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

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.