The year 2020 illustrated to the world that the overlapping issues of climate and racial justice can no longer be ignored. A pandemic that disproportionately killed people of color and record-breaking wildfires that displaced thousands unfolded amidst international protests for racial justice spurred by George Floyd’s killing and the Black Lives Matter movement. We are living through the climate emergency every single day.
Communities that have contributed the least to the climate crisis are now bearing the brunt of its effects. Total emissions from 100 poor and vulnerable countries account for less than 5% of global emissions, according to the International Institute for Environment and Development, while the U.S. and China combined account for more than 40% of the world’s carbon emissions. In the United States, Black, Indigenous, and people of color are at greater risk because they often live in areas exposed to environmental crises, such as areas prone to flooding and rising sea levels, and often are unable to access infrastructure needed to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of extreme weather. The escalating climate crisis is a human rights crisis, evident in forced displacement and dispossession, along with impacts on access to food, water, housing security, and cultural identity. The world is increasingly at risk of “climate apartheid,” where the rich pay to escape heat and hunger while the rest of the world suffers, states a 2019 U.N. report.
According to the report, “States have marched past every scientific warning and threshold, and what was once considered catastrophic warming now seems like a best-case scenario.” At this rate, incremental actions taken by most United States human rights bodies “are entirely disproportionate to the urgency and magnitude of the threat,” the report states. The climate crisis is here; hundreds of thousands of people around the world are on the front lines dealing with its impact. Any notion that the climate crisis is “imminent” or “pending” is a privileged fallacy.
Activists agree climate justice will not come from corporations or market schemes because these are the structures responsible for causing the crisis in the first place. BIPOC communities and youth are leading visionary solutions proportional to the emergency at hand. From mutual aid efforts and record-breaking voter turnout to successfully halting pipelines, grassroots BIPOC leadership shows that collectively we can build a just world that will sustain us. Teen Vogue spoke with young women on the front lines of the climate crisis who are dedicated to supporting their communities to not only survive, but thrive.
Amber Tamm, Brooklyn, New York
The agriculture industry, which in the U.S. was strongly tied to the institution of slavery, is one of the largest drivers of climate change. “When I think about my ancestors, they were eating ham hocks and pickled watermelon rind, very much slavery poor food,” says Amber Tamm, a 25-year-old farmer and healer from Brooklyn, New York. “Food justice was set out to talk about the inequities that the food system presents and then talk about the structural racism that’s there…. But we need more than a personal revelation of anti-racism. What are we doing to pivot around these structural oppressive systems so people can get access to what they need?”
Tamm’s work connects diverse communities with the earth and nourishing foods. From bringing her fresh produce to local markets to supplying communities with free food, she champions a local, regenerative food system that not only restores the environment but also restores the food security and well-being of communities of color.
For Tamm, the past year showed the power of local food and the disparities in the food system amplified by race and poverty. She witnessed her community struggle through increased hunger while also navigating disproportionate impacts of the pandemic. She was farming on a Brooklyn rooftop during the peak of the George Floyd protests. “The constant helicopters represented the noise and movement in the city. It left me questioning: ‘What am I actually doing?’”
The integrity and dedication of community organizers coordinating mutual aid throughout the pandemic and BLM uprisings became a source of energy and inspiration for Tamm. “Communities are not here for the clout, they’re doing the work because it needs to get done,” she explains. “I feel myself on the front lines by asking my community and the ones leading the way, ‘How can we as farmers support you?’”
Tamm’s partner, a pivotal source of inspiration, and members of her community helped set up 70 community fridges within three months. As Tamm explains, “Free food is a COVID response, free food should have been more heavily thought about before COVID, but hunger and food insecurity has increased by 38% during the [first two months of the] pandemic. With rent not being canceled and an inadequate stimulus package, people need free food. If rent can’t be canceled, then food has to be free. It’s one or the other.” The community fridges also address the systemic barriers associated with food banks. Some food banks require recipients to present an ID and address. For undocumented people, accessing food can become a dangerous risk. “People shouldn’t be monitored to get access to food,” Tamm says.
Without barriers to access, the community fridges became a vital source of aid. Tamm described the fridges emptying just as quickly as they restocked. “People have to survive today, we are in the deep unknown now, weather-wise and government-wise, and as long as we are in this unknown, I want to know how I can feed people today,” Tamm says.
The urgency of the climate crisis presents itself in the mass hunger Tamm witnesses every day. “When I was living in New York, I was hungry for three days without access to produce.” Without community access to land to grow food, and with unpredictable seasons caused by climate change, sheer sustenance has become a privilege.
For Tamm, 2021 is the time to talk about structural influences that make it hard for food justice to happen. She explains, “Privileged people in power have the nerve so effortlessly to talk about what others need to do, like how Black people need to stop eating so much sugar to stop having diabetes. I wish it was that simple. I wish I could roll into the ’hood and actually say that and have that be true. Privileged people can make 10-year climate action and anti-hunger plans because they know they will be good in 10 years. They are eating organic and regenerative food. I’m not in the space to think about 10 years; I need to make food accessible now.”
Helena Gualinga, Ecuadorian Amazon
The Sarayaku people live along the Bobonaza River in the Ecuadorian Amazon. After large oil reserves were discovered on their sovereign lands two decades ago, the Ecuadorian government, without consultation or consent, conceded 60% of their land, along with other regions of the Amazon to petroleum companies. With oil activity came militarization, environmental destruction, and violence on Sarayaku territory.
The community has been adamant in its opposition to oil extraction and has a successful history of defending its territory. In 2003 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recognized several human rights violations, including the detention of four community leaders who were tortured at a CGC oil facility by the Ecuadorian military and police, and the Inter-American Court on Human Rights handed down a sentence for these violations in 2012, according to Cultural Survival.
Helena Gualinga, a 19-year-old Kichwa youth from the Sarayaku community in Ecuador, is following in the footsteps of her community’s fierce intergenerational resistance and resilience.
Gualinga grew up around community advocacy, watching her mother, Noemi Gualinga, and aunt, Patricia Gualinga, a well-known leader and advocate for Indigenous rights and environmental justice. As she tells Teen Vogue, “Indigenous women have been fundamental in leading the fight in my territory; they were the ones who first said no. My mom is a leader in my community, she made it very clear to me to stay true to our identities. The way my mom and grandmother have been resisting their entire lives is strength.” Helena’s aunt Patricia, a leader in the Sarayaku community, has faced death threats for defending the rights of her people to protect the Amazon from the oil industry. Violence against the land is often connected to violence against women. Women, especially Indigenous women, are at a higher risk when they fight to defend the land and water. “This is something that is very serious, especially in Latin America. People are losing their lives every day just to stand up for their rights and defend the environment,” Gualinga says.
For Gualinga, living on the front lines of the climate crisis means bearing witness to a multitude of injustices. “Everyone knows that people on the front lines have not contributed to the climate crisis; we have a sustainable way of living in an extremely respectful relationship to forests, rivers, and animals. We have always advocated for its defense from the oil corporations and industry. But we live with the consequences of what the climate crisis is causing,” Gualinga says.
In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, Gualinga’s community was flooded by heavy rains that washed away homes and infrastructure. “When the floods happened, my community was devastated, our community was unrecognizable.” The flood, spurred by climate change and the deforestation in the Amazon, is just one of many disasters communities in the region have endured. “People on the front lines have a very specific way of living that climate disasters easily disrupt. There have been many oil spills this year in Ecuador. People are still living with those consequences.” According to Gualinga, the government still has not provided support to the community to repair damage from the floods, bridges remain broken and the community has been left to coordinate canoes to help children cross the river to get to school each day. “We cannot [defeat] the consequences of climate change,” she reflects. “There is no way of stopping an enormous flood. We have this double fight going on that is the same enemy. We have to fight corporations and oil companies while climate change is knocking on our door, destroying our communities.”
Having witnessed the threats of climate change and corporate abuse, Gualinga feels a deep sense of responsibility. “As someone who grew up seeing everything that happened to my community and feeling what children from the forest feel when their home is threatened, it is part of my responsibility to my community and to the children growing up today to do something. That’s what keeps me going. Once you have seen something you cannot unsee it.”
While Indigenous communities protect and steward the vast majority of the world’s biodiversity, governments recognize less than 10% of Indigenous legal ownership of the world’s lands. A recent report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services involving more than 400 experts from 50 countries concluded that Indigenous knowledge and stewardship is necessary for a healthier world. Yet Indigenous communities around the world lack adequate safeguards to steward their own territories. “The way Indigenous communities live is part of the solution. We are a strong example of how it is possible to live without harming nature and ourselves. It comes down to values and how humanity views the world. There is a connection that has been lost. These values are what Indigenous people keep alive, we have that strong connection, and it’s important to share that.”
Climate change and the impacts of the fossil fuel industry necessitate the social destruction and stigma of Indigeneity, Gualinga explains. “A tool for them to destroy us is to attack our identity to gain access to these territories.” Despite everything her community has faced, the Sarayaku have remained resilient. “We kept our culture alive, we kept our community together, our traditions and visions are still alive. We have not let ourselves lose everything that makes the Sarayaku people the Sarayaku people. That is proof of how strong our people are; we are fighting and we are still here.”
Amber Brown, Dallas
Amber Brown grew up understanding the importance of community. Her parents ran a homeless ministry, and every weekend she would join them to cook free meals throughout different parts of South Dallas. Now, at 27 years old, Brown has dedicated her career and time to advocating for climate justice in Texas as an organizer with the Sunrise Movement. Climate change in Texas has meant extreme weather change and events, like Winter Storm Uri, a climate disaster that struck in February, leaving millions without electricity, heat, and water for days during frigid temperatures.
As Brown explains, “We just experienced four seasons in a month with hailstorms and the freeze. We’ve never experienced it the way we have this past month, with it freezing and then summer weather the next week.”
The storm was dubbed “snovid” by locals for the dual crisis of the pandemic (Texas has seen nearly 3 million positive COVID cases), and the apocalyptic collapse of essential infrastructure during the snowstorm. The impacts of the disaster were exacerbated by corporate greed, systemic inequalities, and racism. As The Washington Post reported, “A vivid metaphor for the state’s entrenched inequities emerged Monday night: The illuminated Texas skylines of downtown buildings and newly filled luxury hotels cast against the darkened silhouettes of freezing neighborhoods.” Brown recalls, “It was like two different worlds. It was heartbreaking, that whole next week I cried almost every day. We were seeing homeless people sleeping in tents in snow, ice in apartments and walkways, thousands of people submitting requests for food.”
Brown began organizing support after hearing from friends who had lost power. Soon, her apartment became a place of refuge for people in her community to stay and cook meals. “All these requests started coming in, ‘Hey, I don’t have power, my water is out or it’s not safe to drink.” Brown began calling shelters to see if they could provide support, but many had also lost power and had no way to feed people. “It started with us making food at my apartment for one of the shelters, and then the next day cooking for 200 people in my kitchen who didn’t have water. The next day, it was 1,400 people. Every day it escalated, we weren’t sleeping, I wasn’t working. It felt like we were trying to do FEMA’s job.”
Soon, a coalition of mutual aid formed as Brown brought together different grassroots organizations to coordinate their resources and strategies to be as effective as possible. Latin X’s program, Feed the Revolution, used funds raised by Sunrise to support cooking thousands of free meals for community members in dire need.
While millions of people suffered for days in freezing conditions without access to heat, water, and electricity, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R) jetted off to Mexico and Gov. Greg Abbott (R) told Fox News that “our wind and solar got shut down,” blaming green energy for the crisis. After the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the statewide power grid operator, ordered power cuts to avoid a total system collapse, rolling blackouts ensued.
Texas had time to prepare for this but chose not to. In 2011, a similar freeze resulted in 1 million people losing power. At the time, a federal report called for Texas to winterize the power grid, but that never happened. Ten years later, the failure of the state’s power grid happened in large part because of privatization and Texas evading federal regulation of its power industry, The New York Times reported. “Our politicians are heavily influenced by the fossil fuel industry, at the end of the day for the fossil fuel industry profit is the bottom line for them while people without privilege are clearly suffering,” Brown says. The Washington Post recently reported that “at least 13 members of the Texas Legislature who regularly weigh in on energy-related issues through their committee assignments draw some form of personal income from oil and gas.”
As Brown tells Teen Vogue, “To be on the front lines of the climate crisis feels like our political leaders do not listen and do not care if we survive. I know young people feel that in Texas. I think as young people, our experience in this climate crisis is enough and should empower all of us to get involved. Our future needs to be us deciding, not these folks deciding for us. We have seen the crisis in this snowstorm and it is only going to get worse.”
This story originally appeared in Teen Vogue and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
Maia Wikler is an anthropologist, climate justice organizer, and writer whose work has appeared in Teen Vogue and VICE. She is also directing a short documentary film, supported by The North Face, featuring the Gwich’in women who are leading the fight to protect the Arctic Refuge. Maia was recently selected as a National Geographic Early Career Explorer to document cross-border stories about the threats to wild salmon from mining in Northern British Columbia.