s hands on light rail in the future, and you can secure a captive market for cars in the years to come. This has happened before, with bus and rail projects successfully killed off in Nashville, and buses in Little Rock, Arkansas. High speed rail plans have been cancelled in several states, and even bike share schemes have proved weirdly controversial. It happens with renewable energy too, with well funded campaigns rounding on public support for solar or wind power.
When campaigners go from door to door, the arguments against public transport are always about money: they’re a waste, a ‘boondoggle’, or ‘corporate welfare’. They are contrasted to cars and the ‘freedom’ of private motoring. But the ultimate winners are always the same: the car and oil companies and their shareholders. And those missing out are always the same: people who can’t afford a car, or who live in lower income areas on the outskirts of the city. Often these are black and ethnic minority communities, as is the case in Phoenix. The planned southern extension would serve black and Latino neighbourhoods.
In Phoenix, the motion was defeated in a referendum at the end of August. 62% of the city voted no, meaning the expansion can continue. Light rail can play an ongoing role in connecting the city, as well as lowering its carbon emissions and air pollution.
It’s good to be able to report a victory in this case, but this is a situation repeated across the world. In Britain, it’s over airport expansion, fracking, and North Sea oil. It is easy to overplay the role of vested interests and see corporate conspiracy everywhere. Others fail in the other direction, and dismiss those arguments as paranoia or anti-corporate propaganda. Others just ignore power altogether, and I read plenty of books on climate change that present the problem as technological rather than political.
As events in Phoenix show, but also in Heathrow’s third runway plans or ongoing fracking operations in Britain, the powers lined up against climate change action are real. They must be acknowledged and confronted, because climate change is a major cause of suffering already. Climate denial and obstructing the transition to a sustainable future ought to be seen as crimes against humanity.