Why Climate Change Is a Civil Rights Issue

September 6, 2019

A green economy can remedy racial injustice.

The Roosevelt Rundown is an email series featuring the Roosevelt Institute’s top 5 stories of the week.

1. How Progressives Are Shaping the Climate Conversation

This week’s CNN town hall event proved two things: Climate change is—rightfully—a defining issue of the 2020 presidential race, and the contenders have proposed the boldest and most progressive platforms in American history. “If you are a Democratic candidate for president, you believe climate change is an existential threat not only to the United States but to human civilization. You believe the country needs to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the very latest,” Lisa Friedman and Maggie Astor wrote in their New York Times coverage. As Roosevelt Fellows JW Mason and Mark Paul explain in Decarbonizing the US Economy: Pathways Toward a Green New Deal, public investment to solve the climate crisis can boost wages, living standards, and equity—and save our planet.

2. We Can Afford Big Climate Ideas

While many of the candidates’ proposals capture the urgency of the climate crisis, some of the town hall questions treaded familiar, small-ball territory. “A lot of the CNN questions are framed in such a way that they assume the solutions to climate change are a bigger threat to existing systems than climate change. Where is the evidence of that?” New York Times climate reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis tweeted during the event. We can’t afford short-sighted thinking; we can afford to invest in our planet and our economy. As Roosevelt Vice President of Policy and Strategy Nell Abernathy writes for the blog, “the question should no longer be ‘How will you pay for it?’ but ‘How will you ensure that our economy is reaching its full potential?’”

3. Centering Racial Justice in Our Climate Response

As presidential candidate Julián Castro has emphasized, climate change and environmental degradation are civil rights issues. “Communities of color and low income communities are more likely to live next to polluters and breathe polluted air. More than half of the 9 million people living near hazardous waste sites are people of color,” Castro’s climate plan explains. As Roosevelt Fellow and Insight Center President Anne Price and Insight Center Vice President of Programs and Strategy Jhumpa Bhattacharya write for Medium, “we can no longer shy away from talking about race when talking about justice of any kind—whether it be environmental, economic, reproductive, or criminal justice.

4. How Corporate Power Drives the Crisis

Beyond public investment, tackling the climate crisis will require curbing the corporate power and political influence of mass polluters. As Roosevelt Fellow Susan R. Holmberg tweeted this week, “The climate crisis is driven by corporate power. Yes, we all need to do our part, but don’t let a concern about plastic straws change the conversation from the market/political power of fossil fuel companies, utilities, and Big Ag.”

5. The Next Step: A Global Green New Deal

“While the United States is the world’s largest historic polluter of greenhouse gases, it today produces about 15 percent of total global emissions, and experts have said it is impossible to solve climate change without international curbs on emissions,” New York Times reporters Coral Davenport and Trip Gabriel wrote this week. As Roosevelt Fellow Todd Tucker has argued, this existential challenge requires transformative structural reform at the domestic and international levels: progressive industrial policy, a reimagined trade infrastructure, and a global Green New Deal.

What We’re Listening To

The prevailing story about rural America is that it’s politically regressive, homogenous in identity, and in economic decline. The outcomes of this false narrative are all around us: misleading headlines, flawed policy choices, and dangerous fissures in our social fabric. To help correct this narrative, Roosevelt Communications Director Kendra Bozarth has been working on an independent podcast project called The Homecomers with Sarah Smarsh, which launched this week. From health care and immigration to worker power and racial (in)justice, The Homecomers addresses universal issues and reveals the diversity—and progressivism—of rural America.