Want to Fix the Climate Crisis? Start Listening to Black People

The Green New Deal ignited controversy around its release in February 2019 by positioning climate as part of the same systemic social crisis that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement and the ascent of Democratic Socialist Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Less than two years later, this effort—known broadly as the movement for climate justice—is central to the campaign platform of the Democratic nominee for president. Rhiana Gunn-Wright, the director of climate policy at the non-profit think tank the Roosevelt Institute, was one of the architects of the Green New Deal. She says that any effort to try to separate social and environmental policy is a willful fiction. “The thing about policy—and particularly climate policy—is that we often talk about systems as very impersonal. But the fact is that systems are legacies just built up on each other. Who made a decision before?” she says. “To actually shape a policy, it’s really important to know why the system looks the way that it does.”

Bloomberg Green talked with Gunn-Wright about the policy underpinnings of the climate justice movement, how that intersects with the Covid-19 pandemic, and why what seemed like a political risk is actually politically necessary. The interview has been condensed and edited.

I want to start with a definition of terms. What does “climate justice” mean?

Climate justice is just an effort to frame the climate crisis as an issue of larger systems. At least when I was growing up—first of all, we didn’t call it the climate crisis, right? It was global warming, and it felt like it was essentially about polar bears and temperatures and the Arctic melting. Climate justice is about recognizing that environment is not just nature, it is all of us. Whether we’re talking about physical environment as in the neighborhood you live in, and also the physical environment in terms of the climate and the natural world, it’s about saying that those two things are linked. [Democratic presidential nominee Joe] Biden just put out a plan for the climate crisis, and the first thing everyone says is, how would you get that passed? What about the political climate? Which again just shows that we’re talking about multiple parts of climate, all of which impact one another.

The conversation around climate justice encompasses so much—access to clean water and parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere—that I think your framing is really helpful.

People will often get kind of upset about how broad it is. We’re talking about climate, why do you have to talk about racial injustice? Why can’t we just quote-unquote focus on climate? But the input determines the outcome. So if we’re talking about climate change as an outcome, it’s silly to just look at emissions without connecting that to who has power over controlling those emissions.

Most fossil fuel infrastructure in our country is sited in poor neighborhoods that are majority black and brown, majority people of color. Facilities aren’t in those communities for no reason. It’s because those people have less power. The most heinous examples of what burning fossil fuels do to people are sequestered in communities where people aren’t believed. Native folks in the U.S. and internationally have been on the front line, protecting really vital natural resources. If they had the power to just push off those developments in the first place, would we be here? If communities of color are consistently disempowered, there will always be a place to burn fossil fuels. There will always be people you can poison. Climate justice is about that.

You mentioned Biden’s climate plan, which included a whole separate climate justice plan. Do those go far enough?

I think there’s a lot of things to like, and folks are incredibly right when they say that this plan is far better than most Democratic climate plans—than most climate plans in the U.S. have been, period. It does show an increased understanding of the scale. And it does something that, when we developed the Green New Deal, we really hoped would take hold, which was deeply understanding the way that decarbonization can benefit our economic recovery.

I think what the Biden plan is missing is that holistic understanding of how climate justice is connected to other systems. Something that's in the Biden plan that I thought was great is managed retreat [the process of strategically evacuating areas at high risk of irreversible damage from climate change]. There are certain parts of the country that likely will be underwater. Often the people who will be trapped will be the folks who are poor, and those folks will likely be disproportionately of color. Communities of color really struggle to get bought out, so [committing to buy them out] is a first step. But we’ve had decades of racist home policy, which means that those homes will likely be undervalued. So when you’re saying you're going to buy them out, at what price? And will that be enough that they can buy a home elsewhere?

I want to talk a bit about the capital-M Moment we’re living in. You’ve talked before about the worries people had coupling justice goals with climate goals, that it would make the latter harder to achieve. We’ve encountered some of that same fear in discussions about attaching climate conditions to Covid-related stimulus spending. Some people worry that it’s insensitive, even. What do you say to those kinds of arguments?

Well… [laughs] I’m sorry, I giggle a little bit because the only people wringing their hands about if it’s insensitive are White people. Environmental justice activists are largely people of color. If folks have been listening to them—particularly Indigenous activists—they want to control emissions. Why would it be insensitive to condition, say, CARES aid to airlines on emission reductions? How is that out of line with what people are saying that they want? It’s not. Who is actually saying that it’s insensitive? Is this even a conversation that we need to have? I think it comes from a respectful, kind place. But again, it’s really important, particularly in these big-M Moments, to define justice based on what the people who have been wronged want.

Environmental justice is essentially about the right to live in an environment that provides you with all of the resources that you need to live a safe, healthy life. People in wealthy suburbs have clean water; we want clean water. People in wealthy suburbs don’t have to fight for years with the EPA for them to recognize that cancer is exploding because of fossil fuel pollution. Bismarck had a set of community meetings to get the Dakota Access Pipeline rerouted. It wasn’t Standing Rock.

The frontline communities that I worked in in Detroit, they can’t go outside because the fumes are too strong. But that same neighborhood, a cop could run up and shoot them. They’re not experiencing these problems separately. And so when you think about it in that way, police violence is another environmental factor that makes the places, the physical environment that Black and Brown communities live in, unsafe and unjust. That’s part of what environmental justice activists have been insisting on. We have to define environment more broadly. Because we are losing when it’s defined narrowly. Environmental activists are leaving us out. We don’t, apparently, look like what’s green.

It reminds me of the notion you talked about earlier, that climate change is about polar bears, that it’s remote and abstract. A lot of people who are now the head of major environmental organizations came up in the movement within that conversation.

Totally. But I think it’s also about real, practical institutional issues. Something like 1.3% of all philanthropic support for environmental issues [from 12 major national funders] goes to environmental justice. We’re talking about [over a billion] dollars, 1.3% goes to fighting environmental justice.

This has downstream effects. If organizations aren’t funded, they have smaller staffs. Major environmental orgs will get op-eds placed in the New York Times, in the Washington Post. They have [communications offices] that do that. How does an environmental justice organization get to that size, to have that sort of shop?

I think it’s really important to recognize that White supremacy works in a lot of ways. We have to talk about the fact that maybe one of the reasons people think it’s insensitive is because the environment is still coded for a lot of people as White, even though the people being affected most are not White. There’s already a study out that says that toxic air pollution is connected to higher rates of mortality from Covid-19. So we know in very real terms that environmental injustice is one of the reasons—and I would argue a very major reason—that Black people are dying at double the rate from Covid-19.

We have to talk about this erasure that’s keeping people thinking that environmental issues are still White. Is that different from the erasure that kept the EPA from addressing Cancer Alley in Louisiana? We know that the only town that was addressed was a White town. I saw it in Detroit. The fossil fuel pollution in southwest Detroit… Black people are dying.

We’re playing out those same patterns in the ways that we’re trying to address the climate crisis, even now, when folks are saying it’s insensitive. Why? You think it’s insensitive because implicitly you’re saying, oh, well, climate is about White people. This moment is about Black people. It’s about race, it’s about people of color, and climate is not there. It’s insensitive to bring that in. Why? Oh, because you think it doesn’t apply to us.

Is there a way we get to a carbon-neutral society that doesn’t also take us to a more equal society?

There is a version where you try to tackle this largely through market mechanisms—where you give a lot of tax credits, you give a lot of incentives. It’s not to say those aren’t important. Reshaping the market is part of what the Green New Deal talks about. You can look back just to the Obama era. Before 2018, that was largely what we were talking about: market mechanisms.

I have not seen any models that say that would actually get you to zero emissions by 2050. We just wasted so much time. Also the carbon tax that you’d have to start off would just be… it would be a very steep carbon tax. No one has ever succeeded in passing a carbon tax at the price that’s necessary. Particularly in our moment, it’s going to be deeply unsuccessful because of the polarization between the parties.

After how many years and how many shootings and how much deep trauma to Black people, we are now talking about police reform very seriously. Defunding police. One of the reasons for that was how large [the Black Lives Matter protests] were, and the fact that there were so many White people out at these demonstrations. That multi-racial coalition was part of what made this thing stick, and climate is the same way. In a system where one party is essentially still saying that climate change doesn’t exist, how else are you going to get the people power?

Politically, the idea that that technocratic set of solutions is possible or still on the table is silly. It didn’t even happen back in ’09. We’re in the midst of a recession, a public health emergency, climate change, a political emergency on lots of levels. People are talking about systems change. They are saying something is rotten here. I don’t think there’s an actual path for anything other than policies that seek to address injustice and climate at the same time.

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