This week, with the country convulsed by protests over the killing of a black man named George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, we decided we’d talk to leading black climate activists about the connections between racism and climate change.
A clear theme emerged from those discussions: Racial and economic inequities need to be tackled as this country seeks to recalibrate its economic and social compass in the weeks and months to come. Racism, in short, makes it impossible to live sustainably.
Here’s what three prominent environmental defenders had to say in interviews this week about how the climate movement can be anti-racist.
Mr. Grant called it “a positive signal to build on” but he said he wasn’t convinced that the solidarity would be sustained. “It’s not been the norm that mainstream environmental organizations have ever had our backs,” he said.
Does climate change seem like a faraway issue to address right now? “I believe part of our challenge as an organization focused on the climate crisis is to honor what’s primary for people and through dialogue and through relationships, help people see the connection between that issue and the broader climate crisis,” he said. “So it’s not choosing this or that. Or this, then that. It’s this and that.”
In Minneapolis, his staff has been cooking for protesters and providing first aid to those injured. “Police violence is an aspect of a broader pattern of structural violence, which the climate crisis is a manifestation of,” he said. “Healing structural violence is actually in the best interest of all human beings.”
‘Statements need to be followed up with concerted efforts’
Robert D. Bullard is a professor at Texas Southern University who has written for more than 30 years about the need to redress environmental racism. He welcomed the statements of support this week from the leaders of big environmental groups but he lamented that the vast amount of donor money still goes to white-led environmental groups. “I’d like to see these groups start to embrace this whole concept of justice, fairness and equity,” he said. “Those statements need to be followed up with a concerted effort to address the underlying conditions that make for despair.”
“If it’s going to be too hot to work outside, we know who’s going to be affected,” Dr. Bullard said. “If we’re talking about urban heat islands, we know who can’t afford to run their air-conditioners 24/7.”
‘We’ve got to divest from systems that are killing us’
Heather McGhee is a senior fellow at Demos, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group, and the author of a forthcoming book called “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.”
She laid out reasons mainstream environmental groups should use this moment to lay out an anti-racist program. The first is strategic: Public opinion polls show that African-Americans, along with Latinos, are, on average, more concerned about climate issues than whites. Then, there are the substantive issues. “It’s essential to have anti-racism baked into the goals that even white-led organizations are pursuing because both political racism and environmental racism are drivers of our excess pollution and climate denialism,” she said.
An anti-racist climate movement, Ms. McGhee said, should be led by “a real multiracial coalition that endorses environmental justice principles” and its goals should seek to uplift the most vulnerable. That means, she said, the creation of green jobs, rather than cap-and-trade policies that allow companies to keep polluting in communities of color as they have been able to do for decades. “Success is measured by the improvement in the environmental and economic health of the people who have borne the brunt of our carbon economy.”
“This conversation is a police brutality conversation on top of a Covid-19 conversation, and it all adds up to a devaluation of black life,” Ms. McGhee said. “That’s what climate change is as well, because of environmental racism. We’ve got to divest from systems that are killing us and costing us, and invest in our people and our planet.”