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.”

 

Communicating climate change in the world of Covid-19 – strategies from social scientists, and the role of journalism

As stated in an editorial, “The Guardian view on the climate and coronavirus: global warnings” ( April 12) ,  “Could the renewed shock of human vulnerability in the face of Covid-19 make way for an increased willingness to face other perils, climate chaos among them?  Impossible to say at this stage, perhaps. …. But with the postponement of crucial UN biodiversity and climate conferences, it has never been more important to keep up the pressure. There is no exit strategy from our planet.”

What do the social scientists recommend?

Much attention has been focused on the pivot which climate activists must make to replace protests with virtual organizing – for example, in “How To Be A Climate Activist During The Coronavirus Pandemic” (HuffPost Mar. 20).  But does the messaging also need to change?   “Communicating climate change during the coronavirus crisis – what the evidence says” ( April 14) offers advice in a blog  based on extensive social science research into climate change communication, conducted by Climate Outreach,

“A few things are clear: a key starting point must be emphasising communal values of compassion and mutual support. It’s also critically important to challenge assumptions about what we think we know, and to ensure climate advocates don’t open themselves up to ‘ambulance chasing’ accusations.”

Although moments of life-changing shift (such as the “shock of human vulnerability” cited in The Guardian editorial) have proven make people more open to changing behaviours, Climate Outreach notes that after traumatic events, people also have a need to get back to normal. With a clear possibility that human society may be entering a period of months and years of disruption on many fronts – health, economy, and even food supply – the blog argues that two futures are possible: an increased emphasis on communal values and the public good, or  a society accepting of authoritarian values which erect barriers against perceived threats.  The conclusion:  “This points ever more strongly to the importance that climate campaigners emphasise the communal values of compassion and mutual support in a time of crisis.”

Climate Outreach plans to publish a practical, evidence-based guide on how to communicate about climate change during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis by the end of May, using the model of their previous guides, such as their #Talking Climate Handbook  (Dec. 2019).

A recent review of the research on behavioural adaptation to climate change also identifies the importance of collective behaviours over individual action – the original article,  “From incremental to transformative adaptation in individual responses to climate-exacerbated hazards” , appears in  Nature Climate Change (Feb. 2020); a brief summary appears here.  The authors, from Ohio State University, found that that most academic studies have examined coping strategies of individuals or households in the face of isolated hazards such as floods or fires.  Lead author Robyn Wilson is quoted here, saying “If we want to really adapt to climate change, we’re talking about transformational change that will truly allow society to be resilient in the face of these increasing hazards. We’re focused on the wrong things and solving the wrong problems.”

 

Climate change media amid the Covid-19 crisis

covering climate now2As he does regularly as part of the Covering Climate Now  global initiative, author Mark Hertsgaard, executive director of CCN,  compiles major climate change stories. On March 25, he wrote “COVID-19 and the media’s climate coverage capabilities” , which states: “the media’s snapping to attention on coronavirus throws its coverage of the climate crisis into sharp relief. The press has never treated the climate story with anywhere near this level of attention or urgency.”   On April 8, he continued his critique in  “Silence of the climate watchdogs” which states :

“The solution is not for newsrooms to stop covering the coronavirus story. It is to expand their definition of what qualifies as a coronavirus story to include profiteering from the pandemic, whether financially or politically. That’s exactly the kind of impropriety the press’s watchdog function is supposed to expose and inhibit, and there are plenty of dogs capable of fulfilling that function. It’s high time more of them start barking.”

The Columbia Journalism Review hosts the Covering Climate Now global initiative. Its  Spring issue  is titled The Story of Our Time , written principally by and for journalists. It provides insights into the state of climate journalism, and also reflects their personal and professional experiences– for example, “Good Grief” by Emily Atkin, who recounts how  her own frustrations in the mainstream media led her to start her own independent news outlet, Heated  in 2019, with the byline ”for those who are pissed off about climate change” .

The introduction to The Story of Our Time  sums up the recurring themes throughout all the articles and reflects the militancy of a growing number of climate journalists:

“We have reached a turning point for journalism and the planet. Old ideas that had dampened our attention to climate change—that the subject was too polarizing or too complicated or a money-loser—have been proven wrong. Old forms of storytelling—fast, without helping readers draw crucial connections—are not what’s needed to confront the crisis we face. We owe it to our audience, and our conscience, to be more thoughtful. Climate change is the story of our time. Journalism will be judged by how it chronicles the devastating reality.”

Alberta’s government continues to prop up oil and gas industry with new Blueprint for Jobs, penalties for protesters

As Teck Mines and other  private sector investors rush away from oil and gas investment in Alberta and the price of oil collapses, the Alberta Legislature resumed on February 24, with a  Budget  and a new economic plan: A Blueprint for Jobs: Getting Alberta Back to Work . The Blueprint is built on five pillars: “Supporting businesses; Freeing job creators from senseless red tape; Building infrastructure; Developing skills; Selling Alberta to the world.”  Announced in a March 2 press release as the first step  in the Blueprint:  a $100 million loan to the Orphan Well Association,  promising to generate up to 500 direct and indirect jobs by financing reclamation of abandoned mining sites. The press release also promises  a future “suite” of announcements “covering the entire lifecycle of wells from start to finish”.   As The Narwhal  reports in  “Alberta loans industry-funded association $100 million to ‘increase the pace’ oftes orphan well cleanup (March 2),  this latest loan follows a 2017 loan of $235 million , as the industry-levies which fund the Orphan Wells Association fail to keep pace with the environmental mess left behind by bankrupt mining companies.

The Alberta Federation of Labour  released a statement in response to the Alberta Budget ,  “Kenney’s Budget breaks promises, delivers opposite of what Albertans voted for last year” . The AFL charges that the budget will result in more than 1,400 job cuts, especially in education (244 jobs lost), agriculture (277 jobs lost), and community and social services (136 jobs lost). Further, “Today’s budget increases the deficit by $1 billion because of this government’s short-sighted overreliance on resource revenues, while cutting billions in revenue from corporations.” A similar sentiment appeared from an opposite corner:  an Opinion piece in the mainstream Toronto Globe and Mail states: “The cost of Mr. Kenney’s inaction on economic diversification will be high. Alberta has the advantage of being home to many skilled clean-tech and renewable-energy workers already, but the speed at which the world is innovating in that area means that a lagging Alberta will result in the emigration of some of our best and brightest entrepreneurs.”

Updated:  

The Alberta Federation of Labour released another statement on March 16 , condemning the Budget proposal as an “  ideological budget that does not fit the times”.  Further, it is  “no longer worth the paper it’s written on. The revenue side of the budget is in tatters because oil is now trading nearly $30 per barrel less than projected” , and because of the Covid-19 crisis, the planned cuts to health care “will hurt, not help our province.”   The AFL is demanding that the Budget be scrapped, but the CBC reported on March 16, “Alberta government plans to accelerate budget process, add $500M to health spending” , reporting that the government dramatically curtailed study and debate , and on March 17, CBC reported “Alberta legislature approves $57-billion budget in race against COVID-19 spread”.

For those concerned about the erosion of the democratic process under the threat of the pandemic, this is a worrying sign.

And not the first worrisome sign in Alberta:  the first order of business in the new Session was  Bill 1, The Critical Infrastructure Defence Act , introduced by Premier Kenney. As described in a National Observer article here  , the Bill  proposes to discourage citizen protest by making it easier for police to intervene in blockades, and proposes individual fines for protesters of up to $10,000 for a first offence, and up to $25,000 for each subsequent day a blockade or protest remained in place. The Alberta Federation of Labour released a statement on March 6 calling on the government to withdraw the Bill immediately, stating that the justification (ie protection of rail lines) is misleading, and “The legislation is clearly designed to stop or discourage all collective action that goes against the UCP agenda, including potential labour or worker action.”

 

 

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 .

Amazon employees lay their jobs on the line to protest how Big tech enables Big oil

Amazon employees logoUpdated on February 18 re the announcement of the Bezos Earth Fund.

Amazon workers have risen up again, at the risk of their own jobs. “Defying Company Policy, Over 300 Amazon Employees Speak Out” in Wired (Jan.27) was one of many media articles about the most recent incident in the employees’ campaign for climate action.  A new protest stems from Amazon’s communication policy which threatened to fire employees who speak out to the public about climate change without company authorization. (A Washington Post article of January 2 summarizes all that).   In response, as detailed in Wired,  363 Amazon employees intentionally violated that company policy by signing their names to posts about their own opinions and experiences. The posts were compiled by Medium on January 26. The protest was organized by the activist group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ)  which posted an explanation on their Facebook page, stating that employees feel a “moral responsibility to speak up”. It continues:

“The protest is the largest action by employees since Amazon began threatening to fire workers for speaking out about Amazon’s role in the climate crisis. It signals that employees are convinced that the only right thing to do at this time is to keep speaking up. AECJ has continued to call on Amazon to commit to zero emissions by 2030, stop developing AWS products and services to accelerate oil and gas extraction, and end funding of climate-denying politicians, lobbyists, and think tanks.”

UPDATE: 

On February 17, Jeff Bezos , billionaire owner of Amazon, announced the creation of the Bezos Earth Fund, which will provide $10 billion in grants to scientists and activists to fund their efforts to fight climate change.  The announcement was made on Instagram and reported by the Washington Post, which Bezos also owns. Amazon  Employees for Climate Justice reacted with this statement : Amazon employees tweet re billionsTheir statement shows that AECJ is not letting up on the link between Amazon and Big Oil, and also, not letting up. Follow them on Twitter at @AMZNforClimate.

“Why did Amazon threaten to fire employees who were sounding the alarm about Amazon’s role in the climate crisis and our oil and gas business? What this shows is that employees speaking out works–we need more of that right now.”

Big Tech and Big Oil?

Although a general perception might be that Amazon need only reduce packaging or improve logistics to reduce transportation-related emissions, there is another big climate-related issue raised by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. As noted briefly in Vox  on January 3:   “Google and Amazon are now in the oil business” (Jan. 3)  explaining that “big tech companies are developing AI for oil companies, even as they publicly celebrate their sustainable initiatives.”  A much more detailed explanation appears in  “Amazon’s New Rationale For Working With Big Oil: Saving the Planet” in Motherboard (Jan. 10) .

This is all happening in plain sight.  Amazon itself  describes  its “Digital Oilfields”  on its own website,  and “Cenovus joins Big Oil’s push into Big Data with Amazon and IBM deals”  appeared  in the Financial Post in November 2019, giving insight into how data-driven oil and gas is growing in Canada.  And Suncor boasts in a November 2019 press release from Calgary, Suncor accelerates digital transformation journey through strategic alliance with Microsoft, quoting Microsoft’s president: “Suncor is embarking on a journey to transform the energy industry. They are creating new business value for their customers, empowering and upskilling their workforce, and innovating for a sustainable future”.