Linking the crises of Covid-19, environmental justice, and police violence – updated

Why Racial Justice is Climate Justice” in Grist (June 4) compiles the comments of five environmental justice leaders in the U.S., and links the incidence of Covid-19 with the environmental injustices of the past.

“We now know that coronavirus — much like police brutality, mass incarceration, and climate change — is not colorblind. It’s not that the virus itself differentiates by race, but, as with other crises, the factors that make communities of color more susceptible to it are shaped by the United States’ long history of discriminatory policies and practices.

Many of the places that have been dealt the harshest blow by COVID-19 are simultaneously dealing with other serious threats to residents’ well-being. Even under the cover of the pandemic, environmental rollbacks and pipeline plans continue to threaten the health of people of color.”

Robert Bullard, often acknowledged as the founder of the environmental justice movement and now a distinguished professor at Texas Southern University, Houston, also makes the connection in  “The Coronavirus Pandemic and Police Violence have Reignited the Fight against Toxic Racism” in The Intercept (June 17),where he describes his efforts to revive the National Black Environmental Justice Network ;  In “Q&A: A Pioneer of Environmental Justice Explains Why He Sees Reason for Optimism” , Bullard reflects on the past and offers optimistic views on the current demonstrations:  “you see young people out there from different economic groups, different ethnic groups and racial groups, there is an awakening unlike any that I’ve seen on this earth in over 70 years.”  Bullard is also quoted as one of the panelists in an Environmental Justice Roundtable from the journal Environmental Justice  (June 5) in which he states:

“This moment in time is just as important as the birth of our movement …..Environment is where we live, work, play, worship, learn, as well as the physical and natural world. So that means housing and transportation. It means energy. It means employment. It means health. It means all of that. Intersectionality is the word of the day. These things interlace all of our institutions, whether we are talking about unions, black colleges and universities, small businesses, faith-based institutions, or any other type of institution.”

One recent study which links the environmental links to Covid-19 death rates was conducted by the T.H Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University – summarized by the New York Times in April).  Two subsequent blogs from Data for Progress expand that focus to include the links to race and environmental justice: on May 6, “In Georgia, Coronavirus and Environmental Racism Combine”, and on May 19 “The Bronx Is An Epicenter for Coronavirus and Environmental Injustice “.    Among the alarming statistics: “Data from the New York City Department of Health finds that the asthma hospitalization rate for children in the Bronx is 70 percent higher than the rest of NYC and 700 percent higher than the rest of New York State, excluding New York City.”  (In Canada, we have no such detailed data, and  data collection and transparency has been widely criticized in Ontario.  On May 27,  the CBC reported on the “hot spots” of Covid incidence in the Greater Toronto area, corresponding to low income neighbourhoods with high density.)

Q&A: A Human Rights Expert Hopes Covid-19, Climate Change and Racial Injustice Are a ‘Wake-Up Call’ – transcribing an interview with Philip Alston, recently-retired  UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights and now professor of law at New York University . He states: “The optimistic way is to see Covid-19 as a trial run for what’s on the way with climate change in the sense that it really is a crisis that has affected vast numbers of people that has shown up the importance of being prepared and the importance of listening to the warning signals, and the potential for totally disproportionate impact on different groups of the population—whether by gender, class, race and so on. Covid-19 could provide some sort of wake-up call to those of us who are pretending that climate change is going to be manageable and we don’t really need to do anything until it actually starts to hit ever more dramatically….. A much more pessimistic way of looking at it is to wonder if Covid-19, followed by the George Floyd pandemic of racial violence and inequality, is going to lead to a sort of crisis fatigue.”

Yet “Climate activists have a lot to learn from listening” in the National Observer (June 9) is a thoughtful call  for a shift in tactics and approach: “The climate change movement is learning to listen. If we can learn to listen to people’s concerns about their health, and respond by talking about health first — and then about how action on climate is important to protect it — we may yet win.”

How does  environmental justice relate to racial justice?

Despite the denialism of dinosaurs such as Rex Murphy, most Canadians realize that, as explained in The Tyee, “Canada Has Race-Based Police Violence Too. We Don’t Know How Much”  (June 2).  A current example is the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet   still under investigation after she fell to her death from a high rise apartment,  in the company of Toronto police. The winter of 2020 saw demonstrations across Canada in support of  Indigenous protestors at the Wet’suwet’en blockades of the Coastal GasLink pipeline, facing police violence and intimidation,  documented in “No Surrender” in The Intercept .  In their  2018 book  Policing Indigenous Movements: Dissent and the Security State , authors Jeffrey Monaghan and Andrew Crosby examined four prominent movements in Canada, including the climate-related struggles against the Northern Gateway Pipeline and the anti-fracking protests surrounding the Elsipogtog First Nation.  A June 3 article, “How Militarizing Police Sets up Protesters as ‘the Enemy’” is highly relevant for Canadian climate and social justice activists – re- published by The Tyee from an article in The Conversation.  

“‘This is about Vulnerability’: Ingrid Waldron on the links between environmental racism and police brutality” in The Narwhal (June 3) summarizes an interview with Professor Ingrid Walton, associate professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, head of the ENRICH Project that tracks environmental inequality among communities of colour in Nova Scotia, and the author of the 2018 book,  There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities. In the interview, Walton raises the January 2020 closure of the Northern Pulp mill in Pictou, Nova Scotia as an example of environmental racism – the Mi’kmaq First Nations community had been calling for decades to stop the discharge of toxic effluent into Boat Harbour , but Walton argues that action took so long  because “closing the mill was  a risk for white people in power who were profiting from these industries. …With police violence, it’s similar. It’s different, but it’s similar in that the physical and emotional impacts on Black bodies are not the kinds of things white people care about.”

Emilee Gilpin, journalist and managing director of the First Nations Forward Special Reports series at the National Observer, writes an eloquent Opinion piece: “If life before this was ‘normal,’ I don’t want to go back” (June 1) . Emphasizing the need for solutions, she concludes:

“I want to live in a world where the murder of innocent Black boys and men is not a normalized reality, where Indigenous women do not get murdered or go missing and turned into a statistic, where reconciliation means reparation, where people aren’t shot with rubber bullets and tear gas for demanding accountability and change, and where every system of power is representative of the society it’s meant to serve…..I want to live in a world that listens and respects the natural world, rather than trying to dominate, colonize and control it. …”

Indigenous and Black people in Canada share social exclusion and collective outrage” in the National Observer (June 10)  links environmental justice, the natural world, and health, and concludes: “While the momentum of what is being called Black Spring continues, it is important to address the constant trespasses against Indigenous rights. It is past due that we set our ambitions toward rectifying the damage being done to the environment and its impact on the health outcomes of First Nations Peoples.”

In the U.S.

As Protests Rage Over George Floyd’s Death, Climate Activists Embrace Racial Justice” (June 3), and “Louisville’s ‘Black Lives Matter’ Demonstrations Continue a Long Quest for Environmental Justice”  (June 21) both appeared in Inside Climate News, providing examples of  practical actions in the U.S..

In “Racism, police violence and the climate are not separate issues” in The New Yorker,  Bill McKibben states: “The job of people who care about the future—which is another way of saying the environmentalists—is to let everyone breathe easier. But that simply can’t happen without all kinds of change. Some of it looks like solar panels for rooftops, and some of it looks like radically reimagined police forces. All of it is hitched together.” His article reports on an interview with Nina Lakhani, an environmental-justice reporter for The Guardian, who discusses her new book, “Who Killed Berta Cáceres?: Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet”  – the indigenous environmental activist in Honduras, killed for her opposition to a hydroelectric dam in 2015.

In “Defunding the Police Is Good Climate Policy” , Kate Aronoff in The New Republic (June 4) argues “there’s plenty of common cause to be found in calls to defund the police and invest in a more generous, democratic, and green public sphere, well beyond the scope of what any carbon-pricing measure can accomplish. For green activists, that will mean seeing decarbonization less as a narrow battle for line items that incentivize renewables than as a contest to shape who and what society values in a climate-changed twenty-first century; many, including in the Sunrise Movement, are already making these connections.”

Aronoff refers to a call to action by the youth-led Sunrise Movement :   “The Climate Justice Movement must Oppose White Supremacy Everywhere — By Supporting M4BL”  (May 29).  It concludes:  “Much as we support defunding fossil fuel companies to invest in the future of humanity, we must also support the defunding of white supremacist institutions — including the police and prison-industrial complex — to invest in healing and reparations for Black communities. That is what it means to fight for racial justice, and nothing less.”

Geoff Dembicki discusses the Sunrise Movement in his June 18  article in Vice, “Why ‘Defunding the Police’ Is Also an Environmental Issue”, which argues that “Defunding the police isn’t a distraction from organizing mass numbers of people to fight the climate emergency. It’s part of the same theory of change and political vision.”  (Dembicki also penned a relevant article profiling Extinction Rebellion U.S., which appeared in Vice in April, “A Debate Over Racism Has Split One of the World’s Most Famous Climate Groups” .  The statements of other groups are reviewed in “Responding to protests, green groups reckon with a racist past” in Grist (June 1) ,including the League of Conservation VotersEarthjustice350.org, and the Sierra Club , all of whom issued statements condemning the killing of George Floyd and vowing to work towards racial justice.  Others were signatories to an Open Letter  sent to leaders of the U.S. House and Senate from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights . The letter begins: “we urge you to take swift and decisive legislative action in response to ongoing fatal police killings and other violence against Black people across our country.” Environmental groups signing on include: Greenpeace USA, League of Conservation Voters, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Parks Conservation Association, NextGen America, and the Sierra Club.

Black environmentalists talk about climate change and anti-racism” in the New York Times (June 3) summarizes interviews with three U.S. environmental activists:   Sam Grant,  executive director of MN350.org,  (Minnesota affiliate of 350.org); Robert Bullard,  and Heather McGhee,  a senior fellow at Demos, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group.

“An anti-racist climate movement … should be led by “a real multiracial coalition that endorses environmental justice principles” and its goals should seek to uplift the most vulnerable. That means,… the creation of green jobs, rather than cap-and-trade policies that allow companies to keep polluting in communities of color as they have been able to do for decades….. Success is measured by the improvement in the environmental and economic health of the people who have borne the brunt of our carbon economy.”

An interview by  Yale Environment 360 titled “Unequal Impact: The Deep links between Racism and Climate Change”  (June 9)  asked Elizabeth Yeampierre (co-chair of the  Climate Justice Alliance, and executive director of UPROSE) “What would you hope the climate movement and the environmental justice movement take away from this moment and apply going forward?” Her reply: “ I think it’s a moment for introspection and a moment to start thinking about how they contribute to a system that makes a police officer think it’s okay to put his knee on somebody’s neck and kill them, or a woman to call the police on an African-American man who was bird-watching in the park….. These institutions [environmental groups] have to get out of their silos and out of their dated thinking, and really need to look to organizations like the Climate Justice Alliance and Movement Generation and all of the organizations that we work with. There are so many people who have been working with each other now for years and have literally put out tons of information that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. It’s all there.”

 

Bargaining for the Common Good- including climate justice and just recovery

“Bargaining for Climate Justice”  appears in the March 2020 special issue of The Forge, a publication launched in September 2019 by and for community and labour organizers.  The article is written by Todd Vachon, Saket Sonni, Judith LeBlanc and Gerry Hudson, and  updates their earlier article,   “How Workers Can Demand Climate Justice”, which appeared in American Prospect in September 2019. Both articles describe the new movement  of Bargaining for the Common Good, defined as:  “an innovative approach for bringing unions and allies together to shape bargaining demands that advance the mutual interests of workers and communities alike. BCG campaigns seek to increase investment in underserved communities and confront structural inequalities—not simply to agree on a union contract.”

The origins of the BCG movement are described in “Going on Offense During Challenging Times” (in New Labor Forum, 2018) which explains: “Bargaining for Common Good aims to avoid transactional relationships between community and labor by building lasting alignments between unions and community groups, not merely temporary alliances of convenience.” “Bargaining for Climate Justice” describes how the element of climate justice fits in to the broader concerns of BCG , and updates it with the example of the February strike by janitors in Minneapolis, members of SEIU Local 26,  as well as the concept of  “bargaining for a just recovery”, expanding it from climate-related disasters such as hurricanes and pipeline spills, to the most recent disaster: the current pandemic.  The authors state:

“To date, BCG campaigns have been launched around issues of education, racial justice, public services, immigration, finance, housing, and privatization. But they are in many ways perhaps best suited to taking on the overarching existential issues such as global pandemics and human-caused climate change that intersect with and often exacerbate all of these other issues.”

bargaining for the common good toolkitThe Center for Innovative Workplace Organization at Rutgers University  in the U.S. has established a program to promote concrete initiatives around all aspects of Bargaining for the Common Good – building alliances, convening conferences and regional meetings (now delivered through webinars), and compiling resources such as a “Common Good” Toolkit. That Toolkit includes examples of bargaining demands related to Climate Justice.

Green stimulus, worker health and safety ignored as U.S. authorizes $2 Trillion in Coronavirus crisis

On March 27, the U.S. Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) – at $2 trillion, the largest stimulus in U.S. history.  For individual taxpayers, it offers a one-time  $1,200 payment, plus $500 more for each child under age 17; it also  expands unemployment insurance amounts and duration. Details of the provisions are summarized in FAQ’s from the New York Times  , and in Forbes . General reaction to what is clearly a compromise Bill appears in “ ‘Far More to Do,’ Say Progressives After House Approves and Trump Signs Corporate-Friendly Coronavirus Relief Act “(Mar. 28).  Pramila Jayapal , Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC),  issued a press release which states that Democrats are already formulating policies for the next legislative package, and gives a point-form summary of the CARES Act, describing  provisions related to  Worker-Centered Industry Assistance, the airline industry,  and transit industry:

“The bill requires businesses receiving federal assistance to maintain existing employment levels to the extent possible and prohibits stock buybacks or dividends for the length of any loan provided by the federal government plus one year and restricts any increases to executive compensation for two years. The bill also provides direct payroll payments to keep millions of airline workers on the job and receiving paychecks, while also prohibiting airline companies from stock buybacks and dividends for the entire life of a federal grant, plus one year.” Regarding Transit Agencies: “The bill provides $25 billion to transit agencies, which have all seen a drastic drop in revenues as social distancing has been implemented.  This funding is to be used to protect the jobs of the employees of the transit agencies, funding their paychecks during this public health emergency.”

 

Worker Health and Safety in the CARES Act

The  article in Common Dreams  quotes the president of the Economic Policy Institute, who states that the CARES Act “also egregiously fails to include explicit protections for worker safety during this epidemic in industries seeking federal relief.”  On this issue,  Labor Notes published a compilation of worker actions over health and safety concerns in “Walkouts Spread as Workers Seek Coronavirus Protections”(Mar. 26). Anxious and sick workers at food delivery service Instacart and at Amazon announced their plans to  strike over health and safety on March 30, as described in “Amazon and Instacart Workers Are Striking for COVID-19 Protections” in Slate, and also in ‘The Strike Wave Is in Full Swing’: Amazon, Whole Foods Workers Walk Off Job to Protest Unjust and Unsafe Labor Practices (Mar. 30).

Other workers are also walking out on March 30, as described in Vice : “General Electric Workers Launch Protest, Demand to Make Ventilators” , demanding that their idle plants be converted to the socially-useful work of making ventilators.

A selection of  notable readings about Covid-19, workers, and the climate crisis in the U.S.:

Jeremy Brecher, Research Director of Labor Network for Sustainability has written three articles so far in his new column, Strike.  Brecher offer his own views and commentary, but also links to important reports and statements from unions, advocacy groups, and such U.S.  press outlets as Vox, Grist, Politico, and the Washington Post, among others.  The first Commentary,  “In Coronavirus Fight, Workers Are Forging an Emergency Green New Deal” (Mar. 16) describes the impact and challenges of Covid 19 in workplaces, and the initiatives taken by many U.S. unions.  Article #2, “An Emergency Jobs Program for an Emergency Green New Deal” ( March 24) proposes what he calls  a “Green Work Program” (GWP) for the U.S. , based on the principles of a jobs guarantee: “A GWP will provide jobs for all who want them in their own communities performing socially useful work. It will be established by federal legislation, funded by the federal government, and run under the jurisdiction of the Department of Labor or another federal agency. It will be primarily administered by local and municipal governments, nonprofits, social enterprises, and cooperatives. In contrast to the WPA, it is a permanent program, though its size can be expected to vary depending on economic conditions and social needs.”  Brecher’s #3 commentary is “Momentum Builds for Green New Deal Jobs”, which  appeared on March 30, summarizing major policy proposals for a Just Recovery.

Naomi Klein updates her thoughts about disaster capitalism in a new video  at The Intercept, explaining how  governments, especially the Trump administration in the U.S.,  are exploiting the the coronavirus outbreak “to push for no-strings-attached corporate bailouts and regulatory rollbacks.” The most egregious example of this regulatory rollback came on March 26 in an EPA press release “EPA Announces Enforcement Discretion Policy for COVID-19 Pandemic “,  critiqued by Inside Climate News in “Trump’s Move to Suspend Enforcement of Environmental Laws is a Lifeline to the Oil Industry” (Mar. 27) .  The Intercept‘s Coronavirus coverage emphasizes this aspect of the crisis.

David Roberts, “A just and sustainable economic response to coronavirus, explained” appeared in Vox (Mar. 25) .

Meehan Crist in “What the Coronavirus means for climate change” an Opinion piece in the New York Times  on March 27.

Bill McKibben now writes an Opinion series for the New Yorker magazine, emphasizing climate change connections.  Recent articles include: “If We’re Bailing out Corporations, they should bail out the planet” (Mar. 20), and “The Coronavirus and the Climate Movement  (Mar. 18) .

Progressives and climate activists: An Open Letter to Congress for a Green Stimulus Plan  appeared in Medium on Mar. 22 (with approximately 1200 signatures by Mar. 24).  Amongst the signatories are  high-profile activists such as 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben; former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy;  Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis, co-founders of The Leap, as well as prominent academics.  It is aligned with the 5 Principles for Just COVID-19 Relief and Stimulus  proposed by environmental, labour, and other progressive groups, including the Climate Justice Alliance(CJA).    In a March 24 press release, “Seven Congressional Leaders Join 500+ Progressive Organizations To Demand People’s Bailout In Response To Coronavirus Crisis”, CJA announces that  Senators Ed Markey and Tammy Duckworth, and Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mark Pocan, Debbie Dingell, Pramila Jayapal, and Barbara Lee endorse joined their People’s Bailout campaign, based on the 5 Principles.

Thomas Hanna and Carlos Sandos Skandier :  “We can’t let this economic crisis go to waste” an Opinion Piece in Open Democracy (March 16), which argues ..”During this, or any future, economic crisis, public support and funding to stricken industries must be conditioned on public ownership and control within the overall perspective of a Green New Deal and a just transition for workers and communities affected by the required shifts to renewable energy and less carbon intensive modes of transportation and production. This means not simply injecting public money into banks, oil and gas companies, and airlines in order to stabilize and resurrect their existing business so they can continue financing, extracting, and burning fossil fuels at a pace that will blow our chances of keeping temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius by 2036.” ….

 “How to Make the Airline Bailout Work for Workers, Not Just CEOs” from Inequality.org (March 17) endorses the proposals from Sara Nelson of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA , including direct payroll subsidies for airline workers.   The article in Inequality includes a table which shows how much the five biggest U.S. carriers spent on stock buybacks between 2010 and 2019 – including American Airlines, which spent $12.5 billion on buybacks, to increase the value of executive stock-based pay. Sara Nelson makes her case in an interview in In These Times (Mar.19) :  “Our Airline Relief Bill Is a Template for Rescuing Workers Instead of Bailing Out Execs” .  She concludes:

“This virus is a very clear metaphor for what we always say in the labor movement, which is “An injury to one is an injury to all.” It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, or where you come from. If a virus exists and we don’t do something about it, then we’re all at risk. “

U.S. Solar industry rebounds to almost 250,000 workers in 2019

solar jobsThe 10th annual National Solar Jobs Census for the United States was released by the non-profit Solar Foundation in mid-February. It reports  a resurgence in solar industry employment in 2019, following two years of job losses in 2017 and 2018.  The report states that 249,983 U.S. workers  spent the majority of their time in solar-related activities in 2019, and an additional 94,549 workers spent some portion of their time on solar-related work, for a total of 344,532 workers. The full Report is downloadable (with free registration) from this link ,  with a summary here.  It provides state-by-state statistics re job totals and sectors within the solar industry, and profiles the solar industry in California (where the Title 24 mandate went into effect in 2019, requiring all new residential homes to be built with solar PV), and the South-east U.S. The report also forecasts future trends, and  provides discussions of demographics and workforce development, reporting that a majority of employers have difficulty recruiting and hiring. (Through its Solar Training Network, the Solar Foundation published Strategies for Solar Workforce Development: A Toolkit for the Solar Industry  in 2018).

Some highlights from the 2019 National Solar Census:

  • About the industry: Approximately 93%  of U.S. solar establishments work in solar PV electricity generation. 16% of firms work on solar heating and cooling, (e.g. solar water heaters); 7% work on projects related to concentrating solar power (CSP).
  • About the demographics: Diversity remains almost the same as in 2018: women represented 26% of the solar workforce, Latino or Hispanic workers represented 17%, Asian workers comprised 9%, and black or African American workers comprised 8%.
  • About wages: for entry-level unlicensed (non-electrician) solar installers the median wage was $16.00 (the U.S. national median wage for all occupations is $18.58). The median wage for entry-level licensed (electrician) installers was $20.00.
  • Wages for production workers start at $15.00 for entry-level employees, ( national median wage for production workers is $16.85). Wages reached $36.50 for senior-level production employees.

Positive examples of climate action needed to bring unionists into the climate fight, says veteran activist

“The Climate Movement Doesn’t Know How to Talk with Union Members About Green Jobs” appeared in The Intercept on March 9, transcribing an interview with Jane McAlevey,  a veteran labour activist in the U.S. and now a senior policy fellow at the University of California Berkeley’s Labor Center.  One interview  question: “What do you think organizers should be doing right now to make sure a climate-friendly platform can win in a presidential race where Trump will argue that ending fossil fuel investment means lost jobs?” In response, McAlevey urges activists to allay workers’ fears about the future with examples of positive changes – citing as one of the best examples  the “New York wind deal”  when,  “unions won a far-reaching climate agreement to shift half of New York State ’s total energy needs to wind power by 2035. They did it by moving billions of subsidies away from fossil fuels and into a union jobs guarantee known as a project labor agreement.”   (A previous WCR post  summarizes the campaign which culminated in the New York Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act in the summer of 2019).  Ultimately, McAlevey calls for “spade work” which educates workers about the climate crisis and reassures them by providing positive solutions. Citing the deeply integrated nature of the climate and economic crises, she concludes: “We have to build a movement that has enough power to win on any one of these issues that matter to us….. We’re relying on the people that already agree with us and trying to get them out in the streets. We can’t get there with these numbers.”

McAveley CollectiveBargain-book-cover-329x500The Intercept interview is one of many since Jane McAlevey’s published her third book  in January 2020.   A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy  discusses the climate crisis, but is a much broader call to arms for  the U.S. labour movement.  A very informative review of the book by Sam Gindin appears in The Jacobin, here .