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The Climate Story of 2020 Was Justice

For years, frontline communities and people of color around the world have been calling out for climate justice. In 2020, the climate movement as a whole began to listen.


It wasn’t just that COVID-19 shattered our sense of normal, killing over 1.6 million people worldwide and leaving millions more suddenly unemployed and struggling. Or the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery that finally brought people of all races into the streets to demand justice and an end to racist policies.

Or that climate change meant we began the year with the Australian continent on fire and closed it with a non-stop hurricane season so incredibly active that we exhausted the Latin alphabet trying to name all the storms. Or that we saw a US presidential election where the leaders of the losing party still refuse to acknowledge the results.

It was all of those things together. And more.

And yet, if there’s a recurring theme through all these disparate events (and there is), it’s that 2020 made one simple truth painfully clear over and over and over again: Whatever the tragedy, whatever the crisis, some suffer more than others. More often than not, those suffering the most are people of color or poor people.

It’s not a new story. We all know the basic facts of inequality. Yet something about seeing the way the coronavirus killed Black Americans at nearly twice the rate as White Americans at the same time hundreds of thousands had to take to the streets to demand the simple right not to be shot by the same police sworn to protect them gave these truths the force of a wrecking ball.

The data points kept coming. The pandemic recession undid a decade of job gains for Black workers and led to an unemployment rate nearly double that for Whites. Early in November, Hurricane Eta barreled through Honduras, inflicting an estimated $2.5 to 5 billion in damage on one of the poorest nations in Latin America. Two weeks later, Hurricane Iota, a Category 5 storm, struck again, potentially doubling this figure. All at a time when the international community’s generosity is worn and priorities are on the pandemic. The list went on and on.

Some suffer more than others. Usually people of color. Usually poor people.

For us in the climate movement, spurred in part by the continuing murders of Black Americans by the police and the cascading injustices of COVID coming into view, it’s been a year of reckoning.

For years, groups like the Poor People’s Campaign, Hip Hop Caucus, and Partnership for Southern Equity have been doing everything but bang pots in the street calling attention to what fossil fuels and climate change are doing to frontline communities. After all, the truth couldn’t be plainer when a staggering 78 percent of Black Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, exposing their families to air pollution many Whites simply don’t experience. And contributing to the fact that in the richest nation on Earth, Black children are three times more likely to go to the emergency room due to asthma attacks than White children.

The disparities go beyond dirty energy. When climate-fueled storms like Hurricane Harvey strike, it’s inevitably poor families and people of color who struggle to recover while wealthier and White families benefit from real government support.

Nor is the injustice confined to the US. When the world gets warmer, hot and poor countries tend to suffer while many cooler and wealthier countries benefit. A recent study looking at the connection between rising temperatures and economic growth between 1961 and 2010 found, as lead author Noah Diffenbaugh said, “[M]ost of the poorest countries on Earth are considerably poorer than they would have been without global warming.” He went on to note, “At the same time, the majority of rich countries are richer than they would have been.”

The bottom line: The nations most responsible for the climate crisis have been winning, all while those who’ve done the least are left to watch seas gobble up their coastlines and droughts turn fields into dust.

Some suffer more than others. Usually people of color. Usually poor people.

Here at Climate Reality, we’ve worked to highlight the many faces of this injustice. But like a lot of larger climate organizations, if we’re honest with ourselves, we haven’t really been there in the fight. Not when it comes to seeing the racism that underlies so many of our energy policies here and abroad for what it is. We haven’t been there to fight the racism that lets energy companies poison the air and water for families of color and lets frontline communities suffer the brunt of superstorms they had nothing to do with causing. Not for most of our history.

As an organization, it’s important to acknowledge to our friends and partners who’ve been living with this environmental racism and injustice for decades that we weren’t there for much of this fight.

It’s painful to admit, but it’s true.

Look around the climate community and you’ll see many mainstream groups in the same place. Grappling with the fact that we’ve let people down and failed to truly take their fight up as our own before racial justice became the story of the summer.

It has to change. It is changing. Because in a fossil fuel economy, rising temperatures and rising inequality go hand in hand. It bears repeating that we can’t solve the climate crisis without confronting the systemic racism driving it every step of the way.

Which means that as a movement we also have to change. Even for well-supported organizations, it’s time to listen to the voices living with the crisis and fighting for survival as much as talking. To hear the innovation and genius so many leaders in frontline communities bring to the fight for solutions. To see their fight as our fight – because it has to be. To focus on the coughing children as much as the shiny solar panels.

This is maybe the most important story of the climate fight in 2020. It’s not about big picture targets and falling prices for renewables – though there is that story too and it’s an important one. It’s about how we fight. It’s about turning this into a movement of many, many voices and perspectives. Of abandoning top-down and embracing the messiness of grassroots activism where we all have a voice at the level of DNA.

As an organization, we have a long way to go. We get that. But we are committed. Not just to solving the climate crisis, but solving it in a way that brings long overdue justice to marginalized communities worldwide and creates a sustainable future where the same doors to opportunity open no matter where you come from or the color of your skin.

This is the fight of our lives. The fight to reimagine what our lives and our economies and our planet can be while Nature has yet given us time. We’ll be there to fight it in 2021. We hope you’ll be there with us.