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Climate Change’s Great Lithium Problem

The crisis in Bolivia has an urgent message for environmental policy in the United States.

The Uyuni salt flat in Bolivia (Pablo Cozzaglio/AFP/Getty Images)

Bolivia is in the midst of a brutal upheaval. Following weeks of protests, armed forces have compelled longtime, left-leaning President Evo Morales to step down after reports of “manipulations” in last October’s vote and Morales’s subsequent call for new elections. Morales has sought asylum in Mexico, as right-wing and in some cases neo-fascist elements round up members of his party and burn the wiphala, the flag of the Aymara and Quechuan peoples. 

Amidst all this, some on the left began to speculate on a disturbing subplot. Days before resigning, Morales had pulled out of a lithium mining deal with the German company ACI Systems Alemania, or ACISA. Lithium is an essential ingredient of the batteries that power electric vehicles, smart phones, e-bikes, solar panels and more. ACISA is a supplier for Tesla, stock of which rose sharply after news of Morales’s ouster broke. Not unreasonably—given the history of the region—some journalists and politicians began asking: Had this all just been yet another plot by Western Powers to seize a valuable commodity for multinational corporations?

The short answer is no. There are several factors that have contributed to recent protests: Morales’s opposition never planned to accept the results of these most recent elections and anger at the president had been brewing from across the political spectrum, with the far-right now playing the most decisive role. While it’s certainly possible that the CIA yet again involved itself in Latin American politics—we may not find out definitively for years—multinationals’ desire to capture Bolivia’s lithium market likely was not what got Morales booted out of office. Still, those same companies may well profit off of the new right-wing government. And as world leaders look to transition rapidly off of fossil fuels, the politics surrounding the minerals integral to a decarbonized world will only intensify. Properly designed, a Green New Deal could transform the fraught dynamics that govern lithium and other valuable commodities while heading off climate catastrophe. If business as usual continues, neither seems likely.

Over half of the world’s lithium reserves are held in South America in the Andes’ otherworldly, high-altitude salt flats formed from lakes of lithium-rich brine. Mining companies remove that and transport it to massive evaporation ponds to sit in the sun for months or even years. As the water evaporates it leaves behind magnesium, calcium, sodium, potassium and—the main prize—lithium, a white powder sometimes called “white gold.” While this predominant type of lithium extraction requires big up-front investments of capital and expertise, the whole process is less labor intensive than digging up coal or oil. Yet it requires massive amounts of water in some of the driest places on earth, with single companies using as much as 1,700 litres per second. This drain has disrupted ecosystems around the lakes and cut off freshwater access for indigenous communities in the so-called lithium triangle countries of Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile. Indigenous communities and others around the salt flats have led hunger strikes and blockades to protest not only these issues, but a transfer of wealth out of their own backyards to foreign corporations.

When he was first elected in 2006, Morales led a charge against such extractive dynamics, canceling contracts that inordinately benefited foreign capital, redistributing land, nationalizing the natural gas industry and seizing mines. All this sparked intense backlash from foreign companies, which forced several concessions and as much as $1.9 billion out of Morales’s administration through lawsuits. Intending to both raise capital for lithium development and prevent unequal extraction, Morales then proposed a 70-year contract with ACISA in which state-owned firms would retain a controlling stake in new projects on Salar de Uyuni, an area 13.5 times the size of New York City. Instead of simply taking lithium out of the Andes to build products elsewhere—the industry norm—this contract also proposed that Bolivian workers build an electric vehicle battery facility in Bolivia. Companies seeking easier returns had already looked elsewhere, where governments and workers demanded less of a cut. Still, those living near the salt flats weren’t satisfied. The Potosí Civic Committee—which fought Morales over the deal—demanded an increase in royalties from 3 to 11 percent, and more local control over the mining. When Morales pulled out of the agreement with ACISA earlier this month, prior to being ousted, these demands were cited as a major factor.

Evo Morales shows the first samples of lithium carbonate at a state pilot plant in 2009.
Aizar Raldes/AFP/Getty Images

With the country in disarray, the future of lithium in Bolivia remains uncertain. South American lithium extraction for now is concentrated in Chile and Argentina. Workers and indigenous communities have protested destructive mining practices in those places too, but with far less sympathetic national governments, who are more eager to please multinational corporations.

Meanwhile, demand for lithium is set to explode. Building a green energy grid, expanding renewables and electrifying everything from cars to cooktops requires more lithium and other so-called technology metals that are central to clean energy. The Institute for Sustainable Futures, for instance, projects that a world run fully on renewables by 2050 would demand 280 percent of the planet’s lithium reserves—those which are economically viable to extract—and 85 percent of the planet’s total lithium resources.

It seems like an impossible bind: Even if the global economy manages to transition off of fossil fuels it will simply sub out one kind of harmful extraction for another. The future of technology metal mining in South America and elsewhere could look eerily similar to centuries of colonial exploitation, dressed up as environmentalism: American highways could buzz with Teslas traveling between sprawling suburban rooftops and office parks decked out in solar panels, all premised on capitalist profiteering and disregard for indigenous rights. Moreover, given Chinese firms’ domination of the lithium industry, we could see geopolitical conflicts akin to previous ones over oil.

It’s the kind of future suggested by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s recent proposal to invest $454 billion over a decade to build out electric car manufacturing and charging stations, incentivizing consumers to swap out today’s combustion-powered clunkers for the EVs of tomorrow. “My plan,” he wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, “is estimated to create tens of thousands of new, good-paying jobs in this country and should re-establish the United States as the world leader in auto manufacturing.”   

Schumer’s proposal, which is supported by labor and environmental groups, embodies the kind of cheery techno-optimism that has dominated climate policymaking in wealthy countries like the U.S. for decades: We have the money and technology to mostly maintain business as usual by simply replacing the energy source that powers it, with a few complementary tweaks along the way. Green manufacturing jobs offer the added bonus of returning America to its postwar industrial heyday. The supply chains and extraction that make them possible are kept out of sight.

The Green New Deal, by contrast, could offer an alternative—one more in line with the “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has suggested. There is no path to a stable world that keeps car-centric sprawl intact. Transitioning off of fossil fuels can indeed create tens of thousands of well-paid union jobs in the U.S., and likely millions more given the scale of work required; some of them will be in consumer EV manufacturing. Beyond the immediate short-term, though, decarbonization will require transforming suburbs, cities and rural areas through massive investments in public transit and affordable housing, per a recent bill introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This will make them not just greener but cheaper and more livable, and keep developed and wealthy countries from placing an unsustainable burden on Bolivia and other mineral producers.

Yet one of the greatest promises of a Green New Deal is the role the United States could play in reimagining a global order that for centuries has relied on an exploitative transfer of wealth from the resource-rich but less-developed South to the wealthy North. It’s hard to predict the full scope of what the U.S. could do if it earnestly worked to remake the global economy along more egalitarian lines—for example, seeking collaboration with China and other countries rather than destructive trade wars—in order to meet the climate challenge head-on. Instead of meeting new demand for technology metals wholly through new extraction, U.S. policy could work to harvest them from the electronic waste or the byproducts of other types of mining, where these substances are abundant. The sheer purchasing power of a U.S. government committed to making its transportation system run on renewables could set a global standard for labor, indigenous and environmental rights in minerals extraction, ensuring the benefits of a green transition flow up and down the supply chain. It could rewrite trade agreements in ways that prioritize democratic governance over multinational corporations.

Whether recognized or not, the United States’ climate policy is also its foreign policy. Either it can keep setting the world on fire, or do everything in its power to put it out.