Thea Riofrancos: Ignore the screen behind me. I’ll get there. 

Hi, I’m Thea Riofrancos, and my talk today which I think is enti­tled A Global Green New Deal though I don’t remem­ber, some­thing like that, also draws on A Planet to Win, which was already men­tioned, and some of my cur­rent research on lithi­um and elec­tric vehi­cle sup­ply chains across the world. 

So, the Green New Deal, usu­al­ly thought of as a domes­tic pol­i­cy. Thought of as a pol­i­cy to rad­i­cal­ly, and quick­ly, aggres­sive­ly decar­bonize with­in the US, paired with a suite of social poli­cies to lift up working-class and poor peo­ple in the US. But what I’d like to argue today is that we should think of the Green New Deal in glob­al terms for sev­er­al reasons. 

In a world of globally-dispersed sup­ply chains, an ener­gy tran­si­tion in the United States has impli­ca­tions for the extrac­tion, pro­duc­tion, and dis­tri­b­u­tion of resources and tech­nol­o­gy in places well beyond US bor­ders. So-called clean tech­nolo­gies such as lithi­um bat­ter­ies and elec­tric vehi­cles, wind tur­bines and solar pan­els, are made of min­er­als extract­ed from the Earth, man­u­fac­tured in fac­to­ries that still use dirty ener­gy, and shipped through a carbon-intensive logis­tic network. 

Each of these nodes are sites of envi­ron­men­tal harm, vio­la­tions of indige­nous rights, and labor exploita­tion and repres­sion. So in this con­text, it appears at first glance that there’s a stark trade­off between the urgent goal of decar­boniza­tion in the United States or any­where in the world, and our oth­er social and envi­ron­men­tal val­ues. The inevitable imbri­ca­tion of a domes­tic ener­gy tran­si­tion in a deeply unequal glob­al econ­o­my thus rais­es the ques­tion, can a Green New Deal be glob­al­ly just? I’ll argue, and we argue in our book, that it can be and also that it must be. 

Climate jus­tice is an inter­na­tion­al­ist plan­e­tary vision. The cli­mate cri­sis does­n’t stop at US bor­ders and nei­ther should our vision for how to address it. Further, it’s vital that the low-carbon world that we need to build does­n’t repro­duce the inequal­i­ties, dis­pos­ses­sions, and exploita­tions of fos­sil cap­i­tal­ism or the colo­nial cap­i­tal­ism on which fos­sil cap­i­tal­ism is built, where some lives are val­ued more than oth­ers and some pay the costs, social and envi­ron­men­tal, for the well­be­ing of others. 

I also want to argue, though, that in addi­tion to these rea­sons that are sort of found­ed in our polit­i­cal com­mit­ments to inter­na­tion­al­ism and glob­al jus­tice, that the sup­ply chains that pro­duce the tech­nol­o­gy that we need to build a low-carbon world are also par­tic­u­lar­ly con­crete and polit­i­cal­ly fruit­ful sites for pol­i­cy inter­ven­tion and grass­roots mobilization. 

So I think in gen­er­al we’re used to think­ing of the kind of inter­na­tion­al realm of cli­mate pol­i­tics. We kind of envi­sion things like the Paris Agreements, right, so these rel­a­tive­ly closed-door nego­ti­a­tions where most­ly elite actors are fig­ur­ing out how to like, not decar­bonize, basi­cal­ly. Or not com­mit to any­thing bind­ing. And that’s not in my view a very fruit­ful way to advance glob­al cli­mate jus­tice. And I think kind of com­pared to those sites, the sup­ply chains that build our renew­able ener­gy and clean tech­nolo­gies actu­al­ly offer a lot of oppor­tu­ni­ties for pro­mot­ing social justice. 

So, what if instead of the kind of Paris Agreement vision we thought of these globally-dispersed and materially-grounded pro­duc­tion of renew­able ener­gy as a ter­rain for both left pub­lic pol­i­cy and also for new forms of transna­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty. Seen from this per­spec­tive, a whole new range of tools, mech­a­nisms, and polit­i­cal strate­gies come into view. 

The first of those is trade pol­i­cy. For decades, trade pol­i­cy has been com­plete­ly coopt­ed by the erroneously-called Free Trade Agreements, which enable per­haps the easy move­ment of goods, invest­ment, cap­i­tal, and finance, but by that same token encour­age a race to the bot­tom for labor and envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions, rein­scrib­ing the neo­colo­nial world system. 

What if instead our trade agree­ments pro­mot­ed indige­nous and work­er rights and ecosys­tem integri­ty; account­ed for the car­bon emit­ted in pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion; and facil­i­tat­ed access to tech­nol­o­gy and eco­nom­ic redis­tri­b­u­tion between the Global North and Global South. 

The grow­ing trade in lithi­um, cobalt, elec­tric vehi­cles, solar pan­els, and every­thing else that we need to build a low-carbon soci­ety pro­vide an open­ing for a left vision of trade, defined against both neolib­er­al­ism and new forms of right-wing revan­chist isolationism. 

But we also know that bet­ter pub­lic poli­cies and new forms of coop­er­a­tion between gov­ern­ments, how­ev­er well-intentioned, are nev­er enough to remake the world order. We also need to change the way that we con­sume as well as build new grass­roots alliances across borders. 

So first, con­sump­tion. This is a very tricky ques­tion for the left, and I apol­o­gize that I missed the ear­li­er pan­els but I assume it was some­thing that was addressed. We’re all aware that con­sump­tion is high­ly unequal, as are of course con­tri­bu­tions to emis­sions and envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion. We know that the con­spic­u­ous over­con­sump­tion of the rich and the reck­less prac­tices of pri­vate firms are the main cul­prits of the cli­mate cri­sis. But we also know that all of us need to con­sume dif­fer­ent­ly to build a low-carbon world. Fewer cars and more mass tran­sit, less meat and more veg­eta­bles, and over­all shift­ing away from leisure defined as dri­ving and shop­ping to low-carbon forms of pub­lic luxury. 

It also turns out that our con­sump­tion choic­es, which are nev­er indi­vid­ual but always the result of insti­tu­tions, poli­cies, and the bal­ance of class pow­er, mat­ter tremen­dous­ly for the sup­ply chains I’ve been dis­cussing. To take lithi­um bat­ter­ies in par­tic­u­lar, the more we can engage in col­lec­tive con­sump­tion, rid­ing elec­tric bus­es togeth­er instead of dri­ving indi­vid­ual Teslas, the less mined resources we use. Ditto for the more we can reuse and repair instead of dis­card­ing goods that are man­u­fac­tured for obso­les­cence. Lithium bat­ter­ies that are no longer pow­er­ful enough to charge a bus work just fine for bat­tery stor­age on the renew­able grid. 

And last but not least I would like to under­line the impor­tance of sol­i­dar­i­ty across bor­ders. Supply chains may be cur­rent­ly struc­tured by the needs of cap­i­tal, but they also always offer oppor­tu­ni­ties for work­ers and com­mu­ni­ties to exer­cise lever­age. Scholars of sup­ply chains and logis­tics net­works call these choke­points. The extrac­tion of raw mate­ri­als and the man­u­fac­tur­ing and trans­porta­tion of goods are also always poten­tial sites of protest, dis­rup­tion, and labor strikes. 

And, as with any form of social mobi­liza­tion, the denser the hor­i­zon­tal alliances are between work­ers and com­mu­ni­ties across these nodes, the more pow­er­ful they are, and the more like­ly they can stall or obstruct rapa­cious forms of extrac­tion and force boss­es to respect their rights. 

So here and kind of briefly I’m gonna piv­ot to a bit of my research on lithi­um extrac­tion in Chile in par­tic­u­lar as one kind of site of a broad­er project on the sup­ply chains of elec­tric vehi­cles. So for those that are not aware, this might be sort of redun­dant for folks in the room, but I just like to give a sense of the pro­ject­ed demand for lithi­um, which is a mined resource. It’s mined from brines, which I’ll talk about in a moment. It’s also mined from clay deposits and hard rock for­ma­tions depend­ing where in the world. And you can see that we’re on an upward trajectory. 

Though it’s also kind of interesting—I don’t com­pli­cate things too much, but we haven’t actu­al­ly entered this tra­jec­to­ry quite yet. It’s sort of like, each year it’s like next year we’re gonna see the sort of extreme increase in demand for lithi­um and for bat­ter­ies and elec­tric vehi­cles, and we haven’t quite got­ten to that world yet. And that’s pri­mar­i­ly because the pol­i­cy envi­ron­ment has­n’t incen­tivized mass adop­tion of elec­tric vehi­cles, some­thing that our indus­tri­al pol­i­cy folks can talk to us more about. 

But any­way, regard­less the idea’s we’ll need a lot more lithi­um and cobalt and nick­el and all of the mined resources that go into lithi­um bat­ter­ies and elec­tric vehi­cles much more­so as time moves for­ward. And we could at any moment enter the sort of tip­ping point or have a dra­mat­ic uptake in elec­tric vehicles. 

Chile is where I chose to do my ini­tial field­work and it’s one of the top kind of three exporters of lithi­um on the glob­al mar­ket right now. And it turns out that lithi­um extrac­tion is very envi­ron­men­tal­ly destruc­tive in addi­tion to pos­ing harms to indige­nous rights and liveli­hoods. So, one of the main issues with lithi­um extrac­tion espe­cial­ly in brine deposits—and I’ll show you some images momentarily—is that it actu­al­ly involves suck­ing water out of the Earth, right. It’s brine so it’s salt­wa­ter, it’s not water that we would drink but it is water that microor­gan­isms live in and that oth­er ani­mals feed on, and in the process of extract­ing brine it also actu­al­ly results in low­er­ing the the fresh­wa­ter table that humans and farm­ers and all of us need for drink­ing and agriculture. 

So just to give you a sense of what things look like in the Atacama Desert in Chile, which is by the way the second-driest place on Earth after Antarctica, so water scarci­ty is a par­tic­u­lar­ly kind of fraught issue. That’s what it looks like… [record­ing cuts short]

Further Reference

Climate Futures II event page