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.

Up in Flames or Fired Up?

The climate news, to say the least, has not been good this autumn. In particular, the fires sweeping across California have captured the headlines. Driven by the Santa Ana winds, they have taken on near biblical proportions. The largest of these conflagrations, the Kincade fire in Sonoma, has consumed almost 77,000 acres as of this Halloween evening and it is still only 45 percent contained. Pacific Gas & Electric has shut off power to millions of people in an effort to prevent new blazes, which continue to flare up around the state.

The Kincade fire in northern California.

Although an eight-year drought ended in March, the seasonal rains have been late this fall and the fierce winds, which usually arrive after the rains begin, have dried out the land, turning California into a tinder box. Under these conditions, the slightest spark can ignite a raging wild fire at a moment’s notice.

Not surprisingly, the changing climate has been a significant factor. As one climate scientist notes, “everything that’s occurring today is about 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it would have been if the same Santa Ana wind event were happening 100 years ago.” The combination of a multi-year drought and historically hotter summers is bad enough, but throw in 60-70 mile per hour winds and you have an obvious recipe for a horror show worse than any Halloween trickster could possibly conjure up.

To put it bluntly, the California fires demonstrate how unprepared we are for the climate emergency we have set in motion as a result of our profligate consumption of fossil fuels. As Russell Brandom writes, “The slow-moving nature of the climate crisis means that, under even the best scenarios, these fires will keep growing for the next 40 years. The longer we keep going this way, the more powerful they’ll get.” It’s this gradual unfolding of the climate catastrophe that is the crux of the problem. Our institutions, especially our political system, are designed to respond to sudden threats, not ones that take generations to emerge.

If you are a member of the young generation whose future is most at stake, however, then your perspective shifts dramatically. What you see is the disaster, not the gathering accumulation of forces that has led to its outbreak. Many of us who are older have become numb to the growing crisis and have, to one degree or another, become resigned to the situation or are unwilling to make the tradeoffs required to meet the challenge.

It is for this very reason that the Sunrise Movement is fired up and demanding to be heard, in Ithaca and across the country. The young members of this movement have made clear that if the current political leaders do not rise to the challenge, then they will be held accountable. It is a development worth keeping in mind as the Ithaca Common Council considers the budget for the city’s Green New Deal.

An Inflection Point in the Climate Fight?

The weather in Tompkins County has been beautiful this June. Spring got off to a slow start in April, with one rainy, gray day following another and temperatures at night dipping into the 30s even at the end of May. But then June arrived and with it so did the warmer and sunnier days. Gardens are exploding with new growth, the fields and roadside ditches are full of wild flowers and the landscape is green and lush.

 

We have every reason to be grateful. But in much of the world the climate emergency continues unabated. Just a few of the noteworthy items in the news recently:
  • Record-shattering heat assailed Europe this past week, with temperatures hitting well above 100 degrees F in France, Germany, Poland, and Spain. In fact, Europe’s five hottest summers in the past 500 years have all occurred in the last 15 years.
  • The wave of scorching weather has been even worse in India, where hundreds of villages have been abandoned because of acute water shortages and crop failures. The temperature in the city of Churu, hit 123 degrees, “making it the hottest place on the planet,” according to the Guardian. Several of India’s biggest cities are on the verge of running out of water.
  • In the Canadian Arctic permafrost is thawing 70 years sooner than scientists predicted. “What we saw was amazing,” Vladimir Romanovsky, a professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks said. “It’s an indication that the climate is now warmer than at any time in the last 5,000 or more years.”
  • A new United Nations report warned of “climate apartheid,” asserting that human rights, democracy, and the rule of law were all increasingly at risk. The report observed that developing countries will bear 75% of climate crisis costs, despite the poorest half of the world’s population causing just 10% of carbon dioxide emissions.
  • In the face of this mounting evidence of runaway climate change, the U.S. refused to join nineteen other nations this week at the G20 Summit in Japan in a reaffirmation of their commitment to implementing the Paris Treaty. The U.S. objected on the grounds that doing so would hurt American workers and taxpayers.
As the 2018 achievements of Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) coalition members show, our community has pursued a wide range of activities to tackle the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The unanimous approval by the City Common Council of Mayor Svante Myrick’s Green New Deal for Ithaca is another dramatic indication of the local commitment to battle the climate crisis, marking a potential inflection point. But clearly there is much work to be done and, as the onrush of global developments starkly reminds us, there is little time to waste. If we are to bend the curve of history in the right direction and avoid catastrophe, we must redouble our efforts and push onward, refusing to rest on our laurels.

This Time Albany Sets the Pace; Can Ithaca Catch Up?

More often than not Ithaca is ahead of the curve, providing cutting-edge leadership on progressive issues such as the ban on fracking and new approaches to drug policy. But, as the recent letter from the City of Ithaca Planning and Development Board and Gov. Cuomo’s announcement of his Green New Deal reveal, the city finds itself lagging significantly behind when it comes to climate action and clean energy.

Students strike for climate action. Photo by Stop Adani licensed under CC BY-2.0 .

The call from Albany for New York’s power to be 100 percent carbon-free by 2040 — at the heart of the state’s Green New Deal — poses a direct challenge to a city hall that has shown little inclination to discourage developers from relying on natural gas for new projects downtown or elsewhere. The governor’s mandate underscores the need for immediate action by the city to demonstrate its commitment to this new statewide target.

Kudos, then, to the City Planning Board for recognizing in its letter that there need to be “more tangible and stringent energy code requirements.” And further kudos for acknowledging that climate change requires a broader approach than simply adopting a new green building code, although this would certainly be a major step in the right direction. The planning board rightly asserts “it is imperative that we take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now.” In particular, the city needs to put in place “new fossil fuel reduction standards that are able to be upheld by various bodies, are easy to understand for the public and members of board and committees from various backgrounds, and will live in perpetuity within City Code.”

Where is the leadership for moving the community as a whole, not just city operations, off of fossil fuels and establishing a policy for achieving 100% renewable power by 2040? Will the mayor and Common Council respond to this challenge? Across the U.S., according to the Sierra Club, over 90 cities have already adopted ambitious 100% clean energy goals, sometimes even including heat and transportation, not just electricity. Why isn’t Ithaca on the Sierra Club list?

The usual suspects such as Boulder, Burlington, Cambridge, Madison, and Palo Alto can be found on this list, but the appearance of other cities such as Augusta, GA, Norman, OK, and West Chester, PA make it clear that Ithaca’s absence is an embarrassment. What will it take for the city’s leaders to rectify this situation?

One thing is certain: young people across the globe are getting fed up with the complacency of the older generation in charge. Inspired by the example of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, thousands of students in the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Germany, Ireland, Uganda, Thailand, Colombia, Poland, and more are taking to the streets to demand change. On March 15, American students will have their chance to join others from around the world. It would not be surprising if Ithaca students join this global movement. If they do, will the city listen to them and be ready to demonstrate its commitment to climate action and clean energy?

This post originally appeared as an opinion piece in the Ithaca Voice on March 18, 2019.