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Environmental Justice

Regular people are already the heroes behind the Green New Deal

Maurice Mitchell March 4th, 2020
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For so long, debates about climate policy have been rooted in questioning people’s individual choices. What kind of lightbulb should we buy? Is it time to go vegan? Is this really the most eco-friendly car on the market?

But as the climate crisis rose to the forefront of public consciousness, so too did the idea that “going green” just wasn’t going to cut it. First and foremost, the type of consumer tweaks we’re talking about will never be able to ward off the worst effects of the climate crisis. The 20 warmest years on record have all happened during the past 22 years, and Trump’s pro-fossil fuel agenda is on track to accelerate global warming even further. More significantly, the debate we’re having is fundamentally rigged. By locking us into the narrative that the scale of the climate crisis is small enough to be solved by individual actions, corporations and decision-makers evade responsibility for fixing a problem they’ve largely caused.

Then we saw a (quite literal) sea change. As temperatures rose and hundreds of millions of people realized they lived in coastal flooding danger zones, the public narrative around climate change began to shift. Activists and environmental groups had been organizing in the trenches for decades, but it wasn’t until disaster reached the doorsteps of whiter and wealthier folks that mainstream media began to frame global warming as a legitimate crisis worthy of international intervention. And the news that the fate of our planet may very well be decided by 2022—coupled with the weekly barrage of wildfires, flash floods, heatwaves, and hurricanes—is creating a growing coalition of voters who list climate action as a top priority.

This is a moment of both existential terror and immense potential. The public debate around climate change is shifting away from the passive “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra that allowed corporate polluters unchecked power to profit from environmental destruction. And with neither political party proving able, let alone willing, to come up with a plan, many people feel they are left careening toward a climate apocalypse without a safety net.

So where does that leave us, as “regular people” looking to take meaningful action?

Climate anxiety and its related traumas can be paralyzing. But in the face of what often feels like overwhelming despair and hopelessness, regular people across the country are finding ways to realize their potential. Young activists of color, like the Standing Rock water protectors, queer Latina climate activist Jamie Margolin, and Flint’s 12-year old Mari Copeny are just some of the countless youth leading the global climate justice movement. Groups like the Sunrise Movement, Climate Justice Alliance, and Gulf South for a Green New Deal are building local and national infrastructure to capture that energy and are already taking huge steps toward realizing a green economy. Instead of waiting on people in power to save us, our movement is winning pro-climate, pro-jobs, pro-equity policies that help build the infrastructure for a national Green New Deal.

You can see it in cities and states across the country. Last April, New York City passed a groundbreaking Green New Deal law, a suite of bills that drastically reduce emissions while generating tens of thousands of jobs. Behind the scenes, grassroots organizers from the Working Families Party (WFP), ALIGN NY, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, Uprose, New York Communities for Change, and others had been uniting a multiracial coalition that brought together low-income communities of color with predominantly white climate activists over several years. With apathetic politicians and a multibillion dollar real estate lobby standing squarely in the way of the energy-efficient building legislation, the coalition built enough political power to pass a suite of transformative climate policies that set a nationwide precedent for structural change.

One week and thousands of miles later, organizers in Los Angeles had another big win. Laying out the city’s most ambitious and achievable climate plans to date—including a complete clean energy ecosystem by 2050—a grassroots group of labor organizations, environmental groups, and Black and brown activists came together to pass a historic Green New Deal for the city.

Fast forward a few months to mid-August, when local environmental organizations and frontline communities of color led the effort to enact a Green New Deal for Seattle. The resolution outlines a roadmap for free public transit, greening local infrastructure, and eliminating climate pollution by 2030. It passed unanimously just months after organizers successfully pushed Washington to become the fifth state to commit to 100% green energy by 2045.

Those were just some of the winning campaigns led by regular working people. Then there’s the groundbreaking organizing we’ve seen in Maine, Illinois, Nevada, and the more than 100 cities nationwide that have already committed to 100% clean, renewable energy.

For WFP, 2019 was also about electing climate champions to city halls and statehouses across the country. In Philadelphia, WFP’s Kendra Brooks had a historic victory, winning a Republican-held city council seat on a platform of taxing the ultra-wealthy and bringing a Green New Deal to the city. In Wisconsin, WFP-elected Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes took office and immediately began campaigning for a sustainable green jobs economy powered by a Green New Deal.

At the center of all of these victories is a multiracial, cross-class coalition of working people who are committed to making the Green New Deal a reality. That’s not just environmental organizers and political strategists. It’s people like James, a 28-year-old veteran from Washington, D.C., who started a local environmental action group to help his neighbors plug into climate organizing opportunities. It’s people like Alison, a 64-year-old doctor from New Mexico who has pledged to vote for candidates championing a Green New Deal, and to knock on doors every other Sunday to help pledge more voters to do the same. It's students, union members, working moms, teachers, home care workers, and retirees. It’s activists from all corners of racial, social, and economic justice work. It’s everyday people, many of whom had started out feeling powerless, and many of whom could never have predicted they’d be part of the movement to make the Green New Deal a reality.

Now, as we enter the most important election year of our lifetimes, we’re doubling down on our commitment to build electoral power for a Green New Deal. We’re putting our energy and resources behind candidates who are confronting and dismantling the corporate class that benefits from the current system and the white nationalists that dream of race war. Candidates like WFP-endorsed Jessica Cisneros, who’s taking on ‘Big Oil’s favorite Democrat’ in the Texas House, and whose race is poised to be one of the biggest pro-climate contests in the nation.

So if you’re ready to get to work—or even just thinking about it—take a moment to join our coalition. Donate to the Sunrise Movement, Climate Justice Alliance, Gulf South for a Green New Deal, or another organization doing the vital grassroots work it takes to build the infrastructure for a world-saving Green New Deal.

Don’t let anyone tell you there’s nothing to be done, or that your contributions won’t matter. The systems behind the climate crisis were built by and for a powerful minority. They will be rebuilt by and for an even more powerful majority.

I started this series with a story of my own experience as a climate refugee. The drastic effects of global warming nearly took everything from me. My family and I lost our home, all of our belongings, and the guarantee we’d be able to live safely and securely in the city we built our lives in.

I want to end this series with a call to action.

Every week, a new climate disaster displaces more families like mine. From fires in California and Australia, to typhoons in Japan, to flooding in the Midwest, the climate crisis has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

But if we succeed in passing a Green New Deal, we can do more than save the lives of countless people. We can build an economy and a democracy that’s designed to serve our people, not the corporate titans and corrupt politicians profiting from the displacement of our families or the destruction of our communities.

Because the movement for a Green New Deal isn’t just about greening our messaging or our policy platforms. It’s about defeating the governing majority that is aligned against us. For too long, they've used the solidarity of white supremacy to bolster their majority.

Join me in forging a new kind of solidarity to defeat  them and win a new future for the next generation.

This story is part four in a four-part series by the author. Click here to read parts one, two, and three.


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