A Little Green

S1 E7: Climate leadership

Episode Summary

S1 E7: It’s the penultimate episode of A Little Green and it’s time to talk policy. Christina gets up to speed on the latest climate action in Washington. What’s on the table? And who’s at the table?

Episode Notes

S1 E7: It’s the penultimate episode of A Little Green and it’s time to talk policy. Christina gets up to speed on the latest climate action in Washington. What’s on the table? And who’s at the table? 

What becomes clear is that it’s going to take bold, transformational climate action to steer us toward a livable future, and the Green New Deal has come to symbolize just that. Christina talks with fellow podcaster Georgia Wright about what this Green New Deal is all about.

Jade Begay of NDN Collective and Ali-Reza Vahabzadeh of the American Sustainable Business Council join Christina to shed light on the Biden administration’s approach to climate change and how they’re incorporating those important environmental justice principles we’ve learned are so vital to climate action.

Christina brings things back to New York to dig into one amazing example of a bold, just, and intersectional initiative with Anthony Rogers-Wright of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. It’s called Renewable Rikers.

With so much great work being done by these organizers in the climate movement, Christina wonders why we haven’t made bigger strides on the national and global scale. It turns out that we’re dealing with a “leadership crisis.” Christina looks at the ugliest manifestation of this leadership crisis with Sarah Jaquette Ray, and Katharine Wilkinson explains who needs to take the wheel if we’re going to move forward.




Episode Transcription

[00:00:00] Audience: What's the government doing about climate change? 

What can Congress do to move us ahead on climate? 

I want to be more informed about policies so that I can really use my voice and my vote to advocate for the right things in the climate space. Where do I even start?

[00:00:25] Christina Thompson: You know, the overall goal when we started making this whole podcast was to arm ourselves with a little more knowledge, a lot more understanding, and a healthy dose of confidence when faced with any sort of climate change conversation, all with the goal of actually contributing something and becoming mini climate ambassadors in our own lives. And I think a big part of that is getting a handle on the policies; the recent strides, and at least some of the noteworthy climate action that's currently in progress. What's being done today in the climate movement? What's the latest? What's on the table? And who's at the table? 

I'm Christina Thompson and this is A Little Green podcast.

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[00:01:58]: Alex Padilla: The Green New Deal offers a once in a generation opportunity. 

Cori Bush: We need a Green New Deal. We need it now. We need it everywhere. 

Bernie Sanders: We need it because the planet is in crisis. 

Marcella Mulholland: The Green New Deal is a defining component of the progressive agenda. 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: We are now at 103 house co-sponsors for the Green New Deal and the US House of Representatives. 

[00:02:21] Christina Thompson: To get started on this “recent strides” investigation, I figured I'd find out what's been happening in Washington more recently. Start at the top and work my way down. The Green New Deal is a concept we've probably all heard of by now. And while it's not an extremely recent proposal, it's one that I've come to realize is encompassing a lot of the progressive climate action today. But let's back up and get a little refresher on what this was and what it's come to be now. And I love the way that Georgia Wright and Julianna Bradley summed it up on their podcast Inherited. Here's Julianna explaining. 

[00:02:52] Julianna Bradley: Here's the elevator pitch. The Green New Deal is the legislative equivalent of a vision board. It outlines how to stop climate change by addressing all the individual evils that have created it. It's made up of a bunch of different policy proposals that will together move American society over to completely renewable energy in just ten years, all while addressing racial and economic inequality. No climate solution like it has been proposed before. 

[00:03:19] Christina Thompson: This Green New Deal isn't just some pie in the sky idea. It's a comprehensive path to that livable future we've been talking about, one that takes environmental justice, adaptation, mitigation, and much more into account. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been a vocal champion of this Green New Deal. She and fellow US Representative Ed Markey re-introduced the resolution earlier this year:

[00:03:41] Alexandria Ocasio Cortez: We're going to transition to a 100% carbon-free economy that is more unionized, more just, more dignified, and guarantees more healthcare and housing than any that we ever have before. That's our goal. That's the goal of the Green New Deal

[00:03:57] Georgia Wright: So it's really kind of this holistic re-imagining of what society might look like.

[00:04:01] Christina Thompson: I spoke with Georgia Wright about the Green New Deal. 

[00:04:03] Georgia Wright: That doesn't mean that a Green New Deal is something where we just pass one and then that's it, that's over. It's almost become a symbol of larger changes being made in the movement. And so it's opening the door for people to imagine a future where things go in the best possible direction, rather than the worst possible direction, where we are able to say, "what happens if we actually green public housing? What happens if we create cross country light rail that would allow for folks to travel great distances without expending as much carbon? What if it was possible to create millions of new jobs in the renewable sector?" And it allows us to say, you know, "what is the future that we want to see? And how can we strive to get there?" 

[00:04:50] Christina Thompson: So let's get down to brass tacks. What are some examples of current action plans that fall under this umbrella, this vision of the future? Let's begin with our new administration and what their POV is as it relates to climate change. I spoke with Jay Begay to get me up to speed. She's the climate justice campaign director at NDN Collective and a member of the new White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council

[00:05:14] Jade Begay: I think it's interesting that the new administration's tagline is "building back" because truly that's what's happening. It's, there's a lot of building back going on and I have a lot of colleagues and friends working within these various agencies and it's a lot of work. Um, they're really having to, I wouldn't say start from scratch, but like -- 

[00:05:36] Christina Thompson: Kind of. 

[00:05:37] Jade Begay: Kind of, yeah, exactly. The last four years were really detrimental to just our country. We pulled out of the Paris Agreement, you know, now that we're back in, that's one great step, but there's a lot of bureaucracy that has to happen, right? And then when it comes to, you know, the federal level here in the US, the Trump administration deregulated so much. It was essentially like a breaking down of the EPA and there was no climate task force, there was no White House environmental justice. In fact, the last administration did everything in its power to make it easier for industries to pollute.

[00:06:22] Christina Thompson: And the Biden administration's big agenda is Build Back Better, an ambitious plan to create jobs, cut taxes, and lower costs. Right there in bold letters on the White House website. 

[00:06:33] Ali-Reza Vahabzadeh: There's some initiatives that have come out recently that we really applaud. 

[00:06:37] Christina Thompson: That's AR Vahabzadeh of the American Sustainable Business Council. They work towards public policy that supports sustainability, equity, and justice. And AR gave me some more details about that ambitious plan. 

[00:06:47] Ali-Reza Vahabzadeh: For example, you know, enhancing the climate ambition and enabling the transformations required to reach net zero emissions by 2050. That's a fantastic goal that I think we can reach. You know, transforming energy systems. Revitalizing the transportation sector. You know, building workforces for the future and ensuring US competitiveness. You know, providing origin support for vulnerable countries and communities to adapt and build resilience to the climate crisis. This is something the United States should be at the forefront of. Um, you know, implementing nature-based solutions. Promoting safety and security at home and abroad. And supporting action at every level that contributes to this is really important and we're really happy to see that the Biden-Harris administration is laser focused on this.

[00:07:37] Joe Biden: When I think of climate change, I think of -- and the answers to it, I think of jobs. A key plank of our Build Back Better recovery plan is building a modern, resilient climate infrastructure and clean energy future that will create millions of good paying union jobs. 

[00:07:54] Ali-Reza Vahabzadeh: President Biden says it himself: when he thinks of climate change, he thinks of jobs, and they both go hand in hand. And addressing climate change not only addresses combating a national security threat we see with climate change, but also addresses coming up with new jobs, getting people jobs, providing people with fair living wage, and getting people in our country back on track to do what we do best. 

[00:08:17] Christina Thompson: One way I've learned that jobs are playing a role is through the creation of something called a Civilian Climate Corps. 

[00:08:23] Joe Biden: It establishes a new, modern day Civilian Climate Corps that I called for when I was campaigning to heal our public lands and make us less vulnerable to wildfires and floods. It’s advancing conservation, revitalizing communities in cities and in the farm, on the farm lands, and securing environmental justice. 

[00:08:44] Christina Thompson: What is a Civilian Climate Corps? And why do we need one so urgently? 

[00:08:48] Alexandria Ocasio Cortez: The original Civilian Conservation Corps under FDR was the largest peacetime mobilization of young Americans in American history. In American history. Our climate crisis today requires a peaceful, but wartime scale mobilization in order to combat the climate crisis. 

[00:09:11] Christina Thompson: Essentially, this new policy is based on FDR's popular Civilian Conservation Corps, which is pretty cool. It was a way to recover from the Great Depression by providing jobs to young men. And it was because of this Corps and these jobs that they were able to shape our beloved national parks system. Similarly, the Civilian Climate Corps would create government jobs for young people geared toward restoring and conserving public lands and addressing climate change. 

[00:09:36] Georgia Wright: A Civilian Climate Corps is a particular piece of that Green New Deal that I've heard a lot of advocacy for recently. And I think it would be a great thing because of course, one of the major concerns when you talk about transitioning off of fossil fuels is, you know, if you're working in the fossil fuel industry, "will I lose my job? Am I still going to have a job? Am I going to be struggling to support my family and make rent?" And so I think the clear solution is to provide alternatives for folks. 

[00:10:01] Christina Thompson: Many, many young people like Georgia have been pushing hard for bold climate action like the Civilian Climate Corps. 

[Sounds of protest and chanting at climate demonstrations]

[00:10:15] Christina Thompson: And a major reason these policies are even on the agenda today is because of grassroots efforts like this. 

[00:10:21] Georgia Wright: You know, a Civilian Climate Corps would create millions of new jobs in renewable energy. And of course, this is all kind of nested under, uh, the Green New Deal as an overarching piece of legislation that has not actually been signed into legislation yet, but it is sort of this roadmap for potentially a just and equitable transition.

[00:10:41] Christina Thompson: Along with creating all these jobs, Biden's team is focusing on another important concept, one we've talked a lot about, and it's a core part of his plan. Environmental justice. Jade explained to me how the White House created a new council to advise on this very issue. 

[00:10:56] Jade Begay: Myself and many other seasoned environmental and climate justice activists and organizers were appointed into this council. This is the first council of its kind. And our main mission is to provide advice and recommendations to the CEQ, which is the Council on Environmental Quality, and also to the White House and various agencies within the federal government. So in the past, these types of councils have given advice to just, you know, one agency, like the EPA. We give advice to the entire federal agency. 

[00:11:38] Christina Thompson: And the council will advise on loads of climate issues that we've been learning about, like mitigation and resilience, pollution reduction in overburdened communities, equitable conservation in public land use, tribal and Indigenous issues, clean energy and sustainable infrastructure.

[00:11:52] Jade Begay: Something that's really amazing about people like myself being on this council and the rest of my colleagues is that we're from frontline communities. We're not oil lobbyists, we're not career politicians. We're organizers, we're community members. You know, I'm from New Mexico, which is infamous for uranium exposure and superfund sites and all kinds of negative impacts from mining and fracking and those types of projects. So I know, and the rest of my colleagues know, like, what our communities need. And so we're giving not just our own testimony, but testimony from the people that we are most accountable to, which is, which is our communities. 

[00:12:41] Christina Thompson: Wow. Amazing. What types of recommendations are you and the council putting forward? 

[00:12:46] Jade Begay: Yeah. So one of our first tasks was to make recommendations on updating an environmental justice executive order. If anyone's curious, it's the 12898 executive order. 

[00:12:59] Christina Thompson: That executive order was issued back in 1994 by President Clinton. And apparently it was the first big action the federal government ever took on environmental justice. 

[00:13:09] Jade Begay: That was our initial task. We've also been tasked with making recommendations around a tool that the United States digital service is building. It's a climate and economic screening tool, which will essentially be a public tool for, you know, citizens, for lawmakers, policy makers, to use, to identify different environmental justice issues or hotspots.

[Sounds of New York streets]

[00:13:41] Christina Thompson: Taking things back to my home city, I wanted to hear about some of the more local initiatives that are setting the tone for the national approach. Rather than top-down, going from the ground level up. 

Anthony Rogers-Wright is the Director of Environmental Justice at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. And he's someone we've heard from a few times over the course of these episodes. NYLPI is a community driven civil rights organization that is acutely aware of the many problems facing New York right now. And one glaring toxic problem in particular? Rikers Island. 

You probably already know about this jail located on an island in the East River, notorious for violence and abuse of the people incarcerated there. And what's been happening there is absolutely atrocious. And did you know it's also an environmental disaster? It's a place where criminal, racial, and environmental justice all intersect. 

[00:14:51] Anthony Rogers-Wright: The symbol of what Rikers Island has represented in New York is this carceral place that is totally disconnected from the rest of the city, right, where, um, a lot of people have spent, or are still spending, time for low-level so-called crimes, nonviolent crimes. 

[00:15:08] Christina Thompson: The jail was built on a landfill, which releases that super potent methane gas we talked about a while ago. To add to the mess, the island also has a power plant that further pollutes the air. According to a 2016 article I read in Grist, this very power plant also emits tons of that dangerous particulate matter we talked about with Rosana and Tom, those PM 2.5 particles. The light at the end of the tunnel here is that Rikers will be shut down, thanks to environmental and social justice efforts. And honestly, it cannot come soon enough. 

[00:15:39] Anthony Rogers-Wright: The process was led by my deputy of my department and our senior legal attorney, Melissa Iachán, who did amazing work. And now, um, in the next five years, I mean, Rikers Island is going to shut down and the transformation is going to take place to turn it into a renewable energy hub, which includes manufacturing and all kinds of jobs. Renewable Rikers is a perfect example of what intersectionality looks like in motion, you know, what it looks like in practice. And the beautiful part about it is that the vast majority of the jobs must be allocated, and are promised to, we like to say “returning citizens” rather than “former felons,” and even the Rikers Island commission, the board commission, the majority of the people who sit on that board will also be returning citizens and the families of people who were impacted adversely by Rikers Island. 

[00:16:27] Christina Thompson: The Renewable Rikers Act identifies and acknowledges the horrible history of this place in an effort to begin to repair that harm today. And this transformation will help build climate resilience in New York. 

[00:16:37] Anthony Rogers-Wright: So here you see the nexus of so-called environmental justice and climate justice of people who are fighting the carceral state; abolitionists for, um, criminal justice reform, immigration rights advocates, and so many others, you know, coming together to form this coalition with a unified cause and a unified outcome to close down a vast symbol of oppression that has resulted in really altering the lives of so many New Yorkers, majority Black, brown, Indigenous. Not only a beautiful project but a beautiful example of what happens, hopefully a harbinger of what happens when we bust down silos and work in an actual intersectional fashion. 

[00:17:20] Christina Thompson: Perfect example. I mean, a community of people disproportionately incarcerated are then also, their community is disproportionately affected by that same system. It's, like, that, what we were saying earlier, it's just this connectivity of it all affecting one another. The project is amazing. So thank you for everything you've done. 

[00:17:38] Anthony Rogers-Wright: Oh yeah, no, of course. And that's, you know, the organizers, as I always say, first and foremost, when you have amazing outcomes like this, um, thank the organizers because they're the ones that, that ultimately made, made this happen. And, and we, we have to make sure we're giving them the props that they deserve and the investment that they deserve as well so they can continue doing incredible work like this. 

[00:17:59] Christina Thompson: Renewable Rikers is amazing and it's a great example of how climate justice, adaptation, and resilience can coalesce into policy that actually makes tangible change. But while all the work that people like Anthony and Jade and Georgia are doing is amazing, I discovered that their kind of approach, one that's based in justice, equity, and inclusion, hasn't really been the norm in the environmental movement. 

[00:18:23] Katharine Wilkinson: The climate crisis is a leadership crisis. 

[00:18:26] Jade Begay: It does feel frustrating to, you know, not see the people who need to be a part of the decision-making included.

[00:18:34] Georgia Wright: There needs to be sort of an accessibility revolution around this subject. 

[00:18:38] Anthony Rogers-Wright: We have to be careful of gatekeepers speaking for people they shouldn't necessarily be speaking for. When you talk about climate and you see people who are brought on to talk about climate, it's, you know, first and foremost, white men. If you look at the vast majority of climate journalists, white people. You know, executive directors of mainstream environmental -- or positions of leadership, mainly white people. So it is a bit of a crisis, but it's a crisis that's rooted in intransigence, and it's a crisis that is rooted in the fact that, you know, you can't train out white supremacy, you can't train out patriarchy, right, that's everywhere. That culture is still ensconced, to some extent, within the climate and environmental community, although great work is being done. 

[00:19:20] Katharine Wilkinson: I think there is still a lot of tendency to look for leadership in the same places and from the same folks who've gotten us into this mess. And they're just probably not going to be the ones who get us out of it. They might be transformed along the way, but I think we need a different kind of leadership. 

[00:19:42] Christina Thompson: Katharine Wilkinson has been raising the alarm about what she calls this leadership crisis. 

You speak about sort of a leadership crisis. 

[00:19:49] Katharine Wilkinson: I think what's so clear at this stage is that the toolbox of solutions is incredible, right? And getting even better by the day. We could just, basically, “we” meaning people in power, um, decide that well, we're just not going to use them at the scale and speed required because there are folks who are going to, you know, lose a bunch of money in the process or lose their power in the process. And so when we think about that tension, it becomes really clear that so much of what we're dealing with is a question of power and that the people in power and the institutions that control so much of what the world looks like from, you know, fossil fuel companies to banks to governments, on and on, there's still so much prioritizing of short-term profit and power and prestige over people and planet. 

[00:20:54] Christina Thompson: Even though there is so much good work being done, the fact remains that the status quo of what leadership currently looks like is not the path forward. And the most extreme version of this leadership crisis has the potential to manifest in a really ugly way, one that many people may not have ever even considered. 

[00:21:11] Sarah Jaquette Ray: The history of eco-fascism, is what it's called, in the US is long. 

[00:21:15] Christina Thompson: That's Sarah Jaquette Ray. She helped us understand the whole idea of eco anxiety last time. I asked her about this other disturbing “eco” term that sounds like a real oxymoron. 

[00:21:24] Sarah Jaquette Ray: It's not, like, a new thing we need to worry about. It's been going on for some time where ideas about what a pure environment ought to be like needs to be, you know, certain types of people belong in that environment, or natural resources can be preserved only for certain kinds of people. We don't want other kinds of people that have those resources. So environmental fear, environmental anxiety, climate anxiety, big emotions, especially when harnessed by those in power can have some really deleterious effects and can exacerbate social oppression and injustice. We don't often think of it as manifesting in environmentalism. And so that's kind of where the “eco” comes in, “eco-fascism.” This notion that many people would be willing, and I think these are people with privilege mostly, would be willing to sort of give up their rights, their civil liberties and their rights, if they thought some dictator could solve the environmental problem and create this ideal society.

[00:22:19] Christina Thompson: Okay. Definitely not the future we want. 

[00:22:21] Sarah Jaquette Ray: That eco-fascism is a way that environmental ideas get wrapped up in really racist ideas. And, you know, create policies that don't seem as awful and don't seem as racist because they're done under this guise of the environment, which seems more innocuous and universally good. They throw this green veneer over xenophobia. 

[00:22:43] Christina Thompson: Yeah. It’s like fascist greenwashing. 

[00:22:45] Sarah Jaquette Ray: Fascist greenwashing.

[00:22:47] Christina Thompson: It's the new term. 

[00:22:49] Sarah Jaquette Ray: You know, we can do anything, you know, social justice doesn't matter because climate change is so urgent, right? 

[00:22:56] Christina Thompson: So of course we want to do everything possible to avoid these dangerous outcomes, ditch the status quo and see more inclusive, effective leadership in action. But what do we need to do to get there? How do we work towards those successful justice-based initiatives like Renewable Rikers and bring that kind of approach to our own communities? 

[00:23:14] Katharine Wilkinson: Whoever is leading right now by and large is not getting the job done, right. We are continuing on a really terrifying trajectory. And so my perspective is, if we need to change that trajectory -- and what science has told us is we have to rapidly, radically reshape society this decade -- science is not prone to hyperbole, right? So if they're saying radically, rapidly reshape society, every aspect of the global economy, well, it's going to take transformational leadership to carry out that kind of transformation. 

I think that that means leadership that is much more anchored in heart centered wisdom than we've had, it's leadership that is much more committed to justice than we've had, it's leadership that is more committed to collaboration and community than to hierarchy and being the boss and being in charge, and is able to bridge the superpowers of head and heart, of analysis and empathy, imagination and strategy, and lead us forward with care, with compassion, with creativity. When you kind of take all of that in sum, it's like, well, this is actually leadership that is more characteristically feminine, regardless of any gender identity, and also more committedly feminist. 

And so that's really the leadership transformation that we think is needed, and it's underway. I mean, if you look at the youth climate movement, most of the leaders are young women who are leading in profoundly collaborative, justice-centered ways with so much imagination and creativity and heart. But we're seeing it in so many corners and I think we need to invest in it, we need to accelerate, and we need to keep naming it as a necessity. And that means women and girls, of course. It means a much more racially diverse climate leadership than we have traditionally seen. 

[00:25:33] Christina Thompson: And what I'm hearing is that there are already so many transformational leaders and organizations out there that could change the trajectory of our future.

[00:25:41] Anthony Rogers-Wright: The environmental justice and climate justice community have created tools to address these issues for many, many years. It's just a matter of implementing and investing in that wisdom now. 

[00:25:50] Christina Thompson: Anthony quoted another transformational leader, Elizabeth Yeampierre. She's the Executive Director of UPROSE, an environmental and social justice organization based here in Brooklyn.

[00:25:59] Anthony Rogers-Wright: She said, once that, you know, we're not environmentalists, right, you know that that's not who we are. We're climate justice seekers. You know, we, we, we got involved, as she likes to say, in this not for accolades or for props. Our communities are literally under assault. It was a public health issue first and foremost of why is this happening to our people? 

At the local level especially, that's where the most radical stuff is happening. You know, we, we get very ensorcelled with the presidential elections and the federal work. And I, I love getting involved with the federal work, but Renewable Rikers, that's local, you know. So dig a bit deeper and look for the grassroots organizations that are accountable to communities that they are organizing in.

[00:26:41] Christina Thompson: A core question that keeps coming up for me is how we, everyday people, can make a tangible difference in the climate movement. The question has often been, what can I, as an individual, do? But the more I spoke with Katharine, the more it became clear that leadership is a plural word, and this leadership includes all of us, not necessarily just those people at the top, but everyday leaders as well. 

[00:27:04] Katharine Wilkinson: It means folks across generations, across geographies, across fields, and maybe more than anything, it just means many, many more people realizing that climate leadership is happening everywhere and that there are opportunities for climate leadership in any organization, any community, any sector, and we just need so many more folks stepping up. We know that it's going to take the biggest strongest team possible to try to turn things around, um, and, and shape a livable future. 

[00:27:42] Christina Thompson: Next time, in our last episode, I'm going to talk more about what it means to become climate leaders ourselves. Until then, I think it's all about supporting these ground up grassroots organizations that are putting transformational leadership into practice today. And, you know, for the first time in a long time actually, I'm not just invested in what happens with these big national policies that are on the table. I'm actually quite hopeful and even excited about the possibilities.

If you want to learn more about any of the initiatives or organizations we talked about and the ways that you yourself can get involved, head to ALittleGreenPodcast.com. 

A Little Green is an Avocado Green Brands podcast. This podcast was written and produced by Anna McClain and myself, Christina Thompson, with the help of Kelly Drake. The music you heard is by Aaron Levison.