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Climate Justice Work is Racial Justice Work

October 28, 2020 | Originally published on Generation 180

While it isn’t news to those who have lived through it for decades, many (mostly white) Americans are just now arriving at a greater understanding of two very important realities. The first is that America’s fossil fuel-based economy has disproportionately harmed low-income communities and communities of color for many decades in severe and systemic ways. The second is that our transition to clean energy holds enormous potential benefits that must be deliberately, thoughtfully, and equitably distributed in light of the first reality.

To explore this topic further, we turned to Green For All, an organization that works at the intersection of the environmental, economic, and racial justice movements to advance solutions to poverty and pollution. We talked with their National Director Michelle Romero to answer some basic yet important questions:

Generation180: The stated mission of Green For All is to “fight for a world that is green for all, not green for some.” Can you explain why this is so important, and who you see as currently being left out of the green movement?

Michelle Romero: We all want clean air, healthy kids, and good jobs, but we don’t all get it. Low-income communities and communities of color have been hit first and worst by poverty and pollution, thanks to decades of discriminatory land-use, facility siting, and redlining practices. Eighty percent of Latinos, for example, live in areas that do not meet federal air quality standards. And people of color are twice as likely to live near busy roads and freeways, which means they’re most at risk for cancer, asthma, and pollution-related illnesses stemming from transportation emissions.

We believe the green economy can help us reverse course. Everything that is good for the planet is also a job, a contract, a business opportunity. We can put people to work in good jobs building healthier homes and neighborhoods and fighting pollution where it lives. Unfortunately, the people who are hit first and worst by the problems, often benefit last and least from the solutions. Green For All works with policymakers across the country to design climate, energy, and transportation policies that prioritize solutions for the people who need them most. We’re building an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty—one that leaves no one behind. 

G180: What do you see as the main links between climate justice and racial justice?

MR: I used to think environmental causes were for White, hippie tree-huggers. I didn’t think racial justice had anything to do it with, but I was wrong. While many mainstream environmental groups focus climate postcards on saving whales and polar bears, there is so much more to it. Decades of discriminatory housing, transportation, and land use decisions have led to wide disparities in toxic air exposure. For example, race is twice as important as income in predicting exposure to nitrogen oxide from tailpipe pollution, which causes premature death.

Environmental racism is literally killing Black and Brown people by polluting the air they breathe. So for us, climate justice is racial justice.

G180: How can shifting to a clean energy future help address the impacts of racial inequity and injustice?

MR: The great thing about clean, renewable energy is that it not only cuts carbon emissions, it also protects our health, creates jobs, and can help consumers save money on their energy bills. There is plenty to gain from a clean energy economy. But it matters which communities can participate now and which ones have to wait another decade when it’s more affordable or accessible, or when policymakers get around to caring enough about them. We can ensure renewable energy and energy efficiency policies and programs target benefits in communities that need them the most to address and correct historical inequities. We do this by empowering the voices of those most impacted and bringing them to the table to contribute meaningful solutions. 

G180: A key promise of clean energy is job creation. What do you see as the connection between green jobs and equity?

MR: We can solve poverty and pollution at the same time. In the next year or so, Congress is poised to spend trillions of dollars to rebuild the economy following COVID-19. If we put those dollars to work in the green sector, we can put people to work building a better future for everyone. But the jobs must be good, high-roads jobs that provide a living wage, benefits, and career pathways. And the infrastructure investments should be tied to not only fair labor standards, but supplier diversity standards too — giving a boost to women, minority, and veteran-owned businesses. That’s how we recover together and build a future that is better than before. 

G180: Green For All has been a strong advocate for electric school buses and zero-emission transport? Can you explain how this shift can help advance racial justice?

MR: Before COVID-19, over 24 million kids rode dirty diesel school buses on their way to get an education. Cumulative exposure to dirty diesel emissions and their resulting health effects has been linked with lower IQ scores, increased behavioral issues, missed school and workdays, and health issues such as asthma, cancer and other cardiovascular diseases. As schools work to bring kids back to campus safely, they should consider the role of toxic tailpipe emissions from their own buses. Some of the preexisting conditions that put people at greater risk of death if they contract COVID are some of the same conditions caused by toxic tailpipe emissions.

Now is the time to be thinking about how to come back to school safer and better than ever. Every day more kids, parents, schools, and community members are working together to transition dirty diesel school buses to zero-emission electric buses. If we can get schools to make a public commitment to buying electric buses, and the government to fund them, we can empower people from underserved and pollution-burdened neighborhoods to break the cycle of poor health, unemployment, crime, poverty, and disinvestment. 

G180: What do you feel is the biggest obstacle to achieving climate justice today?

MR: Ten years ago, our biggest challenge was helping people understand that we don’t have to sacrifice the economy to clean up the environment. I think today most people understand that we can have a strong economy and a clean environment. California is proving that every day, with some of the strictest environmental standards and one of the strongest economies in the world. Today, political polarization is probably the biggest challenge. Republicans have ceded their leadership on the environment. They used to be some of the best. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Clean Air Act both exist because of a Republican. We have to break this idea that climate change is a Left issue. It’s not a Left issue.

Climate change doesn’t discriminate between red states and blue states. Farmers in red, rural parts of America are going to struggle just as much from droughts, flooding, and extreme weather events as struggling families in urban neighborhoods across the country. We have to fix that and come together on this.

G180: What can organizations like Generation180 (and our supporters) do to better advance the fight toward climate and racial justice?

MR: There’s plenty you can do. First, continue learning about how climate justice and racial justice are connected. Next, speak up on behalf of underdogs! Elected officials need to hear that you want them to prioritize low-income communities and communities of color in EVERY policy fight whether it’s about clean energy, clean transportation, climate, or jobs. 

Lastly, for those in a position to make decisions about who to partner with or contract with on green projects, seek out Black- and Brown-owned green companies like BlocPower and Volt Energy. And for those running their own companies, remember green jobs must be good jobs. Be a leader by setting a new standard.

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