Climate Justice Is Racial Justice Is Gender Justice

What is a “just transition,” anyway? Bill McKibben asks Jacqueline Patterson, the director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program.

Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP Enviromental and Climate Justice Program. 

Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon.

There’s nothing like the giant oil companies to provide us all with lessons about power and prejudice.

The climate crisis offers a lens to understand many of the inherent injustices on this planet: There’s an almost perfect inverse relationship between how much of the problem you caused and how much of the pain you’re feeling. Furthermore, it offers the best chance to actually right some of these wrongs: The economic rearrangement that must accompany any successful effort to fix the planet’s climate system is an opportunity to make sure that the people who’ve always been left out won’t be put at the back of the all-electric bus.

Jacqueline Patterson is the director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program. She says she recognized environmental injustice decades ago while working in Jamaica, where Shell Oil contaminated community water supplies. Then later, while volunteering in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, she saw another side of the inequity in climate disaster response. Patterson co-founded Women of Color United and has served as a senior women’s rights policy analyst for ActionAid, integrating a women’s rights lens for food rights, macroeconomics, and climate change.

I spoke with her about how we can broaden the idea of a “just transition” and meaningfully address the issue of marginalized communities. In the economic shifts, will there be opportunities for healing and righting wrongs? And what is “just,” anyway?

This is the kind of conversation I hope people are having all over the country and, indeed, the planet.

Bill McKibben: Tell a bit of your story.

Jacqueline Patterson: I got into this—well, long story short, my first conscious experience with environmental justice was when I was in the Peace Corps, living in Jamaica. And one of the communities I was working with, they had their water supply contaminated by Shell Oil. It was this very typical David and Goliath situation—the community had been drinking this stuff for some time, and when it was brought to light, a bunch of community leaders got together to get justice from Shell. And they just wanted to fund a few ventilated pit latrines and give some money to the school. It put in stark relief the imbalance of power, what little justice there is for communities if they don’t actually build and wield power against these entities that can act pretty heartlessly.

At a later juncture of my career, when I was doing gender justice work, I was noticing there wasn’t a gendered analysis around climate change in the U.S. when there was such a well-understood conceptualization of it internationally, and a set of interventions and policies and so forth. So I got a grant to go around the country and focus on the Women of Color Climate Justice Road [Tour]—I was doing video, lifting up women who were disproportionately impacted by climate change, and looking at people who were working on climate justice, explicitly or implicitly.

From there I connected with NAACP. I said, “Surely, you must have some women I can interview?” And they said, “Well, not that we know of, but we have this grant we got six months ago on climate justice. You interested?” I said I’d do it for one year to get it off the ground, but that of course was 2009.

McKibben: Eight years developing the NAACP’s climate justice program. What have you learned?

Patterson: There’s been so much evolution, but there’s so much left to do—I like starting things up, and it gets less stimulating once it falls into the maintenance stage, but this work has never really reached the maintenance phase as it is ever evolving. It’s critical to get new folks engaged, to puzzle through how to speak to folks around climate. How does this resonate with folks in ways that are compelling, what are the solutions that are truly transformational? That’s the evolution I’m seeing.

The first couple of months I was doing these intro-to-climate-justice workshops at these regional trainings the NAACP has. The first one I did was “Climate Justice 101,” covering topics like, here’s how climate change is a multiplier of injustice, how even the way our society is constructed exacerbates climate change.

But many people had little framework for hearing it. Climate was so hard to fit into what NAACP usually did. People see this word “climate” and didn’t see how it fit into our bedrock civil rights agenda.

“People see this word ‘climate’ and didn’t see how it fit into our bedrock civil rights agenda.”

But now we have a cadre of folks who readily and deeply get the connection—unfortunately because of their lived experience, because of the pattern of changes climate is causing. We’re having more and more conversations about intersectionality, about how the entities that are paying into ALEC [the American Legislative Exchange Council] to push back on air quality regulations are the same ones who are pushing back against our voting rights, pushing forward on these restrictive voting policies.

People are seeing how it’s all fitting together in ways that weren’t as apparent seven years ago. More people anyway. I wouldn’t generalize it, but it’s making more sense to more people.

McKibben: So what’s the best way for people to pitch in?

Patterson: That’s the question I get the most. So many people have so many different capacities, knowledge, skills. So I end up giving a broad set of strokes—join your local EJ group, or participate with your local welfare rights organization or whatever the group is that’s addressing those most marginalized by society. Put yourself in service to the leadership of those on the front line. And there are groups like NAACP—we have 2,200 branches around the country, and it’s in the bylaws that they’re supposed to have an environmental committee, but they don’t all have enough people. So join your local NAACP chapter.

“Join your local NAACP chapter.”

One person walked up to me after I did one of my university talks and said, “I’m a geologist, what can I do?” I gave her multiple examples—I talked about fracking. If you could help map out some of the groups, help them understand the connection between fracking and seismic activity. If you can look at the Florida situation and look at the increase in sinkholes, help people understand that sea level rise is affecting the limestone and making sinkholes more likely. She walked away inspired as she had never thought how her self-titled “geeky career path” could actually help out with addressing climate change!

McKibben: What kind of stories really help audiences get it?

Patterson: Well, there’s one story I tell to help people understand intersectionality: There’s a picture I show of this young boy named Antoine, who lives in Indiantown, Florida, 3 miles from a coal-fired power plant. He has severe asthma. There’s a picture of his bag of medicines that show what he depends on to get by from day to day. And there’s a picture of him as a young boy watching other kids play in a fountain. Another one shows him looking out the window and watching kids go to school. Not him—there’s so many poor air quality days that would put his life at risk if he went.

I talk about the connection between the very facility that is driving climate change and the increased concentration of pollutants that come from climate change. And the kids who can’t go to school. Or have a hard time paying attention because the other things that come out of smokestacks [are] lead. Or they might be drinking it from their water supply. I want people to see all those levels of risk kids have from these impacts.

“I want people to see all those levels of risk kids have from these impacts.”

And then I overlay it with the maps that show these same communities are food insecure—more likely to get Doritos and Cheetos than kale or quinoa. And I overlay that with the fact that when you have this many problems, including living next to a toxic facility, on average your property values are 15 percent lower. So that affects the quality of their schooling because they’re less resourced—fewer tax dollars. And then I show an image of a child standing on a milk crate being fingerprinted.

If you’re not on grade level by grade 3, you’re much more likely to enter into the school-to-prison pipeline. And then the same entities that fight against the regulations to help the air are the same entities pushing forward punitive criminal justice measures, and privatizing our prisons, and so on. People see that through the lens of an actual child, how all those systems come into play. How they come into play against his chance to be a thriving adult.

McKibben: How do you make people feel empowered?

Patterson: Well, climate change might be big enough to help us start reimagining things. Usually by the time I finish describing the problem side of my presentations, most people are properly depressed, but when I get on the transformation side, I start to talk about how these systems are predicated on exploitation of natural resources and of human resources. Or humans, period. How these systems are so deeply flawed—instead of commons, we have sacrifice zones. And how climate change is really a byproduct of this systematic world of winners and losers. And then we talk about the ways we really need to flip this on its head.

We talk about how when we have a system based on capitalism, by definition it means there are winners and losers. And communities of color, women, and so on are on the losing end. But it’s the 99 percent that are on the losing end in various degrees. And then we go through the various systems—how we deal with our waste, the way we are generating energy, how it’s possible for us to have 100 percent renewable energy. System by system, we talk about it. And then we talk about the whole economic and political system—the people who are using the profits from this old system to suppress democracy, to stay in control. That’s part of our narrative of transformation.

McKibben: Can we speed up that democratic transformation quickly enough?

Patterson: No. That’s why we talk about doing two things at once. As we are taking back our democracy by overturning Citizens United and getting money out of politics and so on, we also have to be the change we want to see in the world, even before our political system catches up. So, the things that the Institute for Local Self-Reliance does around helping us develop recycling systems, our own energy systems, our own food systems. How we shift power away from the Monsantos, the Exxons. How we shift away from these systems at the same time that we’re changing the rulemakers and the rules. We have to do it all at the same time.

McKibben: People talk a lot about “just transition,” but what does that mean? Something more than retraining coal miners for solar jobs? What does it look like?

Patterson: There are a lot of sensitivities around even using the term. I will say what I’ve heard from various front-line groups, defining what it looks like in their communities.

One thing: We’re talking about poor communities. People have lost their lives for not being able to pay for electricity. They’re burning down their houses by using candlelight or because their oil has run out and they have to use heaters, or they’re on respirators and their electricity goes out. So as we’re transitioning to renewables, we need to make sure there are not unintended consequences in terms of rate increases. For those communities, just transition means their bills don’t fluctuate upwards. Ideally, their bills would go down.

“For those communities, just transition means their bills don’t fluctuate upwards.”

For some folks, just transition means they’re owning part of the energy infrastructure; they’re not just a consumer writing a check every month. For others, it’s the jobs that are affected in mining or other parts of the energy industry. They need to feel that they have a choice, a choice that feels like it enables them to provide a similar level of support to their families and doing work that is fulfilling to them. You have a town like Steubenville, Ohio: It’s not just the people who work in coal plants; it’s people who work at the 7-Eleven. Because the whole town is built on that coal.

In sum, what I’ve heard from different folks is that just transition is about energy access and affordability, it’s about livelihood for oneself and one’s family, and it’s about being sensitive about tax revenues and how we’re shifting them. It can be a huge part of the economic engine for the community that’s being replaced.

But as I say, there’s lots of sensitivity around people who aren’t the ones who are going to be undergoing the transition. It’s a concern when Big Greens and others are using the term and getting funded for using the term. It’s become the term du jour for foundations, and those front-line communities become objectified.

We need to have conversations where there’s this certain level of trust, of grace. We’re all raised in this capitalist, patriarchal world. It’s in all our blood. There’re so many fissures in our movement, and I think a lot about how to have these conversations in a way that is forthright but also full of grace.

McKibben: What’s key to that?

Patterson: Well, I think a willingness to work together. It’s funny, I was just talking to some friends about their condo complex where people were always fighting. They said their best memory of being in that condo was when “Snowmageddon” hit, and people had to suspend all these different battles and focus on the fact that it was an emergency. They had to eat together and shovel together, while trusting that they were all working toward these common aims. They had to work through any roadblocks, literally and figuratively.

We need some kind of acknowledgement that that’s where we are, in an emergency.