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Climate Change Street Fighters

Michael Mendez

No other politico in Washington, DC, has moved the issue of climate change to a national platform of prominence so quickly as Democratic Congress member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her “Green New Deal” is a radical proposal to decarbonize America’s economy while tackling inequality. It has stirred passionate reactions from both progressive and conservative factions throughout the country that serve as rallying calls to advance their own interests and agendas. Progressives highlight the urgency of the climate crisis and the hard choices needed to address it, while conservatives argue that those choices are a continued expansion of the government’s infringement on their personal liberties and freedoms. These divisions are reflective of the political, economic, and environmental moment in Washington—a historic moment in which climate change is now part of the American vernacular (albeit with different meanings attached to it), and any proposal to directly address the issue is stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate and White House.  

The good news is any effort to bring the Green New Deal to fruition does not depend entirely on the federal government. For the last two decades, low-income communities of color have pushed local governments to experiment with reducing greenhouse gas emissions in approaches that also address inequality and public health. These climate change experiments have been all-out street fights. Environmental justice activists are often pitted against traditional environmentalists who favor the least costly mitigation solutions, which do not necessarily maximize equity and public health outcomes in low-income communities of color. 

The history of these climate change streets fights was conspicuously absent in the initial rollout of the Green New Deal. I first heard Elizabeth Yeampierre, co-chair of the national Climate Justice Alliance, bring these tensions to the foreground at the March 2019 Yale Environmental Law conference. In her keynote presentation, Yeampierre characterized certain groups affiliated with the Green New Deal as “climate missionaries.” She argued they are focusing on marginalized communities where climate justice campaigns already existed, instead of doing the difficult work of developing new programs in conservative regions of the country without active grassroots leadership. She elaborated, “they [are] getting a lot of resources to descend into our communities, supplant local leadership, duplicate work, and create redundancy . . . and making it impossible for frontline [communities] to speak for themselves.”

Later that month, at a three-day meeting convened by a nonprofit affiliated with Ocasio-Cortez, I again witnessed strong conflict among environmentalists. During the opening plenary, over a dozen environmental justice activists from across the country protested the event. They accused organizers of “tokenism” and foregoing meaningful consultation with environmental justice groups in developing the Green New Deal agenda. Through this confrontation, the organizers acknowledged their error and modified their process. To their credit, they spent the rest of the year building trust and collaborative relationships with environmental justice groups to better understand the complexities that will be necessary to achieve policy consensus at the local and national levels .

These conflicts over climate change are cultural at their core. They illustrate that although the science of climate change is clear, policy decisions about how to respond to its effects remain contentious. Even when such decisions claim to be guided by objective knowledge, they are made and implemented through political institutions and relationships—and all the competing interests and power struggles that this implies. If we look toward the example of California, it reveals the contingent nature of climate policy—the assumptions and social, political, and cultural attitudes that often create conflict between community understandings of local environmental conditions and the prevailing global, top-down conceptualization of climate change.

In California, tensions between different approaches to addressing climate change are often centered on the politics of scale, economics, and race. These differences in approach, if unacknowledged, can lead to the breakdown of trust even among groups that are nominally working toward the same goal: reducing the harm climate change will do to human societies and our planet. For insight into national-level conflicts between groups working on climate solutions, one should look at the nearly two-decade California experiment of incorporating environmental justice and health equity principles into climate change policy.     

For environmental justice activists in California, the main threat from climate change is the disproportionate harm it causes to health in their communities. For instance, in 2009, when activists sued the state of California to block the cap-and-trade program, it was not due to a lack of understanding about climate science or policy solutions based on science—rather, activists relate to climate change based on their ideological preferences and embodied knowledge from living in polluted communities. For them, climate change is not just about greenhouse gas models—rather, it is also about opposing worldviews through which science is seen

Yet California is still often seen as a homogenous entity that uniformly values environmentalism and climate action. This image universalizes the idea of climate change and detaches it from its cultural settings. It also obscures how the localization of environmental policy and science within the state involves processes of public contestation and legitimacy. It is undeniable California’s climate change programs reflect certain conditions of privilege—a robust economy, racial and ethnic pluralism, and progressive statewide leaders. Nonetheless, the state offers clear models of how to broaden climate change approaches and imagine various relationships among the atmosphere, economic and racial disparities, and climate policy.

Beginning in 2012, conflict and collaboration have yielded important efforts to link economic opportunity and climate change projects in the state’s most disadvantaged communities of color. This includes legislation that requires California’s climate policy be implemented with an emphasis on reducing local and global emissions in the state’s most polluted communities, and the state to invest a minimum of 35% of the funds it generates from climate polluters in projects benefiting California’s disadvantaged and low-income communities. This has resulted in over $2 billion in investments in such communities.

By focusing on tangible benefits and outcomes, environmental justice activists in California were able to gain some level of trust from legislators not sharing their background or representing the state’s conservative suburban and rural areas. This provides important lessons for other regions: a need to focus on outcomes and incentives that connect better to multiple worldviews. The inequities of climate change often overlap with the racial, economic, health, and historical disparities encountered throughout American society. While the contexts and impacts encountered in California communities are different, they also share many similarities to the burdens people in other parts of the country are facing—conservative places like West Virginia, rural Louisiana, and the panhandle of Florida.

The case of California, moreover, is a reminder that major transformations in society did not happen all at once everywhere or without some form of conflict. Change is often created by a small group of passionate people whose experiments rupture existing practices. Successful experimentation with new climate change solutions often begins through collaborative efforts at the local scale that focus on enacting achievable goals (for example, local renewable energy and sustainable transportation projects). In the process, activist coalitions strengthen existing relationships with policymakers while developing new skills and knowledge. Such experimentation can be scaled up if others perceive their efforts as valuable. This recognition can transform the bounds of possibility, making ambitious and formerly impractical ideals seem feasible.

The architects of the Green New Deal should inherently understand such dynamics and provide opportunities for environmental justice groups to speak for themselves. The ways in which residents combat climate change are directly informed by their lives in these communities. From their struggles, Green New Deal architects can imagine the multiple ways in which climate change policy can be scientifically sound and socially robust.

Michael Méndez is assistant professor of environmental planning and policy at the University of California, Irvine. He previously served in California as a senior consultant, lobbyist, and gubernatorial appointee during the passage of the state’s internationally acclaimed climate change legislation.

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