The Rise of the Climate Justice Movement

As we close out the second decade of the 21st century, the stark reality is that the climate crisis has been getting worse every year. We are just now wrapping up the second warmest year on record and the last five years are the hottest ever recorded. Australia’s two hottest days in history took place one after another in mid-December, and then on Christmas Eve exceptionally warm weather  melted the most ice across Antarctica in a single day than any other day on record: 15 percent. Scientists warned earlier this month that the planet’s oceans are losing oxygen at an unprecedented rate as the temperature rises. I could go on.

Climate Strike in Edinburgh, September 20, 2019. Photo by Magnus Hagdorn licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The worsening climate emergency, however, is not the whole story. As Sharon Zhang notes, “the climate crisis escalated in 2019,” but “so did the climate justice movement.”

Arguably the most important development of the climate movement in the past decade, climate justice provides a radically new framework for organizing. It examines the sources and impact of climate change as well as responses to it, and asks who is affected first and worst in each case. In the words of Eddie Bautista, Executive Director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, “Climate change affects everyone, but will not impact everyone equally.”

The recent emergence of the Green New Deal has underscored the central tenet of climate justice, that social equity needs to be at the center of any effort to shrink our greenhouse gas emissions. Calling on the federal government to drive public and private investments and meet climate targets, as Julian Brave NoiseCat writes, the Green New Deal seeks to “create millions of green jobs while modernizing infrastructure and leveling the playing field so that everyone – particularly communities of color, women, and working families – can participate in a new economy.”

The Sunrise Movement, which first appeared in 2018 and came into its own in 2019, has been one of the most effective proponents of the Green New Deal. Made up mostly of young people who came of age during the climate crisis, the Sunrise Movement campaigned across the country for the Green New Deal this past year. Marisa Lansing and Cheyenne Carter, two local Sunrise Movement leaders, explained at their presentation to TCCPI in October that the Sunrise theory of change emphasizes “democratic people power.” As they put it, “We build our people power by talking to people” and “through escalated moral protest.”

The Green New Deal has a long ways to go before becoming established policy, but make no mistake: it has dramatically changed the tone and dynamic of the climate debate and who is participating in it. It has brought a new moral focus to the conversation and infused it with a fresh, vibrant energy that can’t help but give one hope for the future, even in the face of increasingly dire news about the climate.

The Importance of Collaborative Leadership

Growing climate disruption makes it increasingly clear that the old ideas about leadership aren’t working. When the worst drought in 500 years strikes California, England endures the wettest winter in 250 years, and an historic heat wave sets off a rash of bushfires in Australia all at the same time, the weaknesses inherent in traditional notions of the “leader-as-hero” become all too apparent.

Winter storm batters the coast of England in early February. 

In the face of such complex and interrelated challenges, we need to move towards a more collaborative and distributive model, one in which “leaders-as-host” build on a network of relationships, inviting people from all parts of the system to participate and contribute to the process of developing solutions. As Deborah Frieze and Margaret Wheatley contend, this approach “is the only way to get large-scale, intractable problems solved.”

Since it was first launched in 2008, TCCPI has sought to demonstrate what this kind of collaboration looks like and the impact it can have on a region’s economic, social, and environmental health. But it is only one among many such efforts in our community. A terrific example of collaborative leadership can be found on South Hill, where Ithaca College, PPM Homes, Cornell Cooperative Extension-Tompkins County, and the South Hill Civic Association have joined hands to raise student awareness about the importance of energy conservation.

Energy efficiency in rental properties is notoriously difficult to achieve in part because of the problem of “split incentives.” Often landlords don’t make efficiency investments because it’s the renters who pay the energy bills. In cases where the landlord pays the utilities, the tenant has little financial incentive to practice energy conservation. The result is housing that wastes energy and costs more than it should.

Unless the different stakeholders come together and work out a solution that makes sense to everyone, the status quo prevails. In a community like Ithaca where 73% of the housing market consists of rental properties, split incentives pose a significant challenge to attempts to reduce the city’s carbon footprint.

As a result of the South Hill collaborative process, PPM Homes carried out extensive upgrades to make its rental properties more energy efficient and provided free bus passes to encourage less reiiance on automobiles. At the same time, the process brought students into the conversation, helping them understand their role as tenants in improving energy conservation. Ithaca College, Cooperative Extension, and the South Hill Civic Association all reinforced this effort, working to heighten the students’ sense of responsibility to the community at large.

As the South Hill experiment underscores, collective efforts involving “leaders-as-hosts” draw together key stakeholders and engage them in a course of action that begins with discovering and making explicit common intention and ends with collectively creating the kinds of innovation needed to effectively address difficult problems. Such cooperative ventures provide a framework for multisector collaboration that helps to light the path ahead.