In just two weeks, global leaders will converge on the United Nations to discuss the future of our planet and make recommendations for how the world responds to climate change. Certainly, we need global action on climate change. But, instead of looking across the aisle, perhaps our global leaders would do better to look toward local communities for solutions to the climate crisis.
Look at the post-Sandy Recovery efforts in New York, for example. Our leaders should be looking to organizations like Rockaway Wildfire, the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, GOLES, NYC- Environmental Justice Alliance, and the Red Hook Initiative. These groups are creating a range of ground-up, community-scale solutions to the climate crisis – from emergency response and energy planning to the creation of community-owned broadband infrastructure.
These are grassroots communities that have been troubleshooting and creating solutions in a time of dire consequence. While climate change knows no boundaries, low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to feel its devastating impacts and are less likely to be in position to recover fully, equitably, or effectively.
In fact, these same communities that suffer from coastal floods, increased asthma rates, or infrastructure failure are trying to solve problems without local policy support, state resources, or even the federal investments that climate-change inducing actors like Big Oil or Big Coal receive.
And this is important to understand, because the failure to understand how climate-vulnerable communities are addressing this situation will impact all of us. Taking on climate change requires that all of us participate in solutions and if communities are not positioned to do so, we will fail to succeed as a nation.
We have written before how the failure to address structural inequity drives climate change. And, we have highlighted how our past policies do not allow for full participation in both our economy and energy solutions. While our nation remains gridlocked on climate change, state and local leaders are putting forth policy ideas that are not always responsive to community needs – leaving people frustrated.
Instead, our leaders should be looking to, and listening to, communities who are innovating from the ground, rather than proposing the “same old” solutions from the top.
So, as we move forward together at the Peoples’ Climate March in New York City on September 21st and People’s Climate Justice Summit, here are five broad-based solutions that we should demand from our elected officials to ensure that racial and economic equity and justice are at the fore.
1 – Invest in community building and indigenous leadership.
Communities have the answers, but they do not always have the right resources or capacities in place to implement them. For example, through the Pratt Institute’s RAMP project, we learned from community of color leaders about potential solutions around climate, land-use, and economic planning. They did this on a shoestring budget, with little support. We need our local, state, and federal governments to partner with local leaders to better support and finance community proposals and solutions. One particular avenue to resource this work can be done through place-based investments such as Energy Investment Districts (which we at CSI have focused on) or Green Zones.
2 – Break the silos.
As Deirdre Smith from 350.org so eloquently wrote, we cannot divorce our fight for climate justice from that of racial or economic justice. To silo ourselves means we are being ineffective, nonstrategic, and failing to adequately respond to a moral calling of our time that requires all hands on deck. Silos also mean stale policy solutions as we fail to think beyond our issue areas. We need our elected officials to be collaborative and think across issue areas to come up with creative answers to our complex problems. Elected leaders should look to community models that practice this intersectional thinking. For example, the Our Power Campaign provides a deeply intersectional approach to the climate crisis by looking at the challenges of our dirty energy, food, water, transportation, and economic system through a holistic approach.
3 – Build unique alliances.
The climate challenge cannot be solved alone. We are up against a lot and it will take all of us to win. This requires new and unique alliances to best leverage our power, abilities, and assets to achieve the necessary change. Our elected officials need to learn to build alliances with various community groups to move public will for change. We can look to the 350.org divestment campaign as an example. 350.org is building alliances and partnerships with grassroots communities, financing experts, and students to push colleges and universities to not only divest from dirty energy, but reinvest these funds into marginalized and climate-vulnerable communities to support regenerative energy solutions that help build the local economy, provide clean and renewable energy, and build community wealth.
4 – Prioritize community-scale ownership.
To replace coal, gas, or oil with a massive solar project may cut our carbon, but it doesn’t necessarily change the structural root of inequity that we are facing. Cap-and-trade may limit the overall pollution, but it could still lead to the concentration toxic air in low-income communities of color. Therefore, we need a different solution – one that changes the way we use, generate, and distribute our energy and one that is rooted in community ownership and decision-making. Elected officials should be prioritizing the investment in community-scale solutions. These solutions can be more resilient, equitable, democratic, and scalable compared to large-scale, centralized renewable energy systems.
5 – Shift the way our government works.
Taking on climate change requires a real democracy. We need our elected leaders to be accountable, responsive, and inclusive of community solutions. This not only requires outside advocacy, but it also requires changing how our institutions work. We need our elected officials and agency-makers to adopt stronger analysis on climate challenges, racial equity, and economic inclusion. The most effective way to do this is through collaborative efforts of grassroots communities that can speak to the structural challenges that they face and the nuances of the impacts of current policy decisions. If we can make our government more democratic in process and engagement, we can begin to build stronger relationships, trust, and more effective policy and decisions. Elected officials should look to the Local and Regional Government Alliance on Racial Equity as one example of such efforts.