As Protests Rage Over George Floyd’s Death, Climate Activists Embrace Racial Justice
By Ilana Cohen, Evelyn Nieves, Judy Fahys, Marianne Lavelle, James Bruggers
When New York Communities for Change helped lead a demonstration of 500 on Monday in Brooklyn to protest George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis, the grassroots group's activism spoke to a long-standing link between police violence against African Americans and environmental justice.
Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE, Brooklyn's oldest Latino community-based organization, said she considers showing up to fight police brutality and racial violence integral to her climate change activism.
Bronx Climate Justice North, another grassroots group, says on its website: "Without a focus on correcting injustice, work on climate change addresses only symptoms, and not root causes."
These community organizations in New York have been joined in protest by the nation's most prominent climate change activist groups, including the Sierra Club, 350.org, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion.
"NRDC has a responsibility to be fully and visibly committed to the fight against systemic racism and for justice, equity and hope," Gina McCarthy, its president and chief executive officer, said in a statement.
"We have marched to the Lincoln Memorial," Friends of the Earth tweeted Tuesday night, "where we are joining thousands of peaceful protesters sitting and standing face-to-face with law enforcement. #BlackLivesMatter"
While some established, and predominantly white, climate and environmental organizations have struggled with diversity in their ranks and faced criticism for being disconnected from communities of color, there are clear signs that they are becoming increasingly focused on racial and environmental justice.
The Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest who is executive director of GreenFaith, a global religious-based climate action network based in Highland Park, New Jersey posted on his blog: "For too long, the environmental movement has not been concerned enough about the destruction that climate change wreaks on Black and Brown communities around the world. For too long, we haven't been concerned enough about Black and Brown people who can't breathe because they are carrying the weight of climate change and White supremacy."
Patrick Houston, climate and inequality campaigns organizer for New York Communities for Change, said he believes the broader climate movement is "becoming much more open to listening and understanding the struggles of the black community" by connecting "overt racism and violence" with "overlooked racism" stemming from proximity to power plants and other fossil fuel infrastructure.
This new show of solidarity, he said, reflects "a work in progress that must continue."
Yeampierre, who is also co-chair of the national Climate Justice Alliance, shares Houston's hope and skepticism. Given what she considers a historically "extractive" use of the climate justice narrative by "big green" organizations, she said those groups must take direction from Black Lives Matter organizers in protesting Floyd's killing.
Alexandria Villaseñor, the 15-year-old climate activist who is co-founder of the U.S. Youth Climate Strike and founder of Earth Uprising, emphatically agreed. "I think that true solidarity is giving Black Lives Matter organizers platforms, donations and putting our bodies out there on the streets with them," she said. "We know that there is no climate justice without racial justice. The exploitation of black people is the greatest extractive system of production of all time and in order to heal the planet, we must have black and indigenous liberation."
While both environmental racism and police brutality have long histories in the United States and in New York City—Floyd's death comes six years after the killing of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, in a chokehold by a white police officer in 2014—the city's leading youth-led environmental groups, including Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement and Fridays of the Future, did not exist before 2017.
Villaseñor said she has been pleased over the past week to see organizers with both Extinction Rebellion and Sunrise on the ground in solidarity with racial justice advocates.
Jonathan Kirsch, social media coordinator for the Sunrise Movement's NYC hub, said that the organization has "acknowledged that we are not the authority right now to be commenting on what is being said by the black community."
He added: "We are here to support our black and brown friends and family in this moment, so that their voices are the ones that should be heard—as they always should be heard."
A similar focus on racial and environmental justice by climate change and environmental activists was evident around the nation Tuesday as protests again took to the streets in dozens of cities eight days after Floyd's death. The officer who pinned the handcuffed man to the ground with a knee to his neck, Derek Chauvin, has been fired from the Minneapolis Police Department and charged with third-degree murder.
Mark Reynolds, executive director of Citizens Climate Lobby, said the group—which has volunteers in every Congressional district pushing for bipartisan carbon pricing legislation—is making plans to offer additional training to its volunteers on racism, privilege, bias and diversity in the environmental movement. There also will be a seminar in racial justice included in the group's upcoming annual conference, which will be held online in June.
"It's not enough simply to list diversity as one of our values," Reynolds said in a blog post addressed to the group's members who are black and people of color. "The best way we can proclaim that Black lives matter to CCL, and that we care deeply about your wellbeing and your safety and your happiness, is for us to take concrete action."
He added, "Like climate change, there is no simple fix for racism—but we will not shy away from doing our part in this vital work."
Nathaniel Stinnett, founder and executive director of the Boston-based Environmental Voter Project, said that environmentalists have a special duty to speak out on racial injustice.
In the battle to protect the planet, he said, "every fight we enter is also a choice about whom to protect—will we protect the privileged or the oppressed, the heard or the unheard, those who feel the brunt of environmental impacts or those who don't?"
Stinnett said his group, which works to identify environmental voters and get them to the polls, will redouble its efforts to fight for equality in ballot access as part of its work. "Fighting structural racism is—and must be—integral to the environmental movement's mission," he said.
In Louisville, where thousands of protesters have also been chanting the name of Breonna Taylor, an African American killed by police March 13 while they were serving a nighttime "no-knock" search warrant, environmental activists have been among those expressing outrage.
"Different faith leaders were speaking out about the violence that is perpetrated against black people in Louisville and across our country, and how that is against our values," said the Rev. Dawn Cooley, who is executive director of Louisville-based Kentucky Interfaith Power & Light, a coalition of faith communities that advocates for action on climate change.
Cooley said it is easy to find a connection between climate justice "and the system of racism in our country and in our world. And the same people who are struggling for their basic human rights in America and the larger world are the same people being most impacted by climate change."
Racial and ethnic minorities, she noted, are bearing a disproportionate burden of illness and death from the novel coronavirus pandemic.
'I Worry About My Kids and Their Kids'
Watching the events of recent days unfold have been very painful for Arnita Gadson, a veteran environmental justice advocate who has played a pivotal role helping to keep a large chemical industry in Louisville accountable through a local task force, and also serves as Kentucky's Environmental Climate Justice Chair for the NAACP.
She is contributing to a local climate adaptation plan, and that work has continued through the recent strife, Gadson said, adding, "but I've been scared.
"I am a black woman living in a white world," she said. "If I go out, I might get shot and I may get killed. I worry about my kids and their kids."
In Salt Lake City, Utah, Grace Olscamp has been reaching out on social media, calling on environmentalists to do more than pledge support for people of color on behalf of the environmental group HEAL Utah, which has focused for two decades on hazardous and nuclear waste, as well as air pollution and climate change.
"It shouldn't have taken us this long to really step up and take action," said Olscamp, HEAL's communications director, noting that she, the group's staff and many of its members are white and "definitely in a place of privilege."
It's a problem among environmental organizations, generally, that they have failed to include more people of color and to hold themselves accountable for working toward real change.
She started a Twitter thread Monday by saying: "Protecting the environment must include protecting the health & lives of others. Without recognizing this & acting on it, the environmental movement will be spinning its wheels. The roots of the disproportionate impacts of things like pollution are tied to systemic racism."
"We need to actually speak out and make a stand and not beat around the bush about it," she said in an interview. "We need to protect black lives."
Olscamp said that means working with state and federal lawmakers toward creating better policies and eliminating policies that place a heavier pollution burden on poor communities and communities of color. She added that it will be important to keep conversations about equity on the agenda among the group's 15,000 grassroots members, urging them, for instance, to press for changes in their workplaces and local government.
On the West Coast, The California Water Blog, a must read for environmentalists, journalists and scientists published by the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis, suspended all discussions of water this week in solidarity with the protests.
Monday's Cal Water Blog post was titled "Black Lives Matter."
The post, signed by the center's executive committee, whose members include biologists, geologists, engineers and legal scholars, said: "Institutional racism is urgent and real, and should divert us from topics of California water at this time. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others are horrific, and the effects of a pandemic are disproportionately affecting communities of color. At the Center for Watershed Sciences, we acknowledge that while we strive for equity and inclusion in our science in line with our Principles of Community, we have a long way to go to address racism and unconscious bias."
The post went on to encourage "everyone to have the hard conversations and do the hard work" to support all people in our communities. "It is moments like this that remind us that bearing witness to racism and injustice is critical and must be a core part of our mission." The blog included links to resources compiled by the Graduate Group in Ecology's Diversity Committee, including several under the heading "Ways white people can take action for racial justice."
Andrew Rypel, an associate professor of biology at UC Davis, wrote the California Water Blog post. He said a team was putting together the usual weekly science blog and "just realized this is ridiculous. The focus should not be on business as usual right now."
"I think we're at an inflection point right now," he added, "where voices matter and using your platforms matter and we thought it was important to point these things out."
The blog, he said, has gotten a tremendous response, overwhelmingly positive. "Mostly, people have thanked us," he said. "It was tough to write that and tough to think about that because we all play a role in how bad the situation has gotten. In some ways, I look back at the 1960s and it makes me so sad that we haven't made much progress."
For the California Environmental Justice Alliance, a coalition of 10 grassroots environmental justice groups throughout the state, supporting the ongoing protests is no stretch.
The coalition's focus is on supporting and creating state policies that protect communities of color from bearing the brunt of fossil fuel pollution and other environmental hazards and offenses. Core members include Communities for a Better Environment, the Environmental Health Coalition and Center for community action and Environmental Justice.
Gladys Limon, the justice alliance's executive director, said the same racist system that exploits these communities, "pillaging the earth" and degrading the health and life expectancies of black and brown people, has led to "the heinous murders," that have upended cities across the country.
Members of the alliance as well as alliance staffers have been participating in the protests, speaking out and issuing statements in support, she said.
"Why wouldn't anyone stand with Black Lives Matter and all those rising up against the heinous murders of black people at the hands of our government," Limon said. "All social justice organizations and simply people of good conscience and those who believe in the promise of our country should be outraged and calling for justice, black liberation and systemic change."
This story originally appeared in Inside Climate News and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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After decades on the political periphery, the climate movement is entering the mainstream in 2020, with young leaders at the fore. The Sunrise Movement now includes more than 400 local groups educating and advocating for political action on climate change. Countless students around the world have clearly communicated what's at stake for their futures, notably Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who just finished her yearlong school strike for climate. Youth activists have been praised for their flexible, big-picture thinking and ability to harness social media to deliver political wins, as Sunrise recently did for U.S. Sen. Ed Markey's primary campaign. They necessarily challenge the status quo.
A Convergence of Issues<p>The unequal impacts of a changing climate have become extremely clear in 2020, so equity has come to the fore of climate conversations in every corner of the country. A global deadly pandemic continues to rage out of control in the U.S., heat waves are setting new temperature records, wildfires are scorching American Western states, and the hurricane season has already made it to the end of the alphabet for naming storms. In all cases, low-income, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are bearing a disproportionate amount of the impacts.</p><p>"Today, the scab is off, the ugly reality of injustice is hitting us up close and personal, made more realistic by this COVID pandemic," Bullard says.</p><p>This year the decidedly youthful focus on intersectionality is a big part of what defines the transformation of the climate movement. Climate is not just an environmental issue, according to youth activists. It's also a racial justice issue, an economic issue, and an access-to-health care issue.</p><p>"Environmental justice is really seeing the intersection of these issues," says Alex Rodriguez, a community organizer with the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, which aims to make environmental issues a priority for the state's elected leaders. The group is now focusing their efforts on the coming election and recently succeeded in persuading the state to allow absentee voting in November. "We want people to be safe when casting their vote," says Rodriguez, 26, whose fellow grassroots committee members range from age 16 to 60.</p><p>Rodriguez, who also serves on the equity and environmental justice working group for the Governor's Council on Climate Change, says, "We see our programmatic work as a way to help lawmakers see what they can do to improve the dignity of those suffering from environmental racism, systematic racism, and economic oppression."</p><p>Seeing the overlap and bringing these issues together is a strength that Bullard says was missing from the civil rights organizing he was involved with in the 1960s. He says 2020 is unique in many ways.</p><p>"The number of marchers is unprecedented, from different economic, ethnic, and racial groups—an awakening unlike any that I've seen on this Earth in over 70 years," Bullard says. "Today, the different movements are converging, and I think that convergence makes for greater potential for success."</p>
Young and Old<p>But young people are one essential demographic among many when it comes to climate action. With all that's on the line for climate in the coming elections, up and down the ballot, collaboration becomes key. Bullard says previous generations of climate activists can now play the critical role of mentoring, assisting, and supporting. Standing with, not in front of, youth.</p><p>"Youth are leading us and taking on frontline activity," says Jayce Chiblow, the community engagement lead for Indigenous Climate Action, a Canadian organization that works for Indigenous-led climate justice solutions. But in doing so, she says many young Indigenous activists are experiencing the trauma of violence, getting arrested, and being taken away from their land. "All of our older people are supporting those youth: Elders, mentors, people trained in nonviolent action," Chiblow says. "The youth aren't alone."</p><p>That support can go a long way. "There's a lot of anger and a lot of fear, and that's understandable," says Wazer of Sunrise Connecticut. "I definitely feel those things, too, just considering the ways that our future has been threatened and kind of trashed by older generations."</p><p>Under the Trump administration, the number of environmental rollbacks alone can be disheartening, not to mention new <a href="https://www.yesmagazine.org/video/arctic-national-wildlife-refuge/" target="_blank">drilling permits in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge going up for auction</a>.</p><p>Wazer is frank about the risks of burnout, depression, and anxiety from the stress of it all, but draws inspiration from the example of the late U.S. representative and lifelong civil rights activist John Lewis. "That forgiveness and that ability to keep fighting and stay motivated … I think that that is something really powerful to learn from older generations."</p><p>An intergenerational approach can leverage the individual strengths of youth and older people in all their diversity.</p><p>"The elders hold our stories," says Chiblow, who is Anishinaabe from Garden River First Nation, Ontario. Those stories include lived experiences, culture, history, and generations of adapting to changes in climate. Such collective experience continues to inform Indigenous knowledge and connections to the land, as well as how people manage and govern themselves in relation to it. This knowledge is passed on through relationship-building and storytelling.</p><p>"Every time you hear that story, you're at a different point in your life, and you'll pick up something else … something new," Chiblow says.</p><p>Changes in perspectives that come with time and experience are among the reasons why intergenerational learning and coalitions are critical to the climate movement. To combine that living and learning is to expand the reach and meaning of the message exponentially. As part of her research for her master's degree, Chiblow brought together youth, community leaders, and knowledge keepers in her community to workshop climate action. "Those relationships are vital to keep that movement going," Chiblow says.</p>
The Unique Value Proposition of Elders<p>Older activists bring unique strengths to the table, according to gerontologist Mick Smyer, who designs strategies to move people from anxiety to action on climate. He calls himself "the aging whisperer to climate groups" and "the climate whisperer to aging groups." He is quick to point out that the learning can go in both directions.</p><p>"I think older adults are untapped resources," Smyer says. "Older adults bring several resources, one of which is their circles of influence. Just by virtue of having lived longer, older adults are going to have denser and richer networks," Smyer says. "The second is, when it comes to voting and civic engagement, older adults, as an age group, outperform all other age groups."</p><p>He uses the 2016 presidential election to illustrate his point: "The older age groups, 70% of them voted. Nobody [else] came close." He is cautious about making sweeping statements about older people broadly, but he says that ageism is alive and well. And that can deter the kind of collaboration that would beget necessary progress on climate action.</p><p>As the twin global patterns of an aging population and a changing climate continue arm in arm, Smyer says a good place for starting this work is within one's family.</p><p>"We each have that power to use in our circles of influence, particularly in our families, and we don't realize it," Smyer says. Whether it's via Zoom or FaceTime or a phone call or a chat in the living room, Smyer says, family members have a superpower: They will listen to each other, and they'll at least start the conversation.</p><p> "Intergenerational collaboration around climate issues, particularly in this election season, starts at home, and then goes to the polling booth," he says.</p>
Speaking the Same Language<p>As an individual's network of family, friends, and connections becomes wider and more diverse, the more work will need to be done to have them all working toward the same goals. That is equally true for the climate movement at large.</p><p>In bridging the gaps among baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials, Bullard says, "Each generation will have some idiosyncrasy and uniqueness about it that another generation will not understand or comprehend."</p><p>If everybody in a group or institution is similar, then there's no need to explain a lot, Bullard says. There's usually a fair amount of shared knowledge and values. But the more diverse that group gets, in age, race, gender, or culture, he says, the greater the potential for making mistakes, stepping on people's culture, and causing pain. But the potential for learning also increases exponentially.</p><p>Chiblow says successful collaboration comes down to being able to speak in shared concepts. The term "justice," for example, is an English word that's hard to translate into the Anishinaabe language. Chiblow says that because her community sees itself as belonging to the land, and being part of the land, the Anishinaabe worldview, and therefore their understanding of justice, is necessarily more holistic than the mainstream.</p><p>"Indigenous people have been feeling [the effects of climate change] for so long," Chiblow says. Today, as wildfires rage across the West, the mantra of "I can't breathe" is being driven home on a grand scale. For better and worse, climate justice is finally a front-page story.</p><p>"It's affecting the broader society," Chiblow says. "We're finally at the turning point where we could start to make real change because … people are really starting to feel that urgency."</p><p>The urgency will be tantamount in the coming election. A lot is at stake, says Chiblow: "Incentives, funding, all-around agreement, and also the way we're able to manage our lands and ourselves as people."</p><p>Bullard, too, is insistent on urgency. "This election is one of the most important elections of a generation, because there's so many things at stake," he says. "We can't wait another 40 years on climate. We don't have that much time. We don't have 40 years to get justice."</p><p>Issues of climate justice will be on the ballot in state and local elections this fall, such as Nevada's proposed renewable energy standards and Louisiana's proposed disaster funding. And the topic has finally made it onto the national stage. Joe Biden called Trump a "climate arsonist" for not acting on or even admitting that the wildfires in California are clearly climate-related. The frequency and intensity of such disasters is indisputable.</p><p>"Hurricanes don't swerve to avoid red states or blue states. Wildfires don't skip towns that voted a certain way," Biden <a href="https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/biden-address-west-coast-fires-confront-growing-threat/story?id=73000218" target="_blank">said in a speech on Sept. 14</a>. "The impacts of climate change don't pick and choose. That's because it's not a partisan phenomenon."</p><p>In many ways, the results of the upcoming elections will reflect the ways youth activists and older activists are able come to a common understanding of what climate justice means and what they want the future world to look like. </p><p>"There's a lot of knowledge built up in experience, and there's a lot of energy that's stored in young people," Bullard says. "When you put those two together, you have … an excellent recipe for potential success."</p>
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Simon Montlake
For more than a decade, Susan Jane Brown has been battling to stop a natural gas pipeline and export terminal from being built in the backcountry of Oregon. As an attorney at the nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center, she has repeatedly argued that the project's environmental, social, and health costs are too high.
All that was before this month's deadly wildfires in Oregon shrouded the skies above her home office in Portland. "It puts a fine point on it. These fossil fuel projects are contributing to global climate change," she says.
Moderates Feeling the Heat<p>If elected, Mr. Biden has vowed to stop new drilling for oil and gas on federal land and in federal waters and to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate accord that President Donald Trump gave notice of quitting. He would reinstate Obama-era regulations of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, the largest component of natural gas.</p><p>The Biden climate platform also states that all federal infrastructure investments and federal permits would need to be assessed for their climate impacts. Analysts say such a test could impede future LNG plants and pipelines, though not those that already have federal approval. </p><p>Climate change activists who pushed for that language say much depends on who would have oversight of federal agencies that regulate the industry. Some are wary of Biden's reliance on advice from Obama-era officials, including former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who is now on the board of Southern Company, a utility, and a former Obama environmental aide, Heather Zichal, who has served on the board of Cheniere Energy, an LNG exporter. </p>
The Push for U.S. Fuel Exports<p>As vice president, Biden was part of an administration that pushed hard for global climate action while also promoting U.S. oil and gas exports to its allies and trading partners. As fracking boomed, Obama ended a 40-year ban on crude oil exports. In Europe, LNG was touted both as an alternative to coal and as strategic competition with Russian pipelines.</p><p>That much, at least, continued with President Trump. Under Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the agency referred to liquified U.S. hydrocarbons as "<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/us/freedom-gas-energy-department.html" target="_blank">freedom gas</a>."</p><p>Mr. Trump has also championed the interests of coal, oil, and gas while denigrating the findings of government climate scientists. He rejected the Paris accord as unfair to the U.S. and detrimental to its economy, but has offered no alternative path to emissions cuts. </p><p>Still, Trump's foreign policy has not always served the LNG industry: Tariffs on foreign steel drove up pipeline costs, and a trade war with China stayed the hand of Chinese LNG importers wary of reliance on U.S. suppliers. </p><p>Even his regulatory rollbacks could be a double-edged sword. By relaxing curbs last month on methane leaks, the U.S. has ceded ground to European regulators who are drafting emissions standards that LNG producers are watching closely. "That's a precursor of fights that will be fought in all the rest of the developed world," says Mr. Hutchison. </p><p>Indeed, some oil-and-gas exporters had urged the Trump administration not to abandon the tougher rules, since they undercut their claim to offer a cleaner-burning way of producing heat and electricity. "U.S. LNG is not going to be able to compete in a world that's focused on methane emissions and intensity," says Erin Blanton, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. </p>
Stepping on the Gas<p>In July, the Department of Energy issued an export license to Jordan Cove's developer, Canada's Pembina Pipeline Corp. In a statement, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said the project would provide "reliable, affordable, and cleaner-burning natural gas to our allies around the world."</p><p>As a West Coast terminal, Jordan Cove offers a faster route to Asia where its capacity of 7.8 million tons of LNG a year could serve to heat more than 15 million homes. At its peak, its construction would also create 6,000 jobs, the company says, in a stagnant corner of Oregon.</p><p>But the project still lacks multiple local and state permits, and its biggest asset – a Pacific port – has become its biggest handicap, says Ms. Blanton. "They are putting infrastructure in a state where there's no political support for the pipeline or the terminal, unlike in Louisiana or Texas," she says. </p><p>Ms. Brown, the environmental lawyer, says she wants to see Jordan Cove buried, not just mothballed until natural gas prices recover. But she knows that it's only one among many LNG projects and that others will likely get built, even if Biden is elected in November, despite growing evidence of the harm caused by methane emissions. </p>
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