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How climate change and environmental justice are inextricably linked

Rhiana Gunn-Wright is one of the architects of the Green New Deal and the director of climate policy at the Roosevelt Institute. (Josh Cogan)
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Rhiana Gunn-Wright, 32, is one of the architects of the Green New Deal and the director of climate policy at the Roosevelt Institute, a New York-based think tank. She lives in Chicago with her husband and son.

It’s probably best for us to begin with definitions of climate justice and environmental justice. Are those the same thing?

Climate justice is essentially about recognizing the fact that the climate crisis disproportionately affects people who are low-income, especially Black, Brown and Indigenous folks. They are also the folks who are going to have the fewest resources to cope with the changes that the climate crisis brings — whether that means not having the means to relocate if they are in a place that is heavily impacted, not having the money to install solar panels on a home, not having the means to pay for increased heating or cooling costs.

Environmental justice is about the ways that the built environment has been created and carved up in ways that expose Black, Brown and Indigenous folks to more pollution, more toxic sites, more chemicals in water supplies. Putting them close to abandoned mines or where oil drilling happens. The way that the built environment has been created to sort of cluster those harms that are all consequences of fossil fuel industries. Fossil fuels are poisonous. And that has to go somewhere. Legacies of systemic racism and residential segregation have been exploited to create those environments.

The interesting thing about air pollution, in particular, is you can’t even say low-income people of color because the fact is that even middle-income Black folks are exposed to more pollution than lower-income White folks. Income and class are not even mitigating factors the way that you’d think it would be. So environmental justice is very much about racism.

Is there some assumption that these communities are not aware of this, if even middle-income Black communities are close to toxic areas?

Some of it is about awareness, particularly if the pollution is coming from just the way the built environment is — you’re next to a highway or you’re next to a transit depot, or you live on a major street where there are lots of trucks. They’re attached to pollution, but it’s not as though it’s screamed from the rooftops.

The thing they take more advantage of is the histories of residential segregation and housing discrimination. Middle-income Black folks are more likely to live in neighborhoods with higher poverty levels because of racial segregation. And those areas are more likely to be zoned for industrial use. So you have legacies of red lining that have crowded people of color into one area, and then that area is more likely to be zoned industrial, so it’s cheaper to locate these facilities there. Or you’re next to a highway, so the home values are lower, so it’s harder to move out of these places. All of these things make these areas more vulnerable.

These are the things that have to happen in an economy that is reliant on fossil fuels. The factories have to be built. The oil refineries have to be somewhere. The trucks have to run somewhere. The highways have to be somewhere. All of which has a negative impact on public health. All of which on some level is poisonous. And so who is going to be listened to the least when they are poisoned? Who can be harmed without consequence? Who is least likely to be believed when they say, “My kid has asthma” or “My daughter has mysterious breast cancer”? Whose lives are socially treated as less valuable? People of color.

And “power” seems like an important word.

One hundred percent.

Many predominantly White communities have often been effective at protecting their neighborhoods.

Front-line communities, disadvantaged communities, those that are the most affected by environmental justice, it’s not as though they aren’t doing anything. A lot of these communities are highly organized; these folks are having to fight for decades, find partners, get outside funding to run campaigns, partner with local universities, all sorts of things. I saw it firsthand living in Detroit. The scale of what it required for them to say, “We don’t want this here. Stop it,” is just leagues above areas where residents have more power. Not even comparable. But for them to be heard, it takes megaphones on top of megaphones. What it means to be highly motivated in these situations is just so different. You’re talking about running a campaign vs. getting everyone to sign a petition.

You talk about how you can’t really understand environmental justice without understanding racism and its impact — these issues that you are dealing with are the manifestation of racism.

Yes! Yes!

So then, this is how it shows up. Racism doesn’t necessarily show up as someone calling you the n-word. It shows up in how a district is zoned or what they are willing to put in your neighborhood. This is the evidence.

One hundred percent. It’s the evidence. It’s the manifestation. This is the form that it takes.

So, thinking about the urgency around environmental issues: Conflating environmental issues and racism, does that help or hurt the environmental issues, in general?

Yeah, that’s a question I got a lot with the Green New Deal. People would ask me, “Why are you talking about race so much? Why does that matter?” Some people might disagree, but I truly believe, when describing the fossil fuel industry — and I think that all the evidence shows — it is not possible to burn fossil fuels at the rate that we have without limit, if there is not racism involved, because you have to have people who you can poison almost without consequence.

And so, with that in mind, you cannot address climate change if you are not also going to address environmental justice and climate justice. Because otherwise you are just leaving in place essentially the landscape that can again be exploited. You’ll have this happen again. You are still leaving the tracks for the next crisis to come.

How do you factor low-income White communities in this?

They are also considered front-line environmental justice communities, and even though the dynamics are different, in terms of racialized residential segregation, some of the others [issues] are the same. Low-income communities being exploited. Fossil fuel corporations have preyed on them, and transitioning to a green economy means doing justice for those communities, too. The question of racism is different because some of the factors at play are different, but the outcome is the same. The economic power has to be shifted in order to serve those communities well and to reduce emissions there and to get them out of harm’s way.

Are Black and Brown communities engaged in these conversations at the levels you think are necessary?

I would say no, but I think no constituency is on the level that is necessary around the environment. I’ll be honest: Environmental policy always seemed very “White” to me. I was doing social policy. I was interested in serving the people who I had grown up with, and I thought [environmental policy] was about polar bears and solar panels. I didn’t know how to talk about this when caseworkers are over-policing Black moms or people aren’t getting their welfare benefits. It was only after being in Detroit that things started to click. How the issues that I care about are connected, and how environmental justice had likely affected my own life. I have asthma. I grew up thinking that asthma was a childhood disease because so many kids around me had it. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized I lived in an area where air pollution is far more than what is acceptable.

I feel like people aren’t engaged on a large scale because we haven’t really been talking about the environment in the right ways. We live in a country where people are most concerned about: How do I put food on the table? How do I get my kids child care? How do I pay these bills? So you’re not talking about climate in a way where that’s accessible. We’re not talking about how switching to renewable energy will actually make energy a lot cheaper because prices will be a lot more stable. You won’t have to deal with gas prices fluctuating all the time because you won’t need gasoline. You don’t have to find oil and burn it. Once you install the solar panels the sun just keeps on shining. If you aren’t breaking that down for people, why would they care?

As one of the architects of the Green New Deal, you’ve contributed to the national conversation on the environment. That has to be encouraging for you.

It does and it doesn’t. One, because it happened so fast. When I started [working in] policy, I thought I would be lucky if anything I worked on took hold — ever. Because I worked around people who worked on issues, like paid leave, for decades, and we still don’t have paid leave. So I thought: I’m just going to slog it out on some stuff, and maybe it will happen and maybe it won’t. And for the Green New Deal to have had the impact that it did, I’m still processing that because it’s nothing that I expected in my wildest dreams.

I feel that time is showing that we were pretty correct around the things we said. This last [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report basically came out and said the world must do a green new deal. So that’s encouraging, but at the end of the day, even now, it just feels like we were ass-whupped a lot. I remember having the president of the United States at the time say it’s stupid. It wasn’t, and still isn’t easy. Until I actually see these things happening in law, changing the conversation feels great, but that’s ultimately not all that I am in it for.

Robin Rose Parker is a writer in Maryland. This interview has been edited and condensed.