Connecting movements: Environmental justice and CCL

Lack of access to clean water, which has been an issue in Flint, MI since April 2014, is just one example of an environmental justice issue.

Lack of access to clean water, which has been an issue in Flint, MI since April 2014, is just one example of an environmental justice issue.

Connecting movements: Environmental justice and CCL

By Lisa Danz

Many of us have heard the origin story of CCL: Marshall Saunders had been working for years to provide microcredit loans to enterprising people around the world who, with a bit of investment, had huge potential.  Then, he realized that climate change threatened to undo all that hard work. And so, in order to promote an alternative, livable world and to defend the potential of brilliant, hardworking people who deserve a chance, he founded CCL.

It’s the same theme we heard from Pope Francis last year. Climate change is a justice issue because it disproportionately affects the world’s poor, those who have done the least to cause it. We have a moral imperative to fight for a livable climate.

We’re not the only activists who see climate change as a justice issue. For years, climate justice (CJ) and environmental justice (EJ) efforts have been focused on addressing environmental degradation and social justice. They’re fighting tooth and nail, often at the local level, to protect their communities from toxins, extreme weather events, and water shortages.

Working together for a just transition

This work is very much complementary with CCL’s work. CCL is focused on building a movement to pass one big and very impactful piece of legislation. We measure ourselves in our progress toward that, but the real impact will come once it passes. Meanwhile, numerous groups working at different scales are blocking fossil fuel expansion right now. Before we have a carbon price, we depend on these fights to stave off CO2 emissions, in addition to their vital role in protecting the health of local communities. After we have a carbon price, these fights will still be vital, to ensure that we have a just transition, to demand that reductions in emissions benefit those people who are hit hardest by fossil fuel pollution, and to continue to drive down total global emissions. Local, on-the-ground action will push a carbon price to be all that it can be. In return, a carbon price will add market pressures to support these local fights.

Given this complementarity, carbon pricing advocates and environmental justice activists have every reason to form alliances.  And yet, we often find ourselves at odds. For example, in Washington State, there was a fierce debate over Initiative 732, which was on the ballot in November. If it had passed, it would have enacted a statewide revenue-neutral carbon tax. A number of environmental groups came out against it, pointing out that communities of color were not well represented when the initiative was drafted. Because of this, these communities’ interests and concerns were not addressed. Any legislative proposal involves compromise, but fair, equitable proposals require representation of all interested parties at the negotiating table.

That’s why it’s vital that we build connections and trust with our friends in environmental and climate justice.  Any bill that hits the floor in Congress has gone through, and will continue to go through, extensive negotiations. Congress and lobbyists on all sides, including citizen lobbyists like us, will bargain over the details. The environmental justice community should be strongly represented during this negotiation. Their expertise and their voices can help ensure that we end up with a fair bill that doesn’t leave anybody behind. A bill that will be maximally symbiotic with efforts at other scales. A bill that will earn support from the whole community. Here’s what it comes down to: it’s important to pass legislation that will combat climate change. But the journey is just as important as the destination. The process to passing our legislation absolutely must include everyone—especially those who stand to be most affected by the worst effects of climate change.

Action steps toward environmental justice

The first step is simply building trust. We at CCL pride ourselves on building trust between politically diverse, historically opposed constituencies. There’s a decades-long history of distrust between mainstream environmental groups and environmental justice groups, which in turn is rooted in centuries of systemic racism. The roots of mistrust run deep, so we must work diligently to overcome them. It starts with educating ourselves about justice issues, and getting involved, asking not what other activist groups can do for us, but what we can do for them.

If you’re involved in environmental justice work, or if you want to get involved, you’re welcome to join the CCL CJ and EJ caucus. The goal is to bring people together across CCL, to educate ourselves, to encourage each other to get more involved with EJ work, and to amplify environmental justice voices and ideas within CCL.  We have monthly calls where we discuss EJ principles and share stories of the work that we’re doing locally.  There’s also a smaller steering committee that meets more often (roughly twice per month, in addition to the monthly calls) to coordinate initiatives such as recognizing EJ values in CCL’s principles.

Beyond the calls, our main action is to get more involved in EJ/CJ work as individuals, and this means something different for every person. Maybe you’re teaming up with your local EJ community to block coal shipments through your town or a neighboring town. Maybe you’re involved in the #NoDAPL efforts. Maybe you’re contributing to a local effort to install community-owned wind turbines to promote community independence and resilience and reduce reliance on fossil fuels. If you have the means, maybe you’re contributing your money to a grassroots EJ group led by people of color.

All of these actions have a common thread—we’re not just asking others to support CCL; we’re showing solidarity with them as well. We’re giving, rather than taking. People from these communities have reported feeling used by white-dominated mainstream environmental groups, included just long enough to advance the goals of the mainstream group without getting real support in return. CCL can and must do better than that.  We are about building relationships. And building relationships means supporting people in their work and  recognizing their leadership. So this is what our CJ/EJ caucus aims to do: to inspire individuals throughout CCL to develop deep, long-term partnerships with environmental justice and climate justice activists as a way of building bridges and bringing all the needed voices together at the same table.

As author and activist Naomi Klein said in a recent speech, “It’s abundantly clear that we will not build the power necessary to win unless we embed justice—particularly racial but also gender and economic justice—at the center of our low-carbon policies.” Join the EJ caucus to help us do that.

Lisa Danz is a CCL volunteer and a member of the CCL Environmental Justice and Climate Justice Team.