Indigenous leaders and activists, environmentalists, and supporters have been rallying for years against the construction of a lithium mine at Thacker Pass, near the Nevada-Oregon border (ABC News). They reason that Thacker Pass is sacred ground, and the mine would not only threaten the ecosystem and have negative environmental impacts but desecrate the burial site where dozens of Paiute tribal members were massacred by the U.S. cavalry in 1865. Still, construction of the open pit mine continues with full backing from the Biden administration (Al Jazeera). Thacker Pass has the country’s largest-known deposit of lithium, a mineral necessary to manufacture batteries for electric vehicles (EV), which are pivotal to Biden’s clean energy agenda.
• Support efforts to block lithium mining in Nevada and North Carolina and copper mining in Arizona.
• Support organizations like the Just Transition Alliance, Debt for Climate, It Takes Roots, and the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance fighting for environmental justice for communities of color.
• Consider: who is culpable for the climate crisis, and who is responsible for mitigating the problem? Can a solution to climate change be beneficial at the expense of human rights violations and environmental damage?
Electric vehicles are being lauded as the latest answer to the climate crisis. And as wealthy countries like the U.S. transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, human rights and environmental violations are framed as necessary tradeoffs to address the climate crisis.
“Lithium mines and this whole push for renewable energy — the agenda of the Green New Deal — is what I like to call green colonialism,″ said Daranda Hinkey of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe and the leader of the People of Red Mountain group. “It’s going to directly affect my people, my culture, my religion, my tradition.”
The U.S. is the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, with transportation being the primary source of emissions (EPA). To create a net zero emissions economy by 2050, the Biden administration aims to replace more than 50% of gas-powered vehicles with zero-emission, clean vehicles by 2030 (White House). This has meant an overall push towards electric vehicles with state bans on new gas-powered cars, electric vehicle tax credits incentives, and billions in federal funds to support the construction of charging stations (CNET).
Electric vehicles are much cleaner, though more expensive, than traditional cars and trucks. See how they compare locally and more broadly. However, manufacturing, transporting, and charging electric vehicles still generates a carbon footprint, as does disposing of EV materials (EPA, Washington Post).
The problem with the EV approach to the climate crisis is that it relies on capitalism to resolve a capitalism-induced issue. Like other capitalist greenwashing strategies, it not only shifts the responsibility to everyday people contributing the least amount of carbon emissions but also comes with some level of exploitation and harm.
Electric vehicles currently use lithium-ion batteries produced from lithium, cobalt, nickel, and other raw materials, all of which have negative human and environmental impacts. The devastating result of lithium mining can be seen in countries like Chile, where “mining consumes, contaminates and diverts scarce water resources away from local communities” (Euro News), and Brazil, where 270 people died when a dam holding mining waste collapsed, burying most of them alive and causing “immeasurable environmental and social harm” (Washington Post, SEC). In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the cobalt “industry has ravaged the landscape” as millions of trees are cut, surrounding air and water are contaminated from mining, and thousands of Congolese people, including children, are mining “toxic cobalt” to power our smartphones, laptops, and electric vehicles (NPR).
“It is hypocritical to say we are here with these electric vehicles to solve our climate problems if, in making them, we contaminate a community’s drinking water or dry up the irrigation wells they rely on,” said Aimee Boulanger, executive director of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance.
Even as European and Western countries transition to and champion renewable energy, they are actively pushing the responsibility to countries in Central America, Africa, and the Middle East that are the “most vulnerable to the climate crisis” (CNN). Car dealers from the U.S., Japan, and Europe send millions of used gas-fueled cars that are either “polluting or unsafe” to countries like West Africa as their countries transit to electric vehicles. And in 2021, wealthy Western nations and financial institutions pledged to end the financing of all fossil-fuel projects, including natural gas, overseas and developing regions, diverting that spending to green energy (The Guardian, Axios). These countries, including the U.S., aren’t stopping the development of their own fossil fuel resources, like oil and gas fields. They just won’t be funding fossil-fuel infrastructure for poor countries.
There are distinct winners and losers in the race to fight climate change with capitalism.
Ending individual car dependency, promoting more walkable cities, and expanding affordable mass e-transportation could all reduce our carbon emissions (The Hill). But such an approach requires us to change our individual behavior for the greater global good. Privately-owned electric vehicles sold by multinational corporations have become an obvious choice because it allows our societies to maintain a comfortable, though exploitative, lifestyle (CNBC). And wealthy institutions find marginalized people an acceptable loss in preserving our current system.
Transitioning to a climate-friendly society will be challenging, but it must not come at the expense of human life. And if the key to fighting climate change results in human suffering, loss of life, and environmental damage, it might be time to look for a different approach.
• Wealthy nations are pushing electric cars as a green solution to climate change.
• The production of electric vehicles currently relies on harmful methods like lithium mining.
• Ending climate-induced disasters shouldn’t result in human rights and environmental violations.