Jim Crow in our Climate Crisis

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Critics of House Resolution 109 (H. RES. 109)—the “Green New Deal” (GND) introduced in Congress by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.)—have condemned this nonbinding resolution for its inclusion of aspirations which, in their view, have nothing to do with climate change. In particular, what they find irrelevant are the aspirations that address social and economic inequalities, such as providing “high quality health care” and “affordable, safe and adequate housing” for all.

As objectionable as they find these goals, many critics are more disturbed by the aspirations that address the harms suffered specifically by communities of color as a result of historic and present day systemic discrimination. Though they are willing to acknowledge that communities of color are more vulnerable than whites to the impacts of climate change, Resolution critics—including those who are for the passage of some green new deal (just not this one)—are unwilling to accept that these communities’ past and present experiences of discrimination might have something to do with our climate crisis. Consequently, they reject any attempt to redress these harms through climate change legislation, and suggest that mention of these in H. RES. 109 is good enough reason to reject altogether the resolution.

In response, supporters of H. RES. 109 and of more radical GNDs have noted that the communities most vulnerable to and affected by climate change are the least responsible for creating the climate crisis. Moreover, these same communities (supporters argue) are disproportionately subjected to environmental harms produced by fossil fuel and other toxic industries due to politicians’ discriminatory and industry-friendly industrial zoning decisions, such as those that have produced Louisiana’s infamous–and deadly–Cancer Alley.

While true, these answers neither directly answer critics’ implicit question (e.g., “what does ‘adequate and affordable housing’ have to do with climate change?”) nor do they directly take on critics’ dismissal of climate change as an issue of systemic discrimination.

Because the Resolution’s concern with discrimination is being used to delegitimize the adoption of a just GND, it is incumbent upon advocates to address head-on critics’ concerns. This means actually talking about climate change itself—and extreme weather—not only as created through energy production and use that take place within systems of subordination; but also as an effect of energy systems and industries that reproduce and entrench inequalities.

So, suppose we framed the issue this way:

H. RES. 109 seeks to redress the harms suffered by communities that have been historically denied equal access to jobs, technologies, housing, education, consumer goods, services and energy which have been instrumental in the production and emission of the greenhouse gases (ghg) that are radically altering our climate.

In other words, for most of the 20th century, these communities could not participate equally with the white majority in direct and indirect fossil fuel consumption.

They could not directly and indirectly emit or produce ghgs at the same level as whites, whether through work, consumption of goods and services, use of fossil-fuel intensive technologies, or leisure activities.

Because of systemic discrimination, these communities were excluded from decision-making regarding the creation of energy policy, technologies, and industries, as well as the siting of energy-intensive and petro industries.

They were excluded from decision-making bodies at the local, state, and federal level—not to mention from industry board rooms–and thus had no say in how energy would be developed, operated, located, and provided.

They were excluded, by and large, from jobs in energy-intensive as well as in fossil fuel industries.

Until the fairly recent past, they could not enjoy equally the benefits of energy use, consumption and emission in public spaces. Indeed, they could not enjoy equally the benefits of public and private spaces built as energy intensive spaces and created by energy intensive technological processes.

And because of systemic discrimination, these communities could not, and did not, contribute to climate change to the degree that they likely would have done had they been treated as equal under the law.

Communities of color are “disproportionately impacted” by climate change is the consequence of decades of oppressive practices, which makes that disproportionate impact an additional experience of injustice.

Viewed thusly, we could say that Jim Crow, for example, was a system of racial subordination characterized by the exclusion of African Americans from equal participation in the direct and indirect fossil fuel production and consumption that powered the Second Industrial Revolution and the Golden Age of Capitalism (or most of the Golden Age of Capitalism, which began after WWII and ended with the ‘73-‘75 recession). African Americans were excluded from decision-making concerning fossil fuel production and consumption—which is to say, really, that Jim Crow, and segregationist policies and practices throughout the rest of the country, maximized the white majority’s fossil fuel production, consumption and emission. They ensured that the energy industry, systems, and technologies would work for the benefit of whites—and particularly for the benefit of the white middle and upper classes.

We could say that our energy system, our energy industries, our energy technologies, and our energy-intensive infrastructures were built in ways that served and secured white supremacy.

Consequently, the everyday lived experiences by communities of color, of wage and employment discrimination, segregation, separate and unequal schools, and other systemic harms, were inextricable from the ghg production, emission and consumption by which our society was powered and which was beginning to create our climate crisis.

Climate change, in fact, is in part ecological blowback from direct and indirect fossil fuel extraction, production, consumption and emissions as these took place within systems of subordination, both here and abroad. Our extreme weather is blowback from energy systems that were designed and operated in ways that entrenched inequalities (that communities of color are “disproportionately impacted” by climate change is the consequence of decades of oppressive practices, which makes that disproportionate impact an additional experience of injustice).

Times have changed, of course. Communities that have been historically discriminated against now have greater access to, and enjoy greater participation in, our fossil fuel driven economy.

We consume more. We waste more. We emit more.

But we do this, still, in a place where systemic discrimination persists.

House Resolution 109 proposes this: that we create a society where our political, economic, social and energy systems are rooted in justice—where the energy by which this new society is powered is not mobilized, created and designed to reify exclusion or privilege. It rejects the unspoken presumption that we should map onto existing social and economic relations a green energy infrastructure, and thus leave inequalities firmly in place.

In fact, the Resolution proposes that we rethink energy, and our use of it, from the bottom-up.

Though an incomplete and imperfect vision that needs to be more radical, not less, the Resolution at least proceeds from the understanding that dismantling the energy system we have must entail dismantling the hierarchies of power that sustain it and that it reproduces. It is of necessity a healing, reparative project, one that recognizes the harms suffered in the Cancer Alleys throughout our nation by saying “yes” to health care, living wages, adequate housing, good schools, clean air, safe drinking water, good jobs, a just energy infrastructure, and freedom from systemic discrimination. It says yes, of course.

Detractors of the House Resolution and of more leftist GNDs won’t like this analysis at all.

But it does answer their question.


This piece was originally published in Common Dreams, and the ideas expressed I first broadcast in my Patreon podcast, The Wretched of Mother Earth. You can support this show by becoming a patron (for as little as $3 a month)! 

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