Event summary by Bridget Stuart
During this event, we had three brilliant and distinguished women discuss the complex intersection of race and climate.
Elizabeth Yeampierre is an attorney and climate justice activist leader born and raised in New York, with Puerto Rican heritage and African and Indigenous ancestry. She is the Executive Director of UPROSE, Brooklyn’s oldest community-led organisation. In her speech, she imparted a resonant message: we cannot tackle climate change and race as separate issues.
The lives of non-white communities around the world are disproportionally impacted by pollution, toxic air, extreme weather events, which—when compounded with poorer healthcare and less support from organisational bodies—makes them increasingly vulnerable to the negative effects of climate breakdown. And yet, Elizabeth posed the stark question, “Why do people care more about polar bears than people of colour?"
The roots of the climate activism can be found in the social justice movement, and a just transition must be led by front-line communities, striving for people-centred solutions towards a resilient, regenerative and equal society.
Dr Ariadne Collins is a lecturer in International Relations at St Andrews University, and her work lies in market-based conservation and post-colonial development. She focused on the countries of Guyana and Surinam, and how their 500 years of colonial histories need to be recognised as structural conditions in order for conservation interventions to be effective. Detailing the histories of both nations, Ariadne critiqued the UN-led REDD+ programme, highlighting how the programme side-steps the colonial past.
Archana Soreng is an environmental activist and UN Youth Advisor on Climate Change, who belongs to the Khadia Tribe in Sundergarh, India. She started off by talking about how the colonial, extractivist, developmental worldview has been demeaning and destroying indigenous people and their ways of life for centuries. These indigenous communities are the least responsible for the climate crisis, yet it is these people who are both disproportionately suffering from the negative effects of climate change and who are on the front-line of climate justice activism and action.
Archana made the point that the traditional expertise and first-hand perspective of indigenous people is extremely valuable in the fight against climate change. These marginalised voices must be included and listened to, if we are to create real change.
Here are some take away points from the Q+A:
Event summary by Bridget Stuart
A week before the US 2020 Presidential Election, we heard from three inspiring experts from within the field of Climate Policy: Maggie Thomas, Julian Brave NoiseCat, and Kate Guy.
Julian Brave NoiseCat, VP of Policy and Strategy at Data for Progress, drew a clear distinction between the two candidates. Donald Trump, who thinks climate change is ‘a hoax’, has repealed Obama administration climate policies and condemned the US to exiting the Paris Agreement on November 4th (the day after the election). Joe Biden, however, was the first Senator to introduce legislation on the greenhouse effect, has committed to 100% clean and carbon pollution free electricity by 2035, pledged to invest $2 trillion in a clean energy economy transition, and specified that 40% of this fund ($800 million) will go directly to the frontline communities being most affected.
While, overall, climate is not a top priority issue for voters, it is high up on people’s agendas. This counts against Trump, with all voters trusting Biden significantly more on matters of climate – meaning climate could not only mobilise Biden's base, but could help him to pick up swing voters, younger voters and voters of Latino ethnicity.
Maggie Thomas, former Climate Policy Advisor to Senator Elizabeth Warren and Policy Director at Evergreen Action, spoke about her experience working on Governor Jay Inslee’s campaign, which was unique for its strong focus and large team working on climate policy. This campaign, while failing, did bring climate to the fore of other candidates agendas. She said that the 2020 election is a climate election, with the Biden campaign setting out to win the election on climate issues. She also spoke of the crucial importance of federal government climate policy in addressing clean energy, green investments and environmental justice.
Kate Guy, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Climate and Security, focused on topics of international action and national security. In this regard, Trump has teamed up with other so-called ‘climate arsonists’, to use Biden's words, to impede global action on climate change, and has turned his back on climate alliances. Biden’s approach is the opposite: he has pledged to re-join the Paris agreement on day 1, hold a summit of the biggest emitters as soon as possible, and use US power to push other countries into further action.
Further points made during questions & discussion:
· Climate action by the President alone could create real on-the-ground changes.
· Climate policy needs to be popular, maximise job creation on a short time scale, maximise emissions reductions, maximise environmental justice.
· China’s ambitious climate policy may represent its goal to become a global leader on climate action, ahead of the US. This could act to encourage the US to double-down on actions in a ‘race-to-the-top’ on climate.
· Wall Street must be held accountable for its contribution to climate breakdown and be regulated.
By Laura Watson
While current attitudes in the USA towards environmental policy are not entirely positive, it has not always been this way. Indeed, in the past, environmental issues and responses have been centralised and significant. While the term ‘environmental policy’ only dates back to the 1960s, there had been policies in the USA on the protection of the natural environment for many years before this.
Protection of public lands
Up until the late 19th century, public lands could be used for private economic purposes, but with the establishment of the first National Park, Yellowstone, in 1872 (and many others following), these lands began to be protected by the government. The National Parks Service was later created in 1916 to federally oversee all parks. Today there are over 400 acres protected by the US National Parks system.
This system of conservation has been strongly critiqued in decolonial and political ecological circles, as it failed to acknowledge the prior rights of indigenous inhabitants to these lands, and assumed that they were 'naturally empty wildernesses' rather than empty due to the intentional expulsion of their original inhabitants by the forces of the colonising state. Furthermore, they have been critiqued on purely conservationist grounds as largely ineffective for actually preserving the 'nature' they sought to protect.
A move towards national regulatory frameworks
For many years, the United States took a highly localised approach to environmental issues, with active moves against centralised regulation—reflecting the country's ardently federal political structure. For example, in 1960 President Eisenhower vetoed federal water treatment funding.
This all changed in 1970, with the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which amalgamated a huge range of diverse pollution reduction programmes. Subsequently, many new environmental laws were enacted, regulating a range of environmental issues such as air and water pollution. Over time, the role of the EPA was expanded, allowing for the regulation of additional pollutants, more stringent regulation of already regulated pollutants, and the regulation of smaller scale issues.
In addition to its regulatory mandate, the EPA recognised the value of market-oriented incentives to implement regulations more efficiently and increase the number of people and businesses following them. For example, in 1990 a cap and trade scheme was implemented as an amendment to the Clean Air Act, to reduce sulphur and nitrogen emissions from power plants, to deal with the proble of acid rain. These market-oriented incentives can only be applied with the approval of Congress, though, which in more recent times has become increasingly hard to obtain due to the politicisation of environmental protection, and the increasingly polarised nature of American politics.
A Specific Example: The American Dustbowl
The dustbowl was a period in the 1930s, during which the Southern Plains region of the USA experienced terrible dust storms, associated with a dry period. Like many environmental issues, the dustbowl was caused by a combination of natural factors (drought) as well as agricultural (excessive tillage), political (land policy), and economic ones (the Great Depression).
In response to the disaster, Congress intervened, establishing the Soil Erosion Service and the Prairie States Forestry Project in 1935. These centralised schemes worked with farmers in affected areas to implement soil conservation practices such as reduced tillage and tree-planting, to reduce the susceptibility of these areas to the large-scale wind-driven erosion that had caused the catastrophic dust storms. Unfortunately, the efficacy of the land management practices introduced during this period have been debated among the academic community, as many of them were abandoned at the end of the drought. Others believe that natural changes which occurred at the same time as the end of the crisis were at least equally responsible for ending the disaster.
With the election of President Biden, it remains to be seen whether the rolling back of environmental regulation across the United States under President Trump will be reversed, and whether the new President will build on the long history of environmental protection in the United States outlined in this post during his term in office.
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.