Black Lives Haven’t Always Mattered to the Climate Movement. Here’s How to Fix That.

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This series is sponsored by VertueLab. VertueLab did not provide editorial input.

Black Americans are more likely to breathe polluted air, more likely to live near a landfill, more likely to be displaced by rising oceans, and more likely to die from the combination of these things than other Americans. 

So what can we do to make sure Black lives are front and center in the climate movement?

Reader Annalise Servin asked that question for our series on climate action. Here are a few ideas:

“Climate change is hitting BIPOC communities the hardest, so how can we make sure our climate solutions are keeping them front and center?” —Annalise Servin

1. Follow the lead of Black activists.

A 2018 survey of environmental nonprofits found that 85 percent of their staff members are white and critics say that’s reflected in their priorities

To their (slight) credit, the Sierra Club and other mainstream nonprofits have acknowledged their mistakes and promised to do more for racial justice, and we should hold them to that. 

But we should also look to new leaders, especially those who’ve been prioritizing racial justice all along.

In Portland, for example, that means following the lead of BIPOC-led environmental nonprofits like OPAL Environmental Justice and Verde, and supporting their work to build parks, improve transit access, and restore green spaces in communities of color.

Read: Black Women Are Leaders in the Climate Movement by Heather McTeer Toney 

2. Reject false choices between jobs and the environment

The official justification for gutting the EPA and rolling back environmental regulations is always the same: jobs. 

But the false choice between protecting the planet and creating job opportunities (mostly for white Americans) has never been more clear.

For one, people are getting wise to companies like Philadelphia Energy Solutions, an oil refinery that pumped pollution into a Black neighborhood for decades — and then laid off 1,000 employees without severance when it went bankrupt.

But Americans are also starting to see how climate action and job growth go hand in hand, and how that combination can be a powerful force for racial justice.

Just look at our city: In 2018, voters overwhelmingly approved the Portland Clean Energy Initiative, which is expected to raise as much as $60 million a year for green jobs and clean energy projects. 

The project will specifically focus on training and hiring workers from communities that are underrepresented in the trades, and if successful, supporters say it could provide a blueprint for how to implement the Green New Deal.

Read: The Green New Deal is Already Happening in One Portland Neighborhood” by Jessica Kutz

3. Beware of race-blind policies

It’s hard to imagine AOC’s Green New Deal becoming a corporate handout that reinforces racial inequality and widens the wealth gap but that’s exactly what activists are worried about, and history backs them up.

In the 1930s, the original New Deal created massive government programs like the Works Progress Administration and the Home Owners Loan Corporation that were technically race-blind, meaning they didn’t explicitly discriminate against Black people. 

But in practice, the New Deal was full of loopholes that allowed states and cities to restrict the benefits for Black Americans.

The Green New Deal has a chance to reverse those mistakes, but it’s also vulnerable to the same political pressures that created them.

Ultimately, the sweeping policy framework that AOC helped engineer still needs to be passed into law, and it’s almost inevitable that sacrifices will be made along the way.

The challenge of activists is to make sure racial justice isn’t one of those sacrifices.

Read: “The Failure of Race-Blind Economic Policy” by Adai Harvey Wingfield

4. Put money behind Black entrepreneurs in climate tech

The promise of the Green New Deal’s economic plan isn’t just about creating jobs in Black communities.  

It’s also about building wealth in Black communities and that only happens if Black entrepreneurs have a seat at the table.

For a cautionary tale, just look at what’s happening in the marijuana economy. 

After decades of criminalizing drug possession and disproportionately arresting Black men, states like Oregon and Washington have started legalizing marijuana and awarding licenses for companies to grow and sell it. 

But Black Americans have mostly been shut out of that new economy, and the wealth it’s creating has mostly flowed to white founders and CEOs.

It’s not too late to avoid this fate for climate tech, which is quickly becoming a multi-trillion dollar global industry.

But it’s going to take targeted investment by foundations, universities, governments, and individual investors, and it’s going to need the Green New Deal to focus on diverse ownership just as much as diverse employment. 

Read: Funding Climate Tech and Entrepreneurs of Color Should Go Hand In Hand,” by Heather Clancy