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When It Comes to the Environment, Are We the 99 Percent or the 1 Percent?

Protestors of the Keystone Pipeline, fracking and other environmental concerns are finding common ground with the Occupy movement -- but there's more to the story.

Canadian resource economist William Rees is far from a political agitator. His claim to fame comes from pioneering the "ecological footprint," a technical method for determining, essentially, how much ecosystem it takes to support each human life on the planet. Nevertheless, Rees, a professor in the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia, gave a fiery speech to a group of international journalists last month in which he accused the world's wealthiest individuals, corporations and governments -- the "1 percent" in the parlance of the Occupy movement -- of eco apartheid.

Seeking to insulate themselves from the worst impacts of global warming, the wealthy are scrambling to secure the best remaining cropland, water rights, mineral and fossil fuel deposits, and other dwindling resources in Africa and elsewhere, while blocking climate legislation that could threaten their business interests, Rees told the gathering at the GreenAccord environmental conference October 19.

"In my worst moments, I think the rich know exactly what they're doing," said Rees, offering an ecological variation on a theme sounded last spring by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, author of a study showing that 1 percent of Americans now control 40 percent of the country's wealth.

"But one big part of the reason we have so much inequality is that the top 1 percent want it that way," Stiglitz wrote in a May 2011 essay titled: "Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%" that inspired this fall's Occupy movement. 

In a whirlwind six weeks since the movement was formed, Occupy Wall Street has spread its criticism of corporate corruption and economic inequality around the country and the globe. But some see the populist insurrection as something more: the best hope yet for stoking a climate justice movement.

From economic sustainability to the impact of corporate money in politics, many points of convergence exist between the economic and climate justice movements. Last week, Occupy Atlanta marched on the headquarters of Koch Industries subsidiary Georgia-Pacific to demand the moguls withdraw their money from politics. Besides funding the Tea Party, the Koch brothers are benefactors of climate change denial groups. 

"Climate absolutely fits in as a concern of OWS," William Jesse, a member of Occupy Wall Street's PR team, said in an email. "The failure to act on climate change is a another clear example of the needs of big business getting priority over the needs of 99 percent of the population."

Environmentalists, in turn, are ramping up the populist rhetoric, a considerable feat for a movement that's earned a reputation for loving wildlife more than people. But with experts predicting rising death tolls and billions of climate refugees as sea levels rise, droughts, forest fires, crop failures, and extreme storms become more commonplace in a warming world, there are no shortages of human impacts.

Occupy Movement Reveals Eco-Inequity

Writing in the Huffington Post last week, environmental lawyer Lisa Kaas Boyle lamented the "corporate hijacking of environmental policy," while Chip Ward, in a widely syndicated essay titled "Occupy Earth," echoed many of Rees' "eco-apartheid" concerns without actually using the highly charged term. Ward linked wealth with health by pointing out that poor communities living near superfund sites and other environmental wastelands inevitably have higher rates of cancer and other health problems. 

Actor Mark Ruffalo connected the fight for economic equity to the battle to stop natural gas fracking in Northeastern states like New York and Pennsylvania and to block the proposed Keystone oil pipeline, and tied them all together with climate justice, in his Oct. 21 visit to Lower Manhattan's Liberty Park, headquarters of the Occupy movement.  Russell Mendell, a member of both Frack Action and Occupy Wall Street,  told Environment and Energy News, "' This is about linking arms between the various movements,' Mendell said, arguing that 'the same 1 percent' is benefiting from U.S. energy policy and tax loopholes for energy firms. 'There's not a lot that separates the environmental movement and Occupy Wall Street.'"