In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared that we had twelve years to address the climate crisis. If we did not prevent 1.5°C warming, scientists warned, we would see irreversible climate catastrophes. The youth responded by striking from school, leading a movement that led millions of people into the streets to demand rapid climate action. For many climate organizers like me, the global strikes felt like a breakthrough–our presence in the streets was proof that the climate crisis had entered the mainstream consciousness. Now, more Americans have said that they care about climate change than ever before.
Now is the time to make our voices heard. In November, we have the opportunity to vote for elected officials who trust in science. We must seize the opportunity. Climate disasters are already on our doorstep: wildfires are raging in California, hurricanes are flooding Texas, and heatwaves are leaving New York without power. We’ve already seen that an anti-science agenda puts us all in danger, and without government leadership, we will only see more of the damage the current disasters have caused: more jobs, homes, and lives lost.
On the surface, this means to vote for climate is to vote for science. We should support investments in next-generation battery storage and decarbonizing our electricity grid. But we must also vote to protect our communities. We must address the real-life impacts that climate disasters have on our lives. It is no coincidence that Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities that are under-resourced and over-polluted are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. It is no coincidence that these same communities are brutalized daily by over-militarized police. When we call for climate action, we must call to end environmental racism. It’s state violence. Whether by pollution or by the hands of the police, the refrain, “I can’t breathe,” resonates.
When we call for climate action, we must call to end environmental racism. It’s state violence. Whether by pollution or by the hands of the police, the refrain, “I can’t breathe,” resonates.
Ending environmental racism means abolition. According to Kei Williams, Black Lives Matter co-founder and climate organizer, abolition climate justice “centers history, intersectional experiences, and forms of care, healing, and solidarity.” Researchers at American University broke this down into four ideals to recognize:
1. History is always present. We cannot deny the colonial roots of the climate crisis, fueled by industrialization and a mindset geared for extraction of resources.
2. Climate change is not just an environmental issue. We have to look at solutions through an intersectional lens.
3. Looking at climate through an intersectional lens relies on trust; we cannot prescribe solutions as outsiders, even as scientific experts; we must listen to communities.
4. Climate justice should be about freedom and liberation.
Abolition climate justice asks us to reimagine resiliency and sustainability beyond technological solutions. It asks us to reimagine our living environments. Air pollution, active policing–they do not keep us safe. So when we call for the divestment of fossil fuels or the police, we’re calling for the divestment from a system that hasn’t served us in the way it claims to serve us. Abolition is preventative rather than reactive; we would abolish prisons because we would abolish a society that relies on prisons. We would invest in the health of our communities to ensure they are well-resourced. With informed, organized communities, we could build solutions together to issues like the climate crisis.
Abolition climate justice asks us to reimagine resiliency and sustainability beyond technological solutions.
Organizers with No New Jails NYC taught me what this can look like, by examining Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to close Rikers Island. Named after slave catcher Richard Riker, Rikers Island is a correctional facility known as “a symbol of brutality and inhumanity” in the city. Built on a landfill, the island has also been known to be a toxic environment to the people incarcerated and working there.
In 2019, following local organizers’ protests of the facility’s deadly conditions, Mayor de Blasio pledged to close the correctional facility. In response, councilman Costa Constantinides introduced the Renewable Rikers plan to transform the island into a hub for renewable energy. If successful, the plan would allow for the closure of toxic plants placed in low-income communities of color in the Bronx and Upper Manhattan. In this way, the plan is a move towards a healthier, greener future for New York City. The act has been applauded by climate activists and organizations. But in closing Rikers Island, the city also approved four new jails to open in the facility’s place. The plan uses sustainability to perpetuate systemic racism, displacing the issue of poor conditions and policing to new environments rather than addressing the root cause of crime.
This plan tells those harmed by our prison system that we can build a greener and safer city, but it is not for them to inhabit. Shutting down Rikers without opening any new jails, however, would free billions of dollars to dramatically address the community needs, improving living conditions and deterring crime. No new jails would free funds for New York City to invest in systems we know do serve us–systems like education, healthcare, and housing. Providing such services and infrastructure are evidence-based routes to deterring crime. We have to listen to both what our communities and data are telling us. Climate justice and racial justice are not mutually exclusive. The policies that govern our daily lives must reflect this; our elected officials must understand this. So that when we vote, we’re not just voting for science and technology; we’re voting for justice. Another world is possible–one that is healthier and more sustainable for all.
This article is published in partnership with Science Rising, a network of partners and advocates coming together for one purpose: to fight for science, justice, and equity in our democracy leading up to the 2020 election. Take the Science Rising Challenge and join the movement at www.ScienceRising.org.