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Why I asked this question

During CNN’s Climate Crisis Town Hall, I had the opportunity to ask Senator Kamala Harris: How will you work across the aisle to support all workers, and build trust with the Republican constituents dependent on a fossil-fuel economy?

The reason I asked this question is simple: people are affected by the fossil-fuel industry in different ways and we need solutions that work for us all. Low income communities and communities of color are on the frontlines of pollution and climate change impacts, while fossil fuel workers are on the frontlines of the transition to a clean energy economy. Moving towards a green economy is critical for the future of our people and planet. In order to get there, we need to build relationships with directly impacted communities and work with Congress to pass real, meaningful reform.

Unfortunately, I did not hear Senator Harris mention the workers who fear losing their jobs, or the steps she will take to make sure climate change is a bipartisan issue. Instead, I heard her commit to ending the filibuster to force a Green New Deal through Congress by bypassing her Republican colleagues. 

While that is a bold response, it’s not the response I was hoping for. Frankly, it doesn’t answer my question. Senator Harris, I applaud your commitment to passing the Green New Deal and know your climate plan mentions a just transition, but your answer focused on Republican politicians, not the voters they serve.

As Democratic presidential candidates are pushed to be bolder and act more quickly to address the climate crisis, I am concerned that the needs of disproportionately impacted communities will become an afterthought, both those who bear the burdens and those who rely on the industry. 

People of color have been living on the frontlines of pollution and climate change impacts for years, and we can’t afford to mess this up. Study after study has found that people of color are disproportionately exposed to toxic air pollution from power plants and from transportation emissions, in large part due to a history of discriminatory land use and facility siting decisions. Yet, our climate solutions have largely failed to address the specific needs of these communities. 

People of color on the frontlines of pollution and impacted workers have more in common than we think. Sure, the climate crisis impacts everyone but the stakes are highest for us. From my own city of Sacramento, California, which has been consistently ranked the fifth most polluted city in the country, to Boone County, West Virginia, where 47% of the jobs are in coal, the fossil fuel economy plays a significant role in people’s lives. The industry both pollutes and provides, but we can and we must build solutions that support our pollution-burdened neighborhoods AND our fossil fuel workers dependent on their paychecks. 

Climate solutions could exacerbate the already delicate situation our communities face, or they could create a better future for our families, bolster our local economies, and uplift our neighborhoods.

To build a green economy that works for all, we need everyone at the table. As an organizer, I have facilitated dialogues and built coalitions with people across the globe. I know first-hand how difficult it can be to navigate past our differences to find common ground and build authentic relationships. I also know the rewards are greatest when we do. 

Our next leader is going to inherit a deeply divided country, and our climate solutions must bring people together, not tear them apart. Climate change shouldn’t be an issue of the Left, of the Coasts, or of a younger generation. It is an issue that affects all of us, and we need a leader willing to build bridges and come face-to-face with the realities of everyday people across the country. We need a leader who will bring Republican allies and constituents to the table and ask, “how does this affect you?” We need a leader who will ask pollution-burdened communities the same, and use those answers to make our solutions stronger.

As we’ve witnessed in recent years, policies enacted by executive action under one administration are too easily overturned by the next. We need effective, durable, and sustainable policies built by and for the people who need them most. Our next leader will need to work with Congress to ensure that policies are developed with widespread support that can last for generations. It won’t be easy, but we cannot risk our future. The next president will need to work hard to heal divides and build a better future for all. 

Video clip of CNN Climate Crisis Townhall – Mychal Estrada Question

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