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This article is from the Fall 2021 issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly, “Climate Justice: A Movement for Life.”
When I was a child, my mother would often tell me stories about her experiences growing up in Sioux City, Iowa. She described playing childhood games around the city dump, which had been parked in her neighborhood. The community’s trash had to go somewhere, and the powers that be chose to send it to the part of town that was predominantly home to people of color. There were people of means and people of limited means in the community; because of segregation and discrimination, both lacked political clout.
It is said that the sense of smell is harbored within our most vivid memories, which may explain why that dump found its way into the stories my mother shared with me.
In 1979, when I took my first job out of college, at the Environmental Protection Agency, I saw up close how my mother’s experience was far from happenstance. In neighborhood after neighborhood, I witnessed people who looked like me living in disinvested and redlined neighborhoods standing in the shadows of chemical plants, refineries, and toxic waste sites. I saw air, land, and water pollution resulting from mining activities. And I was routinely assaulted by the same pungent odors that would have been constant in my mother’s childhood and that poisoned generations of Black and Brown children.
Not unexpectedly, these communities faced a host of other challenges linked to environmental hazards that were part of their daily lives. They dealt with chronic health problems and disparities regarding healthcare access and treatment. They dealt with failing schools and economic dislocation. They had little or no opportunity to influence or reverse the decisions that had led to these conditions.
Those early experiences have stayed with me throughout my career and have shaped my environmental justice journey, which now spans five continents and more than four decades. Along the way, they’ve fueled an ever- growing sense of urgency as I witness the burgeoning threat of climate change inflict increasingly disproportionate damage on already marginalized communities around the globe.
Climate Justice: Not a Stand-Alone Issue
Over the past eighteen months, Black Lives Matter and the COVID-19 pandemic have shone a spotlight on systemic racism here in the United States and across the globe—and put an even finer point on the idea that we must act differently if we want to achieve change. Never has it been more apparent that environmental justice cannot occur in a vacuum. Around the world, there is a growing understanding that we cannot even begin to address the disproportionate impacts of environmental and climate change on people of color, women, and the poor without also addressing the overlapping and intersecting factors of economic, racial, and social justice.
For too long, government and philanthropy have approached climate change and climate justice as stand- alone issues. Climate injustice is a root cause of health inequities, and influences how children learn and grow. Environmental injustice amplifies—and is amplified by—economic, gender, and racial injustice across the globe. These are integrated problems that require integrated solutions—solutions that tap into the skills and knowledge of people and communities that have been experiencing these issues for generations. As we come to grips with the overlapping and urgent threats of climate change, racial injustice, and a worldwide pandemic, it’s time to take a comprehensive, coordinated approach.
Adopting an integrated approach to climate justice is difficult work—it requires a seismic shift in how we think about some of the most persistent and potent challenges facing our planet and all who inhabit it. It also requires a fundamental rethinking of the systems we use.
People of color are the global majority. They are the hardest hit by the issues, and the most affected by centuries of decisions made by those who do not share their interests. Those who have access to the power and money needed to make change must be willing to upend traditional, top-down approaches so we can design equitable, community-led solutions. Failure to do so will only continue to reinforce our historic inequities.
Ceding power might sound intimidating to those working in and under philanthropy’s existing structures, but there are a growing number of examples that offer a road map for how to create community-based approaches to climate justice that are embedded with racial, social, and economic justice. I offer three, here.
After Hurricane Maria, the Fundación Comunitaria de PuertoRico (Community Foundation of Puerto Rico)— working in partnership with philanthropy and government agencies—began an ambitious effort to help isolated, low-income communities create community-owned, solar-powered electricity systems designed to help them weather future catastrophic storms and create a path forward for scalable economic growth.1,
Through the Puerto Rico Community Green Energy Corridor project, these communities not only get access to the tools to create their own electricity but also work closely with experts who help them organize, manage, and maintain these systems. Over time, these systems will help create new businesses and job-creation opportunities in long-overlooked rural communities that face high unemployment and poverty.2
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This model is transforming lives in tiny barrios like Toro Negro, a rural community in the municipality of Ciales with a population of about one thousand people. Toro Negro went live with its power grid in the summer of 2018, after residents actively participated in its design and construction. The community now manage their own nonprofit, which owns the microgrid and is responsible for its future maintenance.3 The community make key decisions about the rate they are going to charge themselves, and identify other funding mechanisms to ensure self-sustainability for the long term. With a strong, locally managed electricity system, they are able to spin off new, locally owned businesses and create family-sustaining jobs while being able to weather future storms.
Toro Negro might be small—and the Puerto Rico Community Green Energy Corridor might be largely unknown in the mainstream United States—but imagine if philanthropy and donors began exploring how they could invest in replicating its model across the Caribbean. Scores of rural communities, most of which are poor, would become more economically viable. At the same time, it would mean investing in tangible projects that address the impacts of climate change, establish sources of green energy, and improve health outcomes. It would also help make these communities more resilient in the face of future storms—saving countless lives and billions of dollars in the process.
In Yavatmal and Dhar, cotton has historically been the most profitable crop, but livelihoods are now being threatened by climate change. Cotton happens to be one of the most water-intensive crops to grow, and changes to the environment have made water an increasingly precious commodity in these regions.4
The most obvious solution to this challenge centers on helping farmers develop agricultural practices that optimize water use. Yet when the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC) began working with locals there to address this challenge, the water shortage turned out to be a canary in a coal mine of sorts: it exposed a series of other, interrelated challenges that had long vexed the region—in particular, issues involving gender equity.
ISC launched a project to enhance the role of women and address the region’s water shortage by designing and implementing regenerative agriculture, soil, water, and pest-management models through cotton cultivation training and demonstration programs; improving understanding of local water balance by involving farmers and village-level institutions in water budgeting and developing village water management plans; and strengthening women and advancing equity through gender learning groups and training women farmers and entrepreneurs.5
Still in its early stages, the project already shows what’s possible for communities when they take steps to embed gender equity in efforts to improve local economies and tackle problems created by climate change. For instance, focusing on promoting environmentally sound entrepreneurial opportunities for women (such as the production of compost and biopesticides) has created an open lane to encourage environmentally friendly cotton production, providing tangible examples of the vital role women can play in improving quality of life and economic conditions in their villages. Further, ISC’s expert gender learning groups augment understanding of the role gender plays in cotton cultivation and water management. Those learnings could have wide-ranging implications across India and elsewhere in agricultural regions that face the dual challenge of climate change impacts and a severe imbalance of opportunity and influence based on gender.
The United States
In the United States, Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the irrefutable link between climate and racial justice more than nearly any other environmental catastrophe. For it is out of that August 2005 tragedy that one of the most consequential movements for racial and social justice was born: Black Lives Matter.
On the tenth anniversary of Katrina, Slate magazine published a piece titled “Where Black Lives Matter Began.” In it, author Jamelle Bouie traces the roots of the Black Lives Matter movement to the stark inequities that those category 5 winds and relentless rain laid bare for all the world to see. People desperately huddled on roofs and crammed the damaged Superdome. Bodies floated through flooded streets. Entire neighborhoods were left in ruin. The faces of suffering the world saw were disproportionately, predominantly Black and Brown—people whose limited means and historic disenfranchisement had destined them to live in the most vulnerable sections of New Orleans.
“When we look at the first 15 years of the 21st century, the most defining moment in [B]lack America’s relationship to its country isn’t Election Day 2008; it’s Hurricane Katrina,” Bouie wrote. “Black collective memory of Hurricane Katrina, as much as anything else, informs the present movement against police violence, ‘Black Lives Matter.’”6
Katrina offers an accessible and familiar touchstone to make the clear connection between climate justice and racial, economic, and social justice. In post-Katrina New Orleans, the interconnectivity between the health of the planet and the health and well-being of its most divested and exposed citizens is undeniable. The scope of the catastrophe, and the wall-to-wall media coverage it attracted, laid bare the depths of Katrina’s impacts. Without both, what happened to mostly Black and Brown people might not have been so clear.
Enormous opportunities for transformative change exist at the intersections of climate stabilization, racial and economic justice, gender equity, health, access to safe and affordable housing, transportation, and social mobility. To effectively meet the present moment and lay the groundwork for a more just future for all requires that we embrace fully the connectivity of our challenges, in ways that encourage and energize community- based solutions that reach beyond a singular focus.
Our most pressing challenge lies in the fact that countless catastrophes of significant scope inflict damage in far more covert and sinister ways around the globe. Factory emissions vanish into the sky; toxins silently permeate soils and groundwater; pervasive ozone gases are unseen, and to most, abstract. I suspect that in my mother’s childhood home of Sioux City, ways may have been devised to mask the stench of that landfill. But that does not answer the question as to what remains beneath the ground or in the air around the dump—and how it continues to affect those who live nearby.
- Fundación Comunitaria de Puerto Rico, News, “Fundación Segarra Boerman e Hijos supports study on potential development of the Community Green Energy Corridor of Fundación Comunitaria de Puerto Rico,” April 2, 2020, fcpr.org/2020/04/02/fundacion-segarra-boerman-e-hijos-supports-study-on-potential-development-of-the-community-green-energy-corridor-of-fundacion-comunitaria-de-puerto-rico/.
- Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, “PROJECT PROFILE: Arizona State University 5 (FY2018 Photovoltaics),” accessed September 29, 2021, energy.gov/eere/solar/project-profile-arizona-state-university-5-fy2018-photovoltaics.
- Simeng Deng et al., “Evaluating Viability of Community Solar Microgrids for Resilience in Puerto Rico,” Master’s project, Nicholas School of the Environment of Duke University, April 26, 2019, dukespace.lib.duke.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/10161/18460/EVALUATING%20VIABILITY%20OF%20COMMUNITY%20SOLAR%20MICROGRIDS%20FOR%20RESILIENCE%20IN%20PUERTO%20RICO.pdf.
- Ravikant Kumar, “In Response to Climate Change, Cotton Farmers Work to Understand and Conserve Water Resources,” Institute for Sustainable Communities, August 19, 2020, sustain.org/in-response-to-climate-change-cotton-farmers-work-to-understand-and-conserve-water-resources/.
- “Women + Water Alliance,” Institute for Sustainable Communities, accessed September 29, 2021, sustain.org/program/women-water-alliance/; Divya Nazareth, “Leading Action on Climate Change: Why Rural Women Matter for Equitable Adaptation,” Institute for Sustainable Communities, August 14, 2021, sustain.org/leading-action-on-climate-change-why-rural-women-matter-for-equitable-adaptation/; and Promoting Water Stewardship in Cotton Growing Communities of Yavatmal and Dhar Districts, Women + Water Alliance, Institute for Sustainable Communities, accessed September 29, 2021, sustain.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Water-Women-SUMMARY-sheet-9-16-19.pdf.
- Jamelle Bouie, “Where Black Lives Matter Began,” Slate, August 23, 2015, slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2015/08/hurricane_katrina_10th_anniversary_how_the_black_lives_matter_movement_was.html.