Island #13, 2015, Catherine Canac-Marquis. Courtesy the artist and The Print Atelier.

Save the Humans

Environmentalists are increasingly hugging people, not trees. Can solving climate change and achieving “climate justice” become the same thing?

When State Department negotiators and World Bank executives converge for the momentous COP21 climate talks in Paris this December, will they think about the hundreds of thousands of people who marched in last year’s People’s Climate March? Will they think about New Orleans after Katrina, about sexual violence in extraction communities, about Eric Garner? 

Big green groups like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council have been remonstrated for a history of ignoring environmental hazards to people of color, but this year both groups joined a chorus of organizations issuing pronouncements that they “stand with Ferguson.” The World Wildlife Fund has issued a call to “Save the Humans.” 

We reached out to some of the organizers, writers, and advocates who helped catalyze this shift to get their thoughts on Al Gore, the California drought, the lead-up to Paris, and why Elon Musk should give poor families free Teslas.

Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.

Trish Kahle is a PhD student in history at University of Chicago and a contributing editor for Red Wedge magazine.

Chloe Maxmin is the founder of Divest Harvard and First Here Then Everywhere. She is currently a fellow with The Nation and writing a book about how the climate movement can become an effective political force.

Michael Williams is Vice President of Strategic Development for the Blue-Green Alliance, and was previously Director of Policy for the same organization.

Reverend Lennox Yearwood is the President of the Hip-Hop Caucus and a longtime peace and environmental justice organizer.


Naomi Klein remarked in a 2015 webcast with that “this isn’t Al Gore’s movement anymore.” What do you think she meant by that?

Michael Williams: Climate change is just so well beyond a simple environmental issue. It has had and will continue to have environmental consequences. It has had and will continue to have economic consequences. It has had and will continue to have moral consequences. It touches everyone, and thus it has activated a diverse breadth of people.

The Vice President should be commended over and over again for sounding the alarm, and for rapidly expanding the consciousness of the issue. Movements grow, hopefully for the better. It sure seems like that’s the case here, but we’re going to need to solve the problem to actually find out. Let’s consider the labor movement’s participation in the People’s Climate March. We counted roughly 10,000 people who specifically came from and wanted to be represented by the labor movement at the PCM. There’s nothing in my experience that tells me that that could have happened in 2008.

Chloe Maxmin: I don’t really want to speculate on what Naomi meant. Only she knows that! But I can react to this statement as a young person in the climate movement. There are two pieces here: internal movement representation and external engagement. Internally, the mainstream movement is becoming more aware and intentional about how it represents itself, consciously deciding that the faces of our movement are young, old, men, women, people of color, people from different countries. The movement is trying to move away from identification with one person or one kind of person.

Externally, the movement has more diverse avenues for engagement. We are not just recruiting folks to give educational presentations around the world. Now there are marches, civil disobedience actions, fossil fuel divestment campaigns, reinvestment networks, and fossil fuel infrastructure fights. There is real, vibrant, on-the-ground activism that is putting education and thought into practice.

We have to recognize and appreciate what Al Gore has done for the world. The climate movement may have evolved beyond his era. But his work created platforms and provoked reactions that made the climate movement into what it is today.

The movement must expand, and to do so we need to re-frame the issue of climate change to make it an everyday, every-person issue.

Brentin Mock: I think Naomi was merely pointing out that, yes, when the climate change crisis was first introduced to the public it was through Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth movie. You had a bunch of other scientists like James Hansen and Michael Mann also sounding alarms, but these were all white men, and hence their faces and voices were associated with it. It wasn’t until Katrina that we began making the associations with people of color. Other huge tsunamis, cyclones, and storms that hit really vulnerable areas in Asia helped to drive those associations further. When you look at the diversity of people speaking out about climate change today, it’s clear that it’s not Al Gore’s movement anymore. It’s Reverend Yearwood, our dear departed Julian Bond, Debbie Wasserman, Kari Fulton, Lisa Jackson, Audrey Peterman, Majora Carter, Van Jones. I have no idea where Gore is right now, but I see these people and the challenges they’re confronted with every day.

Reverend Lennox Yearwood: I think Naomi is simply stating that if the climate movement does not become more inclusive, the goal of transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy will not happen. She correctly recognizes that the social ills that create poverty and accompanying social inequalities are created by the same mechanisms that thwart the proper response to climate change.

The “Al Gore” climate movement model—which was effective, but severely flawed—was not created to stop climate chaos and simultaneously tackle poverty and its accompanying social inequities. Naomi recognizes that there is not enough power in the current environmental community alone to lead a global transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. The movement must expand, and to do so we need to re-frame the issue of climate change to make it an everyday, every-person issue.

Credit: Annette Bernhardt

How has the visibility of climate disasters—from extraction accidents like spills, explosions, and leaks to hurricanes, floods, and droughts all across America and the world—impacted and changed the public’s perception of and response to climate change?

Chloe: There is a big assumption in this question: “climate disasters.” Those of us who are aware of these issues might see a hurricane, flood, or drought and immediately connect the dots to the climate crisis. We might hear of a pipeline leak or natural gas explosion and start tweeting about the dangers of the fossil fuel economy. But a lot of people don’t make these connections. These events are just disasters that damage lives and communities.

The challenge is for the climate movement to make these connections in a compelling and inclusive way. People will be directly and personally affected by climate change and the life cycle of fossil fuels—from ground to air. How do we turn that kind of hurt into momentum? First, we need to figure out an answer to this question. And then we can begin to understand if the public’s perception of the climate crisis is shifted.

Brentin: I don’t think there’s one public perception to analyze. For all of the visibility of these disasters in the media spotlight, climate change still ranks among the bottom in terms of issues many Americans are concerned about.

African Americans and Latinos consistently poll very high when it comes to identifying climate change as a problem, and I think some of that has to do with the visibility of climate disasters. But also because so many of us already live with the vulnerability of floods, extreme heat, extreme cold, drought, and other disastrous weather events; we don’t need climate change to scare us into any deeper belief around this.

It’s white voters, however, that we need to be most concerned about. They are still the race that takes climate change least seriously according to polls. That means the visibility of climate disasters are probably not affecting them the same.

A recent Katrina survey done by LSU showed that white New Orleanians were far more likely to believe they were adequately served or better in the recovery than black New Orleanians did. So it could be that many more of them believe that whatever they lose in a climate change disaster, they could probably get back, while less of us have that kind of confidence, based off experience. So when asking about the public’s perception, I think we just have to unpack which parts of the public we’re talking about, because it won’t all be the same.

Michael: People in the NYC metropolitan area began to take serious notice of climate change when it directly impacted them. For example, this spurred the leadership of the Utility Workers Union of America—whose Local 1-2 reps Con Ed and PSEG in New York City and New Jersey—to stand up and clamor for the rebuilding of infrastructure because of its direct correlation to climate change. (I.e., broke-down infrastructure systems mean much more hell breaking loose.) It was that connection, between rebuilding infrastructure and fighting climate change, that was brought to light by Hurricane Sandy. It’s just an anecdote, but correlations become much more plausible when you’ve lived through an unprecedented hurricane, raging wildfires, or never-ending drought.

Lennox: After disasters like Katrina and Sandy, these issues are brought to the media spotlight and people focus on the immediate rebuilding that needs to take place. But as soon as the new hot thing happens, it’s out of our minds, and the dots that connect this issue to climate change and the fossil fuel industry are never fully linked.

That lost connection is why the climate change movement needs to truly address and act for climate justice now, because although these devastating disasters captivate and increase awareness in the short term, it is not enough to garner the political will needed to make the transitions to a clean energy future.

Trish: What Brentin points out is important, but I think there’s a bit more to tease out. First, I think we have to recognize that “natural disasters” are largely human-made, not only in the sense that anthropogenic climate change has destabilized weather patterns, but also because it is the inequalities in our society—the processes of exploitation, colonization, and oppression—which turn climate events into human disasters. Extraction disasters are equally unnecessary, as are sacrificing human lives in the name of cheap energy.

Secondly, when we view these disasters as largely functions of inequality and systematic oppression, I think we come to a slightly different view of the role that disasters play. For example, Hurricane Sandy certainly raised questions for some people about a destabilized climate, but it also made people question why it was that Goldman Sachs had power from their private generators throughout the storm while nurses at NYU Tisch hospital were forced to evacuate babies from the NICU by carrying them down several flights of stairs while performing respiration by hand.

Disasters have this polarizing effect because they exacerbate, in a very acute way, the injustices that are often carried out in smaller ways. Obviously, as Brentin pointed out, that polarization doesn’t happen randomly, but on the pre-existing axes of structural inequality and oppression that constitute our society.

People will be directly and personally affected by climate change. How do we turn that kind of hurt into momentum?

There’s also an extent that a disaster can, in a mass way, change at a mass scale the way people think about the world. When a disaster happens at a certain moment, it can galvanize a movement and drive it forward. On the other hand, it’s also true that the ruling class can galvanize their forces with a disaster as well as they did after Katrina. Katrina was the epitome of what Naomi Klein called “disaster capitalism.” The rulers mobilized a combination of anti-black ideology with rhetoric about the failings of public governance to push through one of the most massive privatization schemes in history. The Left, on the other hand, failed to mobilize broadly on the connections which black activists made about the manmade causes of Katrina: namely, racism and poverty. As William Anderson noted, there’s a tendency to talk about the tolls of the floodwaters. And it’s true: Many people drowned. But as he said, “the waters had help.” That help was unequal housing, cuts to public services, attacks on black workers, and black neighborhoods. The list goes on.

What’s really critical is to de-naturalize the so-called natural disasters because, first, it means we have to have real discussions about power, and, second, because I think climate change can be overwhelming. While a hurricane’s path is out of our control, housing policies, jobs programs, emergency relief, and the welfare state are not. We can make demands on rulers. We can improve programs. And when disasters happen—and they will continue to happen unless something changes—that’s the moment when these arguments can gain particular traction.


Many place their faith in technology to help us out—e.g., solar panels being the solution to climate change—and it’s clear we do need new technologies. What can technology offer on the path to climate justice, and where does tech-oriented solutionism fall short?

Lennox: Tech-oriented solution-ism does not necessarily include a social analysis. So we must apply our values to technology solutions. That means we must support innovation and entrepreneurship among traditionally excluded groups from the fossil fuel economy—particularly people of color. Further, we must build, promote, and distribute technology that solves energy problems specific to the world’s poor people.

Trish: We need to challenge the idea of technological determinism. In the same way that some technologies are held up as the harbingers of revolutionary change in energy production, in environmental relations, technology is also used to justify climate-politics-as-usual. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that if we can just get the technology right, the problem will be solved. The fact is that the energy companies have known about climate change for a long time.

Exxon’s own science confirmed this 40 years ago. But even back in the 19th century, people got the sense that burning fossil fuels might have a negative affect on the atmosphere. You can go back and read Charles Babbage, who in 1835 said, “The chemical changes which thus take place are constantly increasing the atmosphere by large quantities of carbonic acid [i.e., carbon dioxide] and other gases noxious to animal life. The means by which nature decomposes these elements, or reconverts them into a solid form, are not sufficiently known.”

So if they knew, why did they continue to develop technology that continued to exploit fossil fuels? Why not put that money into research and development of cleaner technologies? At so many points in the history of fossil capitalism, there has been the option to move in a different direction, and this is especially true since the last half of the 20th century. The mere existence of the technology hasn’t shifted us away from the destruction of the planet with fossil fuels. Nor is it, as Bill McKibben suggests, a matter of making solar and wind power profitable. Throughout the last 200 years, the government has intervened in order to ensure that coal, oil, and nuclear power could be sustained, could be made to appear profitable with millions—billions even—in subsidies. And a focus on technological change obscures this. It’s ironic that the focus on technology also systematically sidelines the science and suppresses people actually doing people- and planet-focused innovation.

What’s really critical is to de-naturalize the so-called natural disasters.

The primary barrier to change is political, not technological. It’s about the distribution of resources, the disbursement of funding for what kind of research. It’s about our society’s priorities. Our society is not set up to benefit people or the planet, and until we shift that priority in a meaningful way—and quite frankly, that means both political power, workplace power, community power—we can have any kind of technology but no political, social, economic will to implement it.

Michael: Technology is necessary for us to solve climate change. We need more and better renewables. We need just about everything throughout our infrastructure systems (transportation, buildings, data, etc.) to be more efficient. We’re going to need things that I most certainly can’t even think of and/or can’t pretend to understand. (Wireless electricity, anyone?)

That’s all necessary to solve climate change, and solving climate change is a necessary component to achieving climate justice. But it’s not enough. Let’s start at the workforce level because that’s where I know at least one or two things. Technology has a knack for displacing people from their current jobs. It can happen by making those jobs straight-up evaporate, whether it’s by trading in a horse-and-buggy for an automobile or by automating your steel production. On the whole, these are good things, but they have an adverse impact on actual human beings. If we are a society that strives to achieve justice, then we should be committed to supporting those human beings who are negatively impacted by technological advances, no matter how necessary and good they are.

Sometimes advances in technology simply shift work from one place to another––and that can mean jobs moving over borders or to different work classifications. Jobs moving over borders is self-explanatory, but it should not be overlooked. I don’t think I’ll get much pushback in saying that unfettered globalization has not been the greatest creator of justice in the world, either for the developed or developing countries involved.

The point of changing work classifications does require a bit more explanation. Considering the energy industry, the shift from fossil fuels to renewables has involved the electricity industry relying on different types of jobs to complete the task of producing and delivering electricity. Fossil fuels involve a lot of people on the production end, which can include significant amount of skilled labor that is: 1) often paid well; 2) unionized; and 3) located in places where there isn’t comparable economic activity to supply the type and quality of jobs that these power plants do.

Renewables tend to create more jobs on the delivery end, via marketing, installation, or maintenance. Comparing these jobs becomes apples to oranges. They require different skills, different qualifications, and different locations. Yet, the same electrons are being produced and delivered. As a result, the energy transition will have an impact on real people and their communities.

If jobs are lost, it’s important that we strive to ensure that new jobs are created to replace them—and that they are comparable in wages, skills, and locations. If justice is what we are striving for, then the human beings with those jobs need to be taken care of, wholly and without question. We need to be clear-eyed from the beginning that if this dislocation does happen, that we will provide for those dislocated. That is the only way we achieve justice.

People's Climate March, 2014. Credit: Stephen Melkisethian

Brentin: Tech is definitely a vital part of the solution, but it’s an incomplete solution if there’s not more deliberate focus on protection and adaptation measures for the decades ahead of us when we’re certain to be subjected to more devastating weather from climate turmoil.

This holds especially true for households and communities that have the least resources to protect themselves during bad weather events. The expansion of renewable energy, especially at the household-generated level, is great, and I pray it continues to expand. But let’s be clear that it’s only helping reduce greenhouse gas emission impacts for our great-grandkids. Meanwhile, the next 50 or so years of our lives are already spoken for thanks to the inertia of past and present emissions. So we need protection for the immediate future.

A few other things we need to track when it comes to tech: Land use, accurate data collection, and financing.

On land use, we need only look at the effects of the expansion of Silicon Valley on housing costs in the Bay area. It matters little that Apple, Amazon, Google, and the bunch are decreasing their carbon footprints by throwing up thousands of solar panels if their office-building footprints are taking up millions of square feet, raising housing and living costs across the Bay in the process. People who work for other companies where they are more modestly compensated are getting priced out of their neighborhoods as the local markets pander to the million-dollar babies recruited to work in Silicon Valley. This isn’t exactly a climate change issue, but it shows how one set of solutions can lead to more problems around equity.

A similar case can be made for water use. There’s a drought in California. A lot of that is explained by climate change. And a lot of it is explained by people and companies who are as reckless, or as thoughtless, about how they use water as they are about how they use land.

Elon Musk can keep on making $100,000 cars, but he should make some Teslas to give to poor families—for free.

For financing, investors and governments would be prudent to make sure they are financing those companies and models that are proving demonstrably that they are planning for things like fair land and water use, that they have proven mechanisms for accurate data collection, that they are paying living wages, and all the stuff Michael was talking about. If investors are just throwing money at any wannabe unicorn who walks through the door claiming to have the most innovative tech solution ever, then they’re just helping create bubbles that we won’t be able to weather. And investments in tech for far-future solutions should not come at the expense of investments for the kind of present-future adaptation needed today.

And, of course, the costs of building out new technologies can’t be passed down to people of low income. Right now, it is mainly homeowners of higher incomes who are able to slap solar panels on their roofs, and I ain’t even mad at that. It’s the consumption habits of the wealthy that put our climate in peril to begin with, so they broke it, they pay to fix it.

People of low income deserve the same tech for their homes too, though. Even those who rent. But theirs should be free. No fleecing poor families with shady solar leasing plans, or adding fees to their electric bills to pay for it. They get it for free. And that goes for all tech. Elon Musk can keep on making $100,000 cars, but he should make some Teslas to give to poor families—for free. Either that, or government provide vouchers for poor families to acquire this stuff. Perhaps a sharply designed cap-and-trade system could provide windfalls to poor households for something like this.

It’s been about a year since the People’s Climate March, where the WWF issued a call to “save the humans.” Around that time in 2014, a number of climate organizations issued statements connecting their work with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. How have are those connections unfolding?

Lennox: The question isn’t if climate organizations are successfully connecting their work to #BlackLivesMatter. The real question is how come it took so long to for the climate movement to connect its messaging to real human suffering?

Trish: Until they’re made clear, environmental issues are almost background noise; they shape so much of our day-to-day lives that we almost don’t see them. Racism, omnipresent as it is, operates in similarly insidious ways. Some of it is obvious and visible—like police terror—but other times it has to be teased out, like thinking about the links between wind patterns, air pollution, and segregated housing. Our environments, just like our social institutions, have been constructed in these deeply and fundamentally racist ways, and they must be unmade and recreated in the vision of justice.

I think another important and similar tie has been the linking of the fight against the tar sands with the assertion of indigenous sovereignty. You come to see a growing awareness in non-indigenous communities—thanks in large part to the Idle No More movement—that a just future is linked to the demands for decolonization.

Chloe: I was a senior at Harvard College during the People’s Climate March and when Black Lives Matter (BLM) galvanized conversations and actions around the nation. At the time, Divest Harvard was in the midst of organizing multiple direct actions, including civil disobedience. We had many discussions as a group about how our mostly white movement at a very elite university could emphasize and highlight the intersectionality of our work with BLM in a way that expressed solidarity with, not ownership of, another movement.

These conversations were intense and honest. We postponed actions so that Divest Harvard members could go to BLM actions on and off campus. We organized workshops for our group on White Allyship. We saw the importance of taking leadership from people of color and developing meaningful relationships and real understandings of these issues.

It’s not enough to go out and say, “BLM and climate change are intertwined issues.” It’s not enough to form transactional partnerships where you go to a BLM rally and then BLM folks come to your rally. The real connections come from difficult conversations, listening, understanding, learning, and thinking before acting.

Michael: As much as some forces want to keep climate change as just some hippie environmental issue (ahem, CNN in every presidential debate), it’s just not. At its core, it is a moral and economics issue. Now, as a white male, I don’t feel it is appropriate nor do I have a ton to add to the already robust discussion by waxing poetic on the Black Lives Matter movement.

With regards to your question, the climate movement reaching out and embracing BLM is necessary if that mantra of the People’s Climate March is to be true. If perhaps the moral movement of our time is not represented in the climate movement, then the climate movement sure as hell isn’t including everyone.

Pope Francis In DC 19. Credit: Stephen Melkisethian

As the decisive Paris talks approach, some of the most vocal proponents of action on climate change have turned out to come from traditional loci of power—from the World Bank, the IMF and the Pope to Hank Paulson and Tom Steyer, the Risky Business project led by Michael Bloomberg, and the We Mean Business coalition. These are Davos types. What do they represent, in orientation to the climate justice faction?

Michael: As they represent traditional loci of power, they tend to represent solutions that will keep them in power. I say that without passing judgment, as some of those solutions that keep the entrenched in power may still be the most just. And no matter what we think of them, bringing these institutions of power on board for action is rather imperative to achieve change.

While support for climate action from these wings of global power is most assuredly welcome, this only means that efforts to frame and advocate for just solutions must be redoubled. Getting these folks on board with “doing something” is akin to finding your way to the beginning of a marathon.

We’ve all pointed out that the type of action is a prerequisite to whether climate justice will be achieved, and it’s long past overdue to have a real, robust debate about what those actions need to be. If you’ll mind me a brief rant, this effort to price carbon and then immediately send the proceeds out to every person sounds nice, but completely misses the massive opportunity to actually invest in people and communities. Job creation and neighborhood rebuilding should be core to action. A $35 “dividend” to go buy stuff from Wal-Mart ain’t leading us on a path to justice.

Ranting aside, I welcome these loci of power to the starting line. Hopefully that means the marathon can finally start.

Trish: They’re obviously coming from a very different perspective than we are, and that gets muddied with buzzwords like security and adaptation. That’s precisely what makes a climate justice framework so important. It forces us to ask: What kind of security? Adaptation for whom?

The World Bank, IMF, and their crowd may recognize that climate disruption poses a serious threat to the global economic and political order—in short, to capitalism. They are committed to maintaining the very system that got us into this mess in the first place: private property instead of the commons, production for profit rather than utility. So their idea of security is securing property rights and the national boundaries to which they are tied—at gun point, when necessary.

To most people, that’s not security. Security for the many means establishing global food and health programs that ensure everyone is fed, organizing to protect our supply of drinkable water, and transforming energy production to both increase the standard of living and to eliminate sacrifice zones. We need to be clear that they’re not “on our side” just because they’ve accepted the science to some extent. The solutions are still by and large non-solutions.

The Pope requires a slightly different tack. He’s the head of an enormous institution whose membership is overwhelmingly in poor areas of the world more affected by climate change. So it makes sense that the church, as a political institution, will reflect this. And rather than seeing the Pope as a figure disentangled from world politics, I think we must see him as eminently a product of them. When we view him this way, he looks less like the source of the change than an expression of the moving currents of society, shifts in social and ecological politics already well underway, especially in places like Latin America.

If the moral movement of our time is not represented in the climate movement, then the climate movement sure as hell isn’t including everyone.

Lennox: I challenge the notion that the folks you mentioned are the most vocal proponents of action on climate change. They may have the biggest traditional media platforms, but there are people in communities around this country and all over the world who are tremendously vocal.

We must lift up all voices in this movement, and take in all viewpoints because, as we said at the People’s Climate March, we need everyone to change everything.

Chloe: All approaches to mitigating the climate crisis serve their own function. The climate justice movement on the far left, like Trish said, confronts current systems, challenges them, and proposes different ways of acting and being. But the movement is only on the left in relation to the status quo. So we need to recognize that our role is dependent on the existence of business-as-usual.

We also need to recognize that the status quo isn’t going away anytime soon. The tough truth is that many of the current systems that we have are going to be a part of short-term solutions. So we need the World Bank and IMF to address this issue in their own way. The climate justice movement will keep asking tough questions, but we also need existing institutions to step up to the plate.

This is a large part of the fossil fuel divestment movement’s mission. Divestment is an interesting tactic because it brings together the more conventional world of institutional investing with a vibrant grassroots movement. This convergence is played out on the pages of the Financial Times and in board rooms of universities and colleges across the planet.


In the course of the responses here, we can see the contours of a part of the movement that is working hard to connect climate change with other issues of racial, social, and economic justice. What does a turn towards a “climate justice” framework mean for policy and politics as we approach 2016?

Chloe: I am currently a fellow with The Nation, writing a book about how the climate movement can become an effective political force. Because right now we are not.

I do not think that the climate movement is organized to influence directly our political system through electoral politics. We have the capacity to do so, but the movement is not yet focused on building an electoral force. This is a huge, huge problem, and one that I am currently devoting my time to understanding and overcoming.

The climate justice movement, from my perspective, is mostly influencing local policy. Through local fossil fuel infrastructure fights to fossil fuel divestment campaigns, the broad-based and expansive nature of the climate movement has enabled it to reach corners of the US that may never be amplified on a national level. But these conversations and confrontations are happening.

I am also a youth delegate with SustainUS to COP21 in Paris this December. There will be massive on-the-ground mobilizations both in Paris and around the world, calling on world leaders to act boldly on climate. Youth and communities on the frontlines of this crisis will be prominently featured as well. Will these marches have influence over the politics of COP21? Who knows. But they will physically demonstrate the people power of this movement. And that is what gives me hope in the world.

Trish: There are already many issues on the table; we’ve discussed many of them. In terms of the [Paris] negotiations, they’re largely a sham. They point to the inadequacies of the system of international governance in the context of global capitalist competition to deal with the problem. Climate justice is impossible for them to adopt when people—real, breathing, living people—are collapsed into the category of economic growth and development. What can we do in the face of that?

In the US context, there are a few key things. Stopping pipeline construction, through direct action and confrontation if necessary, remains critical. So does cutting off financial lifelines for conglomerates and institutions committed to the fossil fuel economy. And I think in that context, we absolutely have to talk about revenue: ending the subsidies to oil and gas companies, diverting that money into developing clean, renewable energy solutions in the communities that need them most—namely the mostly poor, black, and brown communities that are situated near coal-fired power plants. We need to drastically cut the defense budget and create a jobs program that specifically targets both workers displaced from unsustainable industries and the communities of color disproportionately affected by unemployment and low wages. We need an updated rail system, people-centered and environmentally friendly urban planning, and strong agricultural programs that will help to decrease land degradation and provide healthy food for everyone. These might sound like a tall order, but I think the Sanders campaign has demonstrated a large opening for politics centered on shifting priorities and redistributing our society’s wealth.

No community is going to compromise the lives of children for bogus arguments around political expediency.

Beyond that, climate justice points us to much larger questions about the kind of society we want to live in, and without saying that reforms and policy initiatives are unimportant, I think ultimately it’s the opening up of these larger questions that is the true contribution of climate justice. As a framework, it points to the deep connections between so many areas of our society that might at first appear disparate.

When you come to view the world as a web of life—as Jason Moore would call it—and you see it being torn apart by these vicious systems, it becomes clear that each reform helps but is ultimately inadequate. Every question raises as many more as it answers. So for me, climate justice implies nothing less than a fundamental transformation of society—a social revolution, an ecological revolution. This isn’t abstract. When you come to accept that a fundamental change is necessary, you adopt different approaches. Fighting for policy changes and political reforms isn’t an end in and of itself, but rather also becomes centered on the question of how it moves us forward to this final goal. And that’s the kind of perspective that can give us real vision—hopeful vision—for the future.

Michael: I think the “climate justice” framework has been a godsend with regards to influencing policy. The labor movement has been clamoring for governments and the private sector to ensure a just transition is provided for workers and communities for a few decades. It’s often been met with, “Oh, yea, sure. We’ll think about including some language, maybe a few million toward retraining.” Gee, thanks.

The framework of climate justice has brought a large swath of people onto a fairly similar platform, and it seems like this notion of a just transition is no longer some side deal to try and placate the voices of working people. It’s actually a core ask. Maybe even a requirement.

There’s much more included on the platform, notably including advocating for those whose lives are at stake—such as the people living at sea level or on island nations—but this is one very important shift that I have seen thanks to the focus on climate justice.

Lennox: The climate justice movement shifts the approach of the often slow incremental policy change focus of the environmental movement to a movement based in the moral call for real and urgent solutions to climate change. For communities on the frontlines, climate change is a life and death issue right now. When people are dying, and they know they are dying because of the actions of corporations, the policy discussion becomes one of solving the problem, not one of agreeing to insufficient compromises.

No community is going to compromise the lives of children for bogus arguments around political expediency. A true climate justice movement that is inclusive and diverse, understands that the process of social change is not a single project or one piece of legislation. It calls for building a social movement that can exert political power over time, and that political power is not only threatening to the fossil fuel industry, but it is sometimes threatening to the way business has been done in the climate movement for a very long time.


Hayden Higgins is an organizer, writer, and amateur anthropologist living in the shadow of the Capitol in Washington, DC. More by Hayden Higgins