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Why the Climate Fight Is a Justice Fight

“What happens to a dream deferred?”

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In 1951, Langston Hughes famously asked in his poem, “Harlem,”:

“What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

 …

Maybe it just sags

Like a heavy load

Or does it explode?

Six painful decades later, we can hear the answer shouted on the streets of Minneapolis, Denver, New York, Atlanta, DC, and cities across the country. As a nation so proud of our history and yet so unwilling to see certain parts of it clearly, we are beginning, as W.E.B. DuBois wrote back in 1919, “to look America squarely in the face and call a spade a spade.”

In this moment of social uproar, critical questions loom over us all. Will this be a turning point and a new beginning, spurred by the force of generations of hurt and anger and harm that black communities have endured again and again? Will this force some kind of reflection and reckoning? Or, will it be, as so often, another false dawn and missed opportunity we lament and look back to when white supremacy claims its next victim?

What we do know is this: For us in the climate movement, this fight must be our fight.  The fight for justice for George Floyd must be our fight. The fight against white supremacy and systemic racism that also took the lives of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice and so many others must be our fight.

We cannot fight for a better future while looking past the real evils plaguing the present. There cannot be climate justice without racial justice. End of story.

Police brutality and systemic racism in all its forms may not look like rising seas, lethal heatwaves, and other climate impacts, but at their heart, these issues are as interconnected as hydrogen and oxygen in water.

Both after all, deny the most basic freedoms that so many of us take for granted. The freedom to simply exist. The dignity to choose life on our own terms. The power to strive for the dreams that swell the heart.

Both too, demean those who are silent or look away.

The ties go beyond the philosophical. As the climate crisis deepens and drive us toward ecological collapse, those who suffer the most will inevitably be the same people of color who for decades have seen their dreams deferred by political neglect and a fundamental lack of concern in the halls of power.

We can already see the same process happening in the COVID-19 pandemic as the factors creating this disproportionate impact – the coal plants and industrial plants overwhelmingly located in minority neighborhoods and poisoning the air, lack of proper housing and access to resources, inadequate infrastructure and little support in recovery –  are also creating a tragedy where black Americans are three times more likely to die from the virus than whites.

This is our fight. Which means that justice has to be at the heart of everything we do. We can’t celebrate the incredible progress of clean energy alternatives like wind and solar without fighting to ensure they’re accessible to everyone. We can’t work to end the fossil fuel economy without giving the families and communities it supports a better option and green jobs with a future. It’s either all of us or none of us.

Most of all, we have to make room at the table and give up our privilege – if we have it – to actually listen to the voices that have so long been ignored or left out entirely. No matter how hard or painful it may be. Native tribes and indigenous peoples. Activists of color and poor families who know what it’s like to watch climate-fueled floods take your home and feel the silence of no government agency coming to your rescue. Young people watching bureaucrats congratulate each other while their future slips away.

As climate activists, this is our fight. The fight for justice and an end to white supremacy. The fight to solve the climate crisis and together build the world we want. The fight to simply exist. The fight for dignity and real freedom for all. The fight to breathe.

So let’s get to work. All of us.

If you’re able, we urge you to support the organizations working on the ground right now to fight racial injustice, including the Poor People’s Campaign, Equal Justice Initiative, Black Mamas Matter, Reclaim the Block, and Black Visions Collective.