Call to Racial Justice Advocates — We MUST Center Climate Justice

“The average person doesn’t think of the environment as a top issue… even in my organization, we’re not talking about the environment.”

That’s what a friend that works in a large non-profit focused on racial and economic justice told me just this week. It felt like a punch to the gut. How can a leading racial and economic justice organization not center climate justice?

It’s the same thing.

Too often when energy, environment and climate come up, brilliant and passionate folks working for racial justice lose interest. They think, “that’s nice, but I need to worry about policing right now.”

Racial justice is not possible if climate change continues to wreck poor, black and brown coastal communities with no resources to prepare and seek shelter, like Katrina did in New Orleans. It is not possible to get sufficient immigration reform without understanding the global south’s changing climate causing more and more climate migrants. If funding is divested from policing, but the reinvestments exclude climate justice, black kids will still be saying “I can’t breathe” due to the asthma rates in black neighborhoods with polluting coal plants next door. Racial justice advocates must be climate justice advocates, because racial justice is climate justice.

I aim to help make that connection in this post. While a lot of the climate and energy industry is going through a racial justice awakening right now, my hope is that our racial justice advocates will get more activated around climate, too. And I don’t just mean being aware that climate change is happening. I mean understanding that climate change is racial genocide. I’m asking folks passionate about racial equity and justice to center energy and climate, not as a side effort or extra credit, but as a mandatory part of the work.

We have multiple forces to dismantle — capitalist exploitation, racism and oppression of the global south, and climate change. The idea is that we can’t solve one, then the second, then the third. One, because there’s no time for that — irreversible climate damage needs to be prevented within the next decade. Two, because they are interconnected and compound each other.

Consider the points and videos below as resources to give language to some of the major climate justice challenges we need to solve for. They are not meant to be exhaustive, just accessible and to the point.

White supremacy makes sure black and brown folks suffer the brunt of the pollution that funded white wealth.

  • The climate was stable (only varied within 1 degree Celsius) for 10,000 years before humans unearthed coal deposits and built machines to extract and use energy from coal.
  • The global south also has much less access to reliable power. Part of the challenge now is that countries in the global south (most often those that have been marginalized through colonialism and imperialism) are industrializing with the same extractive energy systems that the global north did. In recent years they’ve even emitted more carbon than the global north. Many climate justice advocates argue the global north has a responsibility to transition to clean energy and support the global south in doing so as well.
  • As a result of the forces mentioned before (capitalist exploitation, racism and oppression of the global south, and climate change), climate migration will mostly come from the global south to the global north.
  • Black Americans are exposed to 1.5 times as much of the pollution that comes from burning fossil fuels as the greater population, causing higher rates of asthma, heart disease, cancer, premature death and now COVID-19.

In our current system, energy costs hit low-income (hint, disproportionately black and brown) folks the hardest.

Low income households, disproportionately in communities of color, struggle with high energy burden, spending three times more of their income on energy than non-low-income households.

Clean energy technology, policy, and financing is largely happening without black and brown folks.

  • In the US, a group of overwhelmingly disproportionately white leaders will make decisions determining how all of our lives will be powered. At this rate, clean energy solutions will operate by the same, exploitative logic that formed the current energy system, and it will perpetuate racial disparities and advance racism. That makes racial equity in clean energy a racial justice issue.
  • There is no lack of black and brown communities interested in and working on energy. It’s that the folks, communities and companies who have been hired, resourced, and funded — those that are therefore are driving the transition — are by and large the white ones.
  • We need to collectively fight for energy democracy, meaning we need to empower our black and brown communities to power themselves with clean, reliable, and resilient power systems that they control.

Call to Act

The more aware I become, and the more of 2020 that passes, the more overwhelming ever seeing true liberation of black and brown folks in the United States (or most of the world) seems. But if I have faith in anyone to carry us through, it’s in those that carry the knowledge passed down from my ancestors. My faith is in the racial justice advocates, organizers, and leaders that I owe my freedoms to. You are the folks that will lead us to the promiseland. And you’ll need climate justice to do it.

Working to realize just, resilient, thriving communities for us all. @AlexisPlair on Twitter