A popular narrative among progressives that is used to explain state (in)action on climate change tells a story that polarization, partisan disagreement, and political deadlock block effective policy change. This story pits pragmatic environmental progressives, ostensibly represented by the Democratic Party, against an array of conservative forces, embodied in the Republican Party, that constrain environmental policies that would help mitigate ecological destruction and ensuing climate catastrophe. The narrative claims that climate change deniers (including true-disbelievers and cynical sellouts) are holding back a robust state response to climate change.

But this is not the whole story. There is, in fact, a set of policies that Democrats and Republicans have been rather aligned on, namely, policies that expand and strengthen the carceral state. Here, the carceral state refers to the state institutions of punishment, incarceration, and policing. This includes the prison system; local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies and police departments; the courts; immigration enforcement and border patrol; and the various “intelligence” and “security” agencies (FBI, NSA, DHS) that also function to police, imprison, and surveil. We are told we live in an age of increasing polarization and partisan deadlock in the halls of power, but there are indeed some issues that the competing blocs of the US state consistently agree upon: building up the state’s capacity for punishment and policing is one.

Consider the plans to construct a massive police militarization compound in Atlanta, Georgia. Named “Cop City” by activists organizing against the project, if built, the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center would equip police departments in Atlanta and around the country with state-of-the-art training in urban warfare and counterinsurgency. It would include a mock city for law enforcement to practice policing protest and civil uprisings, such as those seen in unprecedented scale during the 2020 George Floyd movement. While a lively activist movement with growing public support has condemned the plans as a lethal acceleration of police militarization and an unjust expansion of the state’s power to repress progressive social movements, the city’s political establishment has been unified behind Cop City and supported attempts to squash resistance to the project. According to Atlanta-based organizer Micah Herskind, “police repression and the support for the Cop City project are thoroughly bipartisan.”

While some Democratic politicians, such as Cori Bush and Rashida Tlaib, have raised critical questions about Cop City and condemned the repression of the movement against it, the city of Atlanta’s Democratic establishment has largely supported the project. Democratic Mayor Andre Dickens is one of the strongest supporters of Cop City’s construction, arguing that more space and facilities for police training is necessary to curb crime and violence in the city. Under his administration the Atlanta Police Department has collaborated with state and federal agencies in the repression of activist opposition to the project. Activists have been charged with domestic terrorism for attending a music festival and face felonies for handing out flyers. And Georgia State Police killed twenty-six-year old Manuel “Tortuguita” Esteban Paez Terán, a Forest Defender and environmental activist, in January.

Brian Kemp, the Republican Governor of Georgia, is also a strong supporter of the police militarization project. He has aided Atlanta officials in the repression of the Stop Cop City movement, calling for a state of emergency in January 2023 which “authorize[d] the use of up to 1,000 National Guard troops to respond to incidents of civil unrest.” In this subsequent State of the State address, the governor affirmed his support of “helping clear the site of the future Atlanta Public Safety Training Facility of militant activists,” and his appreciation of Georgia’s “strong, bipartisan support of our state law enforcement.” Indeed, referring to Stop Cop City protests, Kemp praised “State Patrol, Sheriff’s Deputies, and the Atlanta Police” who “quickly brought peace and order.” This is why, according to Kemp, “in Georgia, we’ll always back the blue!”

But bipartisan support of carceral state expansion is not unique to Cop City, it is in fact typical of the history of police and prisons in the United States. In her important 2014 book, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America, political scientist Naomi Murakawa documents the history of collaboration between Democrats and Republicans in the massive expansion of the US carceral state during the 20th century. While Republicans are often associated with tough-on-crime policies, the Democratic Party has been a willing and capable partner in driving mass incarceration. The political career of Democratic President Joseph Biden offers another lesson. Alongside supporting the War on Drugs, Biden sponsored the notorious 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which has been roundly condemned as foundational to the legal architecture of mass incarceration and epidemic police violence. As president, Biden has consistently committed to increasing police funding nationally, even as 2020’s massive Black-led multiracial protest movement mobilized against the routine police killing of Black people and made explicit a popular demand for the reallocation of money away from the carceral state and toward social services such as housing, healthcare, and education. 

This history of political cooperation on the police state raises a question: why—amidst so much attention to political deadlock and polarization—has carceral state expansion been a hallmark of bipartisan cooperation? One explanation is that public safety and security is simply not political, but a common good that makes “common sense.” Everyone can agree on the importance of safety, and safety comes from police. This is certainly the argument of, at least, the Atlanta mayor’s office. Another explanation—perhaps better suited to those suspicious of the line that public safety relies on state capacities for violence—is that both parties serve the interests of the wealthy. From this perspective, both parties serve the rich, whose social position is derived from a political economic system premised on exploitation, dispossession, and inequality. A powerful carceral state (meaning a powerful system of policing, incarceration, and surveillance) is required to maintain this highly unequal property order and insulate it, through fear and violence, from threats from below.

Indeed, the intense militarization and policing of US society is a consequence of how economically, politically, and socially unequal US society actually is. The “United States” is an empire that owes its existence, power, and wealth to chattel slavery and settler colonialism. Inequality in the United States is thus organized along racial lines. A wealthy, white elite sits at the top and dispossessed Black and Indigenous communities are pushed to the bottom. Maintaining such an unequal social order requires a massive police and prison system to discipline and control populations marked for extraction and elimination—and to punish those who resist this murderous regime of exploitation and hierarchy.

So, what does carceral state expansion, embodied in projects like Cop City, have to do with where we began, with climate policy? Let us turn again to the fight against Cop City, a contemporary flashpoint where the intersection of carceral and ecological politics becomes especially clear. To start, the construction of Cop City would itself be ecologically devastating. The plans for Cop City involve turning over 300 hundred acres of the South River/Weelaunee Forest, the nation’s largest urban forest, into a militarization compound. Its construction would involve bulldozing at least 85 acres of forest, destroying important ecosystems and natural space, thus worsening the effects of climate change.

But the direct ecological devastation its construction would entail is not the only environmental impact of Cop City. Activists are pointing out that Cop City would be a weapon forged against the climate movement because climate activists are a threat to the current order of things—an order that police are charged with securing through force. Climate activists pose a serious challenge to the current order because they seek an end to rampant ecological devastation and are organizing toward an ecologically sustainable society. Many in the climate movement are urgently emphasizing the global scale at which such change needs to occur, some pointing out that the current global economic system is in fact so premised on destructive environmental practices that what is needed is an entirely transformed society and mode of production. 

According to The Red Nation, an anticolonial Indigenous liberation organization, in their 2021 manifesto, The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save the Earth, any effective response to climate change is necessarily “anticapitalist” meaning that it must fundamentally transform global social and ecological relations premised on settler colonialism and imperialism. For them, this understanding pits those committed to an ecologically sustainable future against the “richest 1 percent [who] emit 175 times more CO2 than the poorest Hondurans, Mozambicans, or Rwandans,” the “twenty-six billionaires [who] hoard half the world’s social wealth,” the “2,153 billionaires [who] possess more social wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60 percent of the planet’s population,” the “100 companies responsible for 70 percent of the global emissions,” and the rest of the “ruling elite” who will not “put their own system up for debate” (20).

With Indigenous land and water defenders at the global forefront, the climate movement makes a serious critique of the status quo and poses a serious challenge to the political and economic elites who benefit (in the short term) from the prevailing (ecologically and socially devasting) order. But it is the role of police to secure this settler colonial status quo, in part through the criminalization of resistance. Indeed, if built, Cop City would massively expand police capacity (in Atlanta, the United States, and around the world) to repress popular challenges to this order. 

Thus, as surviving climate change mandates nothing short of total economic, cultural, political, and social transformation, the antagonism between police, the armed enforcers of the status quo, and the climate movement becomes clear. Clashes between police and Indigenous water protectors in the No Dakota Access Pipeline Movement at Standing Rock in 2016 illustrate this essential conflict. At Standing Rock, police forces collaborated with private security and the pipeline corporation to ensure the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, brutalizing water protectors and climate activists who struggled to defend the earth from the devastation they correctly predicted the pipeline would bring. Today, policymakers are building a legal architecture to criminalize climate activists as domestic terrorists, especially in struggles that challenge “critical infrastructure” such as oil pipelines. And similar domestic terrorism statutes have been applied to Stop Cop City activists in Atlanta. If the climate movement is to seriously challenge the roots of climate change, it will necessarily come into increased conflict with police, and the whole of the carceral state, as those charged with preserving the status quo through legalized force and violence. 

The question we must ask, then, is whether and to what extent building up the carceral state—intensifying police power—in fact represents an actual bipartisan “climate policy.” If policing secures the current order, and climate change and climate movement is a challenge to it, then the role of police repression in the state’s climate policy is hard to dispute. Perhaps there is a bipartisan climate policy after all. According to Nick Buxton, “there is a growing political demand for climate security as a response to the escalating impacts of climate change.” He writes that:

Climate security is a political and policy framework that analyses the impact of climate change on security. It anticipates that the extreme weather events and climate instability resulting from rising greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) will cause disruption to economic, social and environmental systems – and therefore undermine security.

As climate change sharpens the lethality of social inequality, there will be more social unrest; rather than make the changes that social and ecological sustainability would require, the state seems to be preparing for militarized force and violence. Thus, perhaps the problem is not political polarization and bipartisan breakdown blocking effective climate policy, but the political alignment of the ruling class on building a police state to protect their property and position in the coming chaos. The Defend the Atlanta Forest media kit puts it like this:

Today, climate collapse disproportionately affects disadvantaged groups such as Atlanta's Black communities. Rather than investing in solutions to the environmental crisis, governments are investing in heavier policing, especially of those disadvantaged groups […] The period of planetary climate collapse that we are all living in will continue to pose urgent and unsettling questions to our species as we fight for dignity in a world of increasingly dangerous wildfires, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and mass extinction. Rather than address the problems as they really present themselves, world and local leaders are hurling us into the fire. As we fight for a life worth living, the system seems prepared to prop up its petroleum-based economy with tear gas and lines of riot police.

From this perspective, both parties have been cooperating on a climate policy of militarization, securitization, and counterinsurgency. Ironically, in building up its forces of violence in order to maintain power, the state is reproducing the very conditions that have catalyzed the crisis that threatens their security. The climate crisis is rooted in the social and ecological fallout of colonization and capitalist production. Police are charged with protecting the colonial capitalist order that drives climate change, and thus the defunding and dismantling of the US carceral state must be a part of any climate policy that takes seriously the roots and stakes of the current crisis.

Article or Event Link
Jun 17, 2023
Public Policy


Public Policy

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