Elites who divorce climate policy from social justice are almost as out of touch as those who deny climate science altogether. Julian Brave NoiseCat explains in an article in The Guardian. What do you think?
No, climate action can’t be separated from social justice
If you set aside Republicans’ obsession with cow farts, perhaps the most prevalent criticism of the Green New Deal is its emphasis on social justice. Critics contend that the far-reaching climate agenda is far too concerned with extraneous issues such as jobs, infrastructure, housing, healthcare and civil and indigenous rights. Stick to greenhouse gases, they say; reforming the energy system is utopian enough.
This criticism crosses the aisle among elites. In February, the New York Times editorial board wondered whether addressing the climate crisis was “merely a cover for a wish-list of progressive policies and a not-so-subtle effort to move the Democratic Party to the left?” A day later, the Washington Post editorial board opined that serious policymakers should not “muddle” decarbonization with social programs that “divert money and attention from the primary mission”. And in a widely circulated 11,000-word Open Letter to Green New Dealers, Jerry Taylor, the president of the Niskanen Center, a pro-market environmental group, was incredulous. “The Green New Deal resolution quite literally gives a nod to every single last policy demand forwarded by the Democratic Socialists of America,” he wrote. “The climate is too important to be held hostage to political commitments.” The general gist of all this: take your social justice agenda elsewhere, activists. It has no place in serious climate policy.
But here’s the thing: social justice concerns are always intertwined with public policy – and absolutely central to climate policy.
Experts agree that we must quickly deploy vast resources to mitigate and adapt to global warming. If the United States aims to shift to 100% clean and renewable energy, we will need to build solar and wind farms across the country along with a national grid to connect them. Such a transformative investment could create a boom in jobs. But who would those jobs go to? Where would we build all of this new, green infrastructure, and who should own it? Which communities get energy first? How do we keep it affordable?
And that’s just the energy sector. To decarbonize our economy, we must make equally challenging choices across many other sectors – transportation, agriculture, buildings, manufacturing. In this vast and tangled web of society-wide choices, questions of social justice are everywhere.
Up until now, legislators have mostly made these decisions in ways that harm communities of color, working families and the poor. We build much of our polluting infrastructure – power plants, industrial sites, highways and waste facilities – in these communities. As a consequence, African Americans are nearly three times more likely to die from asthma-related causes than white people. Nearly half of Latinos live in counties where air quality does not meet EPA clean air standards. Indigenous communities like the Navajo nation live with the residual effects of uranium pollution in their water, exposing as many as 54,000 Navajos to harm – and that’s just one tribe.
At the same time, the climate crisis is a driver of injustice, widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Communities of color number among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change because they live in areas at higher risk of wildfires and flooding – often without basic economic protections like insurance. In New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina displaced 75,000 African Americans and hollowed out the city’s black middle class, which has never recovered. Today, the city’s black population is smaller and poorer. Similar dynamics are at play in Houston, where a year after Hurricane Harvey the poorest communities – primarily Latino and black – have been the slowest to recover.
All of this should have major implications for how we write and implement policy. The Green New Deal, which envisions a society where people have universal access to energy, jobs, healthcare and housing, is a call for renewed commitment to the equal distribution of opportunity and justice – fundamental tenets of the social contract that have languished for far too long. It’s about investing in the communities polluted and left behind by the fossil fuel economy because these are the places with the highest levels of toxicity to clean up, but also because this is the right thing to do.
For all the naysayers’ hand-wringing, it appears that social justice has found a home in climate policy – at least with some. Last week, Elizabeth Warren unveiled a $2tn green manufacturing platform that included explicit commitments to unions and communities of color. The same day, Joe Biden, previously noted for his Green New Deal skepticism, did an about-face, putting out a platform that cited the Green New Deal resolution and included an entire section dedicated to environmental justice. The next day, Jay Inslee – the governor of Washington, who is running a climate-focused campaign for president – published a 50-page foreign policy package that included an extensive examination of the United States’ responsibility to the Global South and to climate refugees. This came on the heels of his Evergreen Economy Plan, which focused on the role of justice in a clean energy economy.
Public opinion, too, is shifting in favor of policies that link climate action with social justice. New data compiled by political scientist James Stimson of the University of North Carolina shows that Americans are more supportive of liberal “big government” than they have been at any time since 1961 – the days of the New Deal and the Great Society. And in new polling, Data for Progress, a left-leaning thinktank where I work, finds robust support for the Green New Deal nationally, including support for policies that prioritize social justice and investment in communities of color.
Yet some pundits and politicians – like the New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, who is working behind the scenes to remove economic justice provisions from the state’s new Climate and Community Protection Act – are still trying to reject this reality. Surveying a landscape of environmental racism and intransigent inequality, one wonders if opinion leaders and policymakers with the privilege not to think about these problems are looking at anything other than old theories, bad data and one another when they suggest that climate policy be separated from questions of redistribution.
Non-elites experience policy through their daily lives, their monthly energy bill, their paycheck and the quality of their neighborhood, not through the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere or share of renewables on the grid. Elites who divorce climate policy from social justice and the people it is meant to help are almost as out of touch as those who deny climate science altogether.