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Will the Democratic Party’s Climate Platform Address Injustice?

Politics
Will the Democratic Party’s Climate Platform Address Injustice?
U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unveils the Green New Deal resolution in front of the U.S. Capitol on February 7, 2019 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong / Getty Images

By Judith Lewis Mernit

For all its posturing on climate change, the Democratic Party has long been weak on the actual policies we need to save us from extinction. President Barack Obama promised his presidency would mark "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow," and then embraced natural gas, a major driver of global temperature rise, as a "bridge fuel." Climate legislation passed in the House in 2009 would have allowed industries to buy credits to pollute, a practice known to concentrate toxic air in black and brown neighborhoods while doing little to cut emissions.


Even this year, with interest in the issue at an all-time high, the candidates the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed — like Amy McGrath, who eked out a victory in Kentucky's Senate primary, and former-Governor John Hickenlooper, who handily won Colorado's — have evinced skepticism about the Green New Deal, a resolution pending in Congress to put trillions of dollars into a transition to renewable energy plus job-training for a new clean economy.

On June 4, however, when the Democratic National Committee's Environment and Climate Crisis Council released a rigorous set of proposals for the party's 2020 platform, it offered climate voters some hope. The 14-page document's solutions for the warming planet included investment in communities that suffer every day with the consequences of industrial waste, shoring up public health services and making sure everyone has enough to eat. It also advises changing the structure of the society that allows police to kill unarmed black people with relative impunity.

"There's just no way to address the climate crisis without taking on systemic racism," says Michelle Deatrick, chair of the council. "They're intertwined and integrally related."

But proposals are not a platform; they don't represent any official statement of purpose from the DNC on climate or anything else. The climate council, founded in August 2019 after party members failed to persuade Chairman Tom Perez to hold a climate debate, is but one of three groups involved in crafting the party's final climate policies. Another, the eight-member Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force, will offer recommendations from the likes of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and environmental justice leader Catherine Coleman Flowers. Then it's yet another committee that will draw up the actual climate platform with former Vice President Joe Biden, the party's presumptive nominee.

On its face, that process looks reasonable: A task force and a council inclined to progressive ideals will push the ultimate deciders to take bigger steps toward a zero-carbon future. The problem, Deatrick says, is that once the platform has been agreed upon by that final, 15-member committee, it rarely changes when it goes before the full committee for approval.

"It's mostly a formal vote," she says. The state and local officials in the DNC, despite the crucial knowledge they bring from their jurisdictions, "historically have had no impact on the final product." But this year, with its great convergence of catastrophes that have defined the spring and summer of 2020, has to be different. "We need to have an inclusive and transparent process around the creation of the platform," Deatrick says. "This is a great opportunity for Democrats to show that we are the party of listening and deep considerations of ideas."

Among those ideas is that none of the problems we're facing can be disentangled from the others. "The nature of environmental problems is bound up in the history of race in America," says Adrien Salazar, senior campaign strategist for climate equity with the social-justice think tank Dēmos. "The only way that [polluting] industries have been viable at all is because there are communities where they can pollute, places that have ended up being the sacrifice zones for the rest of America."

Racial inequality, he says, "undergirds the very fabric of American society."

"You can't have climate change without sacrifice zones," wrote Hop Hopkins, director of strategic partnerships for the Sierra Club, in a recent essay. "And you can't have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can't have disposable people without racism."

Robert Bullard, the author and researcher often called "the father of the environmental justice movement," has found that toxic hot spots across the U.S., from Louisiana's "Cancer Alley" to the refinery rows of Texas, align closely with Jim Crow housing segregation and other discriminatory zoning practices. "America is segregated," he says, "and so is pollution."

The injustice bleeds into public health and disease transmission: The COVID-19 virus travels, scientists hypothesize, on the sooty particles that blight communities on the front lines of industrial pollution. Those same places emit the greenhouse gases warming the atmosphere. In other words, it's not just pre-existing conditions causing the disease to hit harder in black communities. It's literally the air people breathe.

There are people tasked with air-quality regulation who argue that the common air contaminants that make people sick – the ground-level ozone that irritates lung tissue, the particulate matter that triggers cancer – belong to a different category than the greenhouse gases that trap the earth's heat. Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation, remembers hearing as much during the 24 years he spent at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "I've had these conversations with some of the best scientists in the world," he says. "And what I know is that it is impossible, impossible, to hit the numbers that we need to hit to win on climate change if you're not focused on environmental justice."

Fossil-fuel infrastructure, for instance, blights "lower-wealth communities," Santiago Ali says. "So if you focus on that, you're going to begin to minimize the impacts of oil and gas." Pipelines cut through indigenous land in the Midwest and end up on Louisiana's Gulf Coast. "If you stop those pipelines, you stop the climate-killing export of oil."

Cars and trucks drive global warming, too, and their proliferation is made possible by "policies of running highways through certain communities, moving wealth into certain communities and dropping off pollution in lower-wealth communities along the way." Writer Peter Simek has noted that you can find the locations of Dallas' Freedmen's Towns — communities established by emancipated slaves during and after the Civil War — by following the highways engineers built on top of them. "Some of the most powerful planners in America were forthright about their intention to use their power as transportation engineers to rewire a society built on racial and economic segregation," he wrote.

If you stop dehumanizing people in order to pollute, you stop degrading the environment, Santiago Ali says. If you don't, we literally won't survive. "There's no way of pulling climate out and saying, 'We're going to win on this but not focus on any of these other issues," he says. "That's just bad arithmetic."

Whether the platform committee does better math depends on how well it responds to outside pressure: The group is diverse, but not necessarily progressive. (Journalist Emily Atkin in her newsletter Heated has broken the group down in a useful spreadsheet.) Fear surrounds this election — fear that pushing too hard on climate and racial injustice both will alienate white voters of the Rust Belt; fear that people will equate an expensive clean energy transition with the loss of jobs in oil and gas. Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mineworkers Union, told Reuters that the circulation of the climate council's policy recommendations "has already cost Democrats potential votes in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan."

Deatrick, who in addition to her environmental work is a longtime union supporter from Michigan, isn't worried. "We have to walk the talk," she says. "We have to make sure that we commit to policies that support those workers, replace pensions, provide health care." What she's learned on three months of listening tours around the country is that people are less afraid of economic transitions than they are of the chaos a changing climate will bring.

"We have a real opportunity to reinvigorate the part of the electorate – which is the vast majority of Democrats and Independents as well – who rate the climate crisis among their top priorities," Deatrick says, along with health care and racial inequality. She wants to make sure that when the draft of the climate platform is drawn up, those people are heard. The DNC "has not laid out what that listening process will be," she says. "And we don't have much time left."

This story originally appeared in Capital & Main and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."

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Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.

For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.

"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."

To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.

"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."

So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.

Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.