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At COP27 in Egypt a new international climate gathering opens. But last month Climate Justice Alliance members convened in San Antonio at an Our Power Communities Summit. They wrestled with emerging technologies and policies while designing a world they say their members desperately need—while rekindling the meaning of solidarity.
“They’re going to make us feel like everything is urgent and we have to move at the speed of machines, which is what they try to tell us we are. And part of reclaiming our power is saying, ‘Actually you don’t get to determine that I speed other than the human being that I am—other than the interdependent part of nature that I am.”Christine Cordero, Asian-Pacific Environmental Network
Images + Words: Greg Harman
What does it mean to be a coalition led by frontline organizations?
In the middle of October, roughly 50 community environmental justice organizers from around the United States (and its territories) gathered in San Antonio for the Climate Justice Alliance‘s Our Power Communities Summit. The convening called together members of frontline community organizations in an attempt to reground the alliance after not only years of the dislocating COVID-19 pandemic but a bruising effort to secure federal climate action. The meeting continued an examination of not only the “false solutions” to the climate crisis but surveyed members for solutions they have found in their own communities. And, as Cordero’s comment illustrates, attendees were reminded that radical self-care is also a tool of survivance.
I was invited to produce a short video summation of the CJA gathering hosted by the Southwest Workers Union. In doing so I was able to observe the Alliance’s process of tapping into the creative energy and leadership of their members. I also was able to meet and interview a raft of organizers who modeled their love for their communities and shared stories of their successes and ongoing struggles. They offered a vision of what frontline-led movement means as the global oil cabal prioritizes its own survival through a clean/er energy transition, raking in record-setting profits while bankrolling a soft coup in the U.S. As I reviewed the range of interviews collected for the summary video (embedded at top), it was clear there was near enough room to allow these voices to clearly express the task with which they are contending—or the many lessons already gained that can help others in this challenging moment.
Click orange play button below to hear the voices of the CJA family.
With another international climate negotiation gearing up—this time in Egypt—some media outlets have attempted to cast CJA and those doing frontline organizing generally as unreasonable cast members in a great climate tragedy. Many such takes come with baked-in assumptions that the same communities historically exposed to the violence of fossil fuels, and subsequently from our predictably destabilized climate, should now also bear the cost in today’s transition to a clean/er energy economy.
CJA member groups rejected the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, for example, as too beholden to industry interests, arguing it would do more harm than good. It was a poor shadow of the $1.7 trillion-dollar Build Back Better Act of 2021. By way of drawing comparisons, the IRA’s $37-billion-per-year commitment over the next 10 years represents a mere four percent of the currently gathering US defense budget. Yet it is still cast by most analyses as a net positive—if only just. According to the Congressional Research Services, U.S. emissions were already expected to contract between 24 and 35 percent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. The IRA (likely) steepens that downward trend by a few degrees, to a range of between 32 to 40 percent. The current US commitment is to reach 50 percent reductions by 2030—and net-zero by 2050.
CJA members (and all of us) can celebrate the fact that their resistance contributed to the failure of a dirty side deal to the IRA. Fierce opposition doomed West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s attempt to ensure sacrifice zones remain in place and exert an overall weakening of National Environmental Policy Act permit review that would have been detrimental to our ability to resist pet extraction projects and pipelines.
Images from OPC Summit in San Antonio, October 13-15, 2022.
Now as we begin to see IRA’s billions flowing to local communities there are sure to be hard conversations—and hard stops, in some cases—over the appropriateness and location of some of those investments. Carbon capture, for instance, can mean not only possibly prolonging the life of dirty oil and gas facilities but new life to largely drawn down oil wells through reinjection of CO2 for secondary recovery. Concurrent to the rollout of lots of new (ostensibly) lower-carbon technology is a slew of environmental-justice priorities in the IRA (an overview here).
One thing CJA members do exceptionally well is drill into popular understanding the reality of our nation’s many “sacrifice zones.” These are typically communities of color and low-income folks who pay the cost for polluting industry with their lives. After so many powerful conversations covering the gathering, I wanted to share what I could. The values and processes by which CJA operates deserve attention for the careful and heart-centered ways in which they position the needs and interests of their 84 urban and rural frontline communities, organizations and supporting networks.
Writing for New York magazine, Jonathan Chait recently excoriated the CJA. He argues that community activists, in spite of their decades of pushing to bring to realization this very moment of transition, are now among the greatest threats to the needed energy transition. He ranks activists alongside right-wing reactionary forces lining up to fight wind and solar farms across the board for their own nightmarish (largely) fabricated reasons. There is reason for pessimism and frustration in the struggle for a just energy transition. Yet hyper-polarized politics does not negate the need for climate activists to at times stand against faulty solutions offered as intermediate steps to decarbonization that threaten to instead slow our progress.
Chait is outraged the group, for instance, has opposed carbon capture. Others are outraged (and/or frightened) by the fact that the vast number of carbon capture projects don’t work and that only a fraction of the carbon captured isn’t quickly pumped into the ground to draw out crude oil (and slowly leak back into the atmosphere). Yet every major Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change offering I’ve seen hangs our ability to limit warming to that coveted “greater than” two degrees of extra global heat on achieving some level of carbon capture success. Given that, isn’t it better to know now if carbon capture—and what policies govern its use—are a bust?
Hydrogen, another emerging technology sure to build out with IRA support, likewise brings complications with its dizzying range of polluting shades in addition to the “green” variety created via renewable generation sources.
These questions were clearly on the minds of those working the bottom-up process at the CJA summit.
If we take a stand against all these technologies, we’ll end up standing for nothing, one organizer from the Northeast warned as the planning exercise turned to hydrogen.
And that’s why, a similarly cautious member responded, we are recommending that the community be involved in the dialogue with local policymakers to determine what is actually sustainable.
Proposals from the gathering are now on their way to the fuller membership for deeper discussion.
The answers, however, will be almost certainly be different in different communities. They will hinge on more inclusion and engagement and dialogue. And a successful movement will be highly sensitive to and evolve to plan around those nuances. That’s exactly what I saw forming up in San Antonio.
Industrially driven climate change means that there is increasingly less “natural” driving force behind today’s so-called natural disasters. A decade ago, I sought to drive this point home by pointing out that then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s lawsuits resisting climate action in the Lone Start State were, in fact, a criminal act given all we knew even then of the consequences of that inaction: suffering and death.
That criminality of such actions have only deepened as the climate crisis locked in.
Consider that the rainfall driving massive floods in Pakistan this year that killed more than 1,700 people and displaced nearly 8 million, to draw on just one recent devastating example, were made more than 75 percent more intense due to human-caused warming. Now consider that the United States is directly responsible for one-fifth of that warming and ask who should pay for the solutions?
Thinking domestically, we understand that, just as on the world stage, it is frequently those people who are least responsible for climate change who are the most exposed to unleashed climatic violence. Think back yourself to who lost their lives and who has been forced to bear the cost for Hurricane Harvey or any of the 150 billion-dollar climate-related disasters that have struck Texas alone since 1980.
Climate Justice Fair at Garcia Street Farm concluding the Summit on October 15, 2022.
For folks like Chait, localism is the enemy. For those who have been at the negotiating tables of utilities and local governments for any length of time, or who work directly with the most impacted families of local energy decisions, it’s offensive to think we have to accept whatever compromise is on offer. In the span of only three years, the options showing up on the energy table in San Antonio, for instance, have evolved quickly. The proposed conversion of a coal unit to burn fracked gas was first floated to local organizers by our now-former and disgraced CPS Energy CEO three years ago. But as an accelerated closure of our two coal units advances to potential action suddenly utility-scale geothermal is being discussed alongside other more attractive, less polluting storage options, including compressed air energy storage. Had we glommed onto that first offer what would we have seen?
I can’t begin to resolve such tensions being raised in this harrowing moment. Both the challenges and their solutions are myriad. But I do think it is important to hear more from those who are deep in the development of proposals around new technologies (decisions that may actually save us all some time by helping us sidestep a few traps) and also collectively building new models of governance. In the podcast above, you’ll hear from organizers from the Northeast, the Southwest, and the West Coast—including Christian Rodriguez, Angel Ramos, Mackenzie Marshland, Alejandria Lyons, Ayana Grace, and Katt Ramos. They all spoke with me about their respective local struggles—and many recent wins—and how they found, in dialogue here in San Antonio, their realities reflected in other communities. In this discovery of common challenges grew an awareness of both complexity and the need for solidarity.
I encourage anyone feeling defeated by the overwhelming weight of these issues to catch the lengthier conversation with Christine Cordero at the bottom of the podcast. The topics Cordero and I go into are relatively broad, but drill into several key conversations taking place—or which will soon be—in local communities everywhere. California is ahead of the curve on many transition-related questions and therefore communities there are wrestling deeply with questions about labor and clean energy jobs, as well as resilience centers and cultural protection, in a way that are only beginning to emerge elsewhere. Cordero brings important reflections on this front. But I am specifically highlighting her words on healing.
We live, on many levels, in a time of compression and acceleration. And yet we don’t have to be ruled by that pressure. As the Deceleration project seeks to remind: Our health—our bodies and our minds—not only suffer from broken and unjust systems; they are also being actively targeted in an information war intended to disable us individually and collectively in order to ease a fascist rise to power. Cordero eloquently shows why radical self-care is the only possible way through the fog.
Enjoy and take heart.