The Black woman behind the Green New Deal, policy expert Rhiana Gunn-Wright, is not holding back in her criticism of the federal government’s clean energy policy. After the hottest summer ever on record, there’s no time to waste on implementing a transition away from fossil fuels, and Gunn-Wright and other climate change experts and activists have been adamant that the transition is economically and racially just.
In an essay for the latest issue of Hammer & Hope magazine– a new Black politics and culture magazine co-founded by Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and former New York Times opinion editor Jennifer Parker– Gunn-Wright makes her passionate case.
“This summer, the earth raged,” she begins her plea. “Fires in Maui and Canada, floods in Delhi and Beijing, heat everywhere — this is the beginning of the climate impacts scientists have long predicted, and the U.S. is unprepared in terms of everything from infrastructure to public health. And if I’m honest, I raged, too. Never in my life have I wished more to be a cyclone, blowing away everything in my path, or an earthquake, shaking everyone to their core until they take seriously the concerns of Black and Indigenous frontline communities.”
In an interview with ESSENCE about her essay, Gunn-Wright reiterates the urgency of climate change and Black people’s role in it.
As she shares, climate change is “a reminder that just because we have constructed a reality that benefits from Black people being exploited and marginalized doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have costs in reality. The Earth still keeps the score.”
This, in part, has made Gunn-Wright frustrated with federal policy, like the Inflation Reduction Act.
“August marked a year since the Inflation Reduction Act passed, arguably the most significant climate legislation in U.S. history,” she says in her essay. “But the racist compromises and the marginalization of Black people and their demands that facilitated the bill’s passage have seeped into the climate movement.”
These compromises include provisions that would still permit the development of oil and gas infrastructure that could harm Black, brown, and poor white communities.
For instance, the Act allows oil and gas lease sales that, if purchased, “will almost certainly increase pollution in neighboring Black communities, which house the oil refineries and gas and petrochemical facilities that will process the oil and gas fossil fuels extracted from these sites,” Gunn-Wright writes.
“As long as we treat Black people as dispensable, we [make] it harder for us to fully and hastily decarbonize,” she notes in the essay.
So how do we get past the tendency for large-scale federal policy to replicate and, sometimes, deepen racial inequality?
Gunn-Wright suggests other structural changes to U.S. politics. “When you have the electoral college, it creates incentives to over-value white voters, especially when it’s happening in the context of rampant gerrymandering, dismantling voting rights, and disenfranchising folks with felony convictions. If you got rid of the electoral college and just had a popular vote, that changes who you have to center.”
In the fight to end a climate catastrophe, centering people of color can change everything.
“People of color are more likely to care about climate change, to be supportive of climate action, and less likely to be climate deniers— way less likely. That opens up new paths and new possibilities,” Gunn-Wright shares with ESSENCE.
While some may want to treat the climate crisis as race neutral, because highlighting racism might make some uncomfortable, Gunn-Wright says “you just have to walk into that discomfort, because…when you don’t talk about race, then you end up with racist policies that fuel inequity. More inequity makes that discomfort more pronounced.”
As Gunn-Wright says in her essay, “[w]hen we design a green transition that serves the needs of Black people, we’ll have a green transition that serves all people, especially those who might not support climate action otherwise. That’s a transition that can sustain itself long-term.”