A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future. This Post Was Originally Published March 30, 2017 in Grist
These are challenging times for environmental justice — at least at the federal level. Earlier this month, Mustafa Ali, who led environmental justice work at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, resigned rather than preside over the dismantling of his program.
To understand the prospects for environmental justice work in Trump’s America, we gathered (by phone) an impressive cadre of leaders from across the country:
- Denise Abdul-Rahman, environmental climate justice chair for NAACP Indianain Indianapolis;
- Angela Adrar, executive director of the Our Power Campaign and Climate Justice Alliance in Washington, D.C.;
- Cecilia Martinez, cofounder and director of research programs at the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and
- Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE in Brooklyn, New York.
Charles Ellison, contributing politics editor for TheRoot.com and founding principal of B|E Strategy, moderated the conversation.
Q. Ellison: In the Trump era, the prospects for progress on environmental justice at the federal level seem rather grim. But even in this political landscape, there’s discussion about building alternative systems. What are those exactly?
A. Martinez: When the political system does not provide for the common good, those that deal with the consequences have to be creative, innovative, and action-oriented. And we do see that. All kinds of communities are coming together to try and figure out how to build systems that are both environmentally sustainable and equitable. Cities are leaders in developing plans on climate action and adaptation, irrespective of what federal legislation or international agreements are in place. That kind of action is feeding into a locally based national and international movement. The challenge continues, though, to move states and cities to incorporate justice into their institutional work.
Abdul-Rahman: Communities on the front lines can lead the way. We’ve formed a group called Women’s Voices Unheard [in Indianapolis], and we’re asking the women about their concerns and issues. We give them the tools and the knowledge they need to speak for themselves.
We look at the contrasts between communities. Who gets to have an aesthetically pleasing environment? Which community gets the natural gas plant that emits methane, or the coal-fired power plant? Who gets to decide about issues affecting the community? Then we look at another vision of how we can control our own destiny by honing in on solar and wind, and how our communities can benefit by getting the training and the jobs. We present another vision of the future, where we as human beings and as communities can change our own destiny. We can utilize our power and speak truth to power.
Adrar: With the issues we’re facing in frontline communities, we can go issue by issue, rule by rule — or we can look at the underlying root causes. We see the enclosure of wealth and power; Trump’s cabinet is one of the wealthiest in modern history. That creates an opening for greater extraction of fossil fuels and more human rights violations in our communities. So as our Native friends [who’ve been] marching in D.C. are saying, we have to end this colonial mindset.
Yeampierre: We need to build an economy that is not extractive, but regenerative. In our industrial waterfront community [in Brooklyn], we’ve been working with industries to operate in a way that’s cleaner, retrofitting to reduce emissions. Our vision is to use the industrial waterfront as a place that creates good jobs in green industries — like building offshore wind turbines or community-owned solar. We see this as a solution that could prevent people from getting displaced, while addressing climate change and environmental justice.
Q. Ellison: Displacement is a big problem: As people are pushed out of gentrifying cities, we are seeing the rise of poverty in suburban areas and surrounding exurbs. How do you discuss and address that?
A. Martinez: I think it points to the deep structural issue that Angela talked about. There was a racial and class dimension to suburbanization in the first place. Suburbanization could not have happened without federal policy constructing a highway system that destroyed many communities of color. The reason many of our communities of color are in the state that they are in is because of federal policy and housing policy that promoted segregation, and redlining that extracted capital from certain communities to the benefit of others. So it was not an equal process.
We’ve been able to institute some policies and laws that hopefully prevent the most egregious of those abuses, but the reality is that the dynamic still continues. So now white middle-class people are leaving the suburbs, which leaves these areas open to people of color and low-income communities. The amenities move with the capital and with the middle class, and the low-income communities that are left behind suffer.
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