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Memo to the Biden administration: What not to do on climate

by Jacqueline Patterson

As the United States lays out its climate plans, here’s 12 false climate solutions, faulty patterns, and harmful omissions to avoid.

Recently, I had the opportunity to advise a wealthy individual on their personal giving. I spent a considerable amount of time providing a written memo on how to support grassroots-led efforts to address climate change. But when the resulting plan was made public, I read it with horror. Evidently, in my extensive guidance on what to do, my recommendations lacked clarity on what not to do.

Now, I’ve fielded many requests to weigh in on the Biden-Harris administration’s climate plans. In coalition with many other organizations, I have helped craft various “100 days” documents, spotlighting the critical need to center frontline communities, advance intersectional solutions, and implement a just transition.

However, it occurs to me that I should not make the same mistake in failing to illuminate the traps to avoid.

There is so very much at stake. Between climate change, COVID-19, the economic crisis, and racial injustice, you could say we are in the midst of a syndemic — an interconnected series of epidemics with shared, systemic roots. Unless those root causes are addressed, crises will continue to sprout like the heads of a hydra, with marginalized group the most impacted.

Climate “solutions” that ignore these interrelated challenges will not be effective or just. Here are some of the all-too-common false solutions, omissions, and past patterns we must avoid:

  1. Carbon pricing — Carbon-pricing allows polluters to pay a nominal fee, or sell and trade the “right” to emit greenhouse gases. Too often, this results in polluters increasing emissions in places where it is cheapest to pollute, intensifying the lethal poisoning of BIPOC communities.
  2. Propping up polluters — Strategies that support harmful natural gas, nuclear, biomass, biofuels, and carbon capture and sequestration are largely driven by the need to pacify powerful constituencies. Efforts to address the climate crisis will fail if they are counterbalanced by coddling of polluters.
  3. Supporting investor-owned utilities — It’s not just the energy sources that are problematic; we can’t continue to support a failed utility business model that lines the pockets of investors and CEOs while heartlessly turning off energy access to impoverished people, often with fatal results.
  4. Technofixes — Too many are looking for easy answers so we can geoengineer our way out of the climate crisis. But, as Martin Luther King said, All progress is precarious and the solution to one problem brings us face to face with another problem. Tinkering with complex planetary systems — by, for example, using aerosols to control the earth’s temperature — is likely to yield unforeseen and even deadly consequences.
  5. Single-issue solutions — In the words of Audre Lorde, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” Solutions that address multiple problems at once — for example, creating well-paid jobs while building efficient, resilient homes — are both effective and politically popular.
  6. Ignoring grinding poverty — Too many communities’ rights and wellbeing have been historically ignored and neglected in the fight against climate change, including Freedman’s settlements, unincorporated areas, deep rural communities, and some urban communities. Our definition of “disadvantaged communities” must include and prioritize them.
  7. Assuming a rising tide lifts all boats — From Urban Renewal (known as “negro removal”) to Opportunity Zones, many programs for economic development have turned out to be ineffective or even harmful — uprooting and destroying communities they intended to help. Without intentionality and community driven planning processes, climate action plans could have similar results.
  8. Separating domestic and foreign policy — Failure to link fair immigration policy with outsized US responsibility for climate change deflects responsibility for a key driver of immigration. And failure to link the decline of coal burning in the US with a moratorium on coal exports just shifts pollution overseas.
  9. Accepting the linkage between money and politics — The fossil fuel industry and other corporate interests have a stranglehold on our legislatures and, to some extent, our courts. But we need not accept that. To advance and uphold true democracy, this administration must get money out of politics once and for all.
  10. Failure to address racism and anti-Indigeneity — Climate change and systemic racism are inherently linked as Black and brown communities bear the worst impacts of environmental harm. Continuing to ignore treaty rights and avoid meaningful reparations legislation would be a failure to address this wrong.
  11. Deploying “Weapons of Math Destruction — Too often, policies are driven by algorithms and formulas that reinforce inequality, such as funding community amenities from taxes that leave marginalized communities even worse off and without critical climate infrastructure. Even the upcoming Executive Order on Climate Related Risks, if not anchored by equity measures, will deepen disparities.
  12. Incrementalism/low ambition– This is no time to make small tweaks to a fundamentally flawed system. To change systemically rooted problems, we need, bold, ambitious, transformational policymaking.

We must avoid the well-worn traps and failed policies outlined above. And, as we define what it means to truly “build back better” we can and must do so with principles, policies, and practices that are anchored in regeneration, cooperation, and democracy.

Jacqueline Patterson, director of the environmental and climate justice program at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. It was originally published April 21, 2021 on Thomson Reuters Foundation News.

Visit https://islandpress.org/resilience-matters-download to get your free copy of this e-book.

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