If the slaves were alive today they would seriously beg to differ.
. . . To invent a language for climate change, we might start with the historical analogy of slavery, which flourished during the Tambora climate emergency two centuries ago. Like our future under climate change, slavery was a human-designed global tragedy that lasted centuries, displaced tens of millions of people, and reorganized the wealth and demographics of the planet. Like climate change, slavery institutionalized the suffering of millions of people from the global south so that folks in Europe and North America (and China) might lead more comfortable, fulfilling lives. And like climate change, few people at the time saw slavery as a serious problem. Even those who did believed nothing could be done without bringing about global economic ruin. That exact argument is used today to defend the continuation of our fossil-fuelled societies.
Some historians have argued that it was the harnessing of carbon energy—not the abolitionists—that truly made an end to slavery possible in the 19th century. But in a dark historical irony, that same carbon energy, as a pollutant altering the chemistry of the atmosphere and oceans, is now ushering in a new era of global slavery. Millions this century, living and yet unborn, face displaced lives without hope or freedom of choice, only desperate hardship, due to haywire changes in weather patterns.
Does that make climate change the new slavery? One thing we can say with “high confidence,” to use the lingo of the IPCC, is that even now—as the U.N. panel marks its quarter-century anniversary with its fifth and most dire report—there is no international climate change movement comparable to abolitionism. For one thing, we don’t even have a name for the millions of people across the world who are passionately committed to the cause of averting climate disaster. Even Bill McKibben, probably the most effective climate activist in the United States, when branding his organization, could do no better than a number—350, the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere we need to return to for climate safety.
Given that climate activism is faring so badly in the public-relations stakes, perhaps it’s time to brush off the old slogan that worked so famously well for the abolitionists, the rallying cry of the greatest humanitarian victory of all time: “Am I not a Man and a Brother?” And instead of an African in chains above the caption, let’s show a crowd of faces from Africa, Asia, the Pacific, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and the Arctic north—the faces you won’t find in the IPCC’s report, but who are stubbornly real nevertheless, living precariously in their millions on the shifting global frontlines of climate change.