Nearly every nation in the world has agreed to work collectively to slow atmospheric warming. Impacts that scientists predicted years ago, including patterns of hurricanes, heat, and glacial melting, are evident. So why has action on climate change been so incremental? One reason is that mechanisms to slow the rate of the Earth’s warming take decades for their effects to become apparent. Additionally, because the climate crisis disproportionally affects people of color around the globe — creating the difficult intersected reality of the climate crisis and racism — many white people disavow the essential threat that climate change poses.
What’s clear is that the climate crisis and racism are parts of a larger picture that has prevented us from evolving in the ways we think about energy. We’ve needed to take collective action to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for a long time, and, without it, there have been catastrophic human consequences, especially for communities of color around the world.
The cleantech sector, however, has great potential to assuage effects of the the climate crisis and racism, both in the composition of their labor forces and the innovations they present for adoption. Let’s look at some of the strides that have already taken place and the possibilities that are within the near future grasp.
The Hidden, But Not Invisible, Data: Cleantech, Climate Action, & Racism
A recent article in Open Democracy argues that we don’t take climate change seriously because of underlying racism and that we have “a moral obligation” as ex-colonial powers to take a stronger lead on problems we’ve helped cause.
Data shows that the impacts of climate change are felt disproportionately by people of color, both in developing countries and minority communities within wealthy nations. Because global crises tend to amplify existing inequalities in society, we’ve become more aware of ways that communities of color experience climate change. At the UN, the strongest calls for climate action have come from Indigenous people and the Least Developed Countries Group, composed mostly of Sub-Saharan African countries and small island states.
There are several studies to back up these positions in western countries and US states.
Nature reports that Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York has removed DNA scientist James Watson’s name from its biological-sciences graduate program, citing his past racist comments. Many similar announcements in the world of science and tech have followed campaigns by students and faculty members who risked their careers to remake their institutions from within. Those who fought for the changes say that renaming buildings is only the first step toward improving diversity and inclusion in academia; they are advocating sustained efforts to transform university culture.
The Solutions Project has uncovered how people of color and women are underrepresented in media coverage of clean energy and climate issues, despite the fact that they so often lead robust renewable energy actions. Across the US, nonprofits directed by women and people of color are on the forefront of developing innovative solutions to climate change, but they are severely under-funded. 95% of all US philanthropy dollars go to white-led organizations, and 70 to 80% of these are led by men. Even in the solar industry, communities of color are under-represented.
As we work to build a future that benefits all, we need to ensure that our companies, boards, and teams include humans representative of the bigger world. Research indicates that diversity measures in cleantech workplaces foster overall better performance. The Clean Energy Trust hosted a funding opportunity specifically for diverse peoples – the US Bank Cleantech Inclusion Award. Their goal was to support sustainable innovation and reward those companies outside the dominant cleantech/renewable paradigm.
The Congressional Action Plan for a Clean Energy Economy and a Healthy, Resilient, and Just America outlines how rapid decarbonization of the electricity sector is the linchpin of any comprehensive climate strategy, as electrification of key end uses in the transportation, building, and industrial sectors will be essential. The authors say that the power sector emissions will not fall as quickly as necessary without policy action to:
- Deploy more clean energy and energy efficiency
- Expand interstate transmission infrastructure
- Reform wholesale power markets
As the electric grid becomes the central feature of federal climate policy, its resilience to climate-related threats becomes even more paramount. US Congressional action remains imperative to foster innovation and drive clean energy deployment and infrastructure investment, including to:
- Modernize and expand the electric grid, and correct failures in wholesale power markets.
- Ensure that low-income communities, communities of color, and deindustrialized communities reap the benefits of a cleaner, more resilient power sector.
Cleantech Confronts the Climate Crisis & Racism
Drops in carbon dioxide emissions during the peak lockdowns of coronavirus will have little impact on overall CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. Instead of placing hope on lesser anthropogenic climate effects, we need to employ intentional and direct interventions in addition to existing strategies to ensure we pursue every opportunity to prevent biodiversity loss. Cleantech can be a significant source of such positive change and can mitigate the resulting pattern of effects from the climate crisis and racism.
Toxic emissions in tech sector: High technology can offset the worst aspects of low technology, particularly the pollution that characterized the rustbelt era. Challenging the industry’s claims of environmental sustainability, a 2019 study found that toxic emissions were higher within New York’s tech valley than the rest of the state. However, the increased rates of pollution may also be decreasing environmental inequality as toxic exposure is shifting onto more privileged communities in New York state. The goal, of course, is to help all communities to resist the effects of the climate crisis.
Protecting sea landscapes: Restoring degraded habitat is a starting place so that people of color around the world have a stable ecosystem around them. Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, one of the largest tracts of tidal salt marsh on the West Coast, is the subject of ongoing research to determine the most effective way to restore and maintain the landscape in the face of sea level rise.
Human rights and renewable energy: We at CleanTechnica have reached out several times to GRID Alternatives and to our friend Tanksi Clairmont to discuss the intersections of clean energy, indigenous peoples, and human rights. GRID Alternatives uses a people-first model to make clean, affordable solar power and solar jobs accessible to low-income communities and communities of color. For hundreds of years, Tribal and First Nations communities across Indian Country were stewards of their environment and practiced sustainable lifeways by utilizing the power of the sun, whether it was for heating, planting, growing, drying food, or for cultural practices. Tribes and First Nations ingeniously built their communities infrastructure to accommodate the needs of their people and environment. It is no different today, as tribes think innovatively about energy resilience and sovereignty.
Green transitions and tech innovation: A grassroots coalition launched the Pact for a Green New Deal in Canada, calling for 100% renewable energy, phasing out of oil sands, a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030, the creation of 1 million new green jobs, and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. The Pact recognizes that green transitions can spur technological innovation but also exacerbate existing inequalities around geography, gender, race and class, so they seek radical transition pathways that require new actor networks to overcome opposition from incumbent industries. It highlights the complexities and opportunities that accompany countries with large geographies, fraught geo-political histories, strong federalism, inequalities of access to clean affordable energy, and an abundance of renewable energy.
As Jennifer Rubin stated yesterday in the New York Times, current US federal discourse includes “imagery and nonchalant use of crude racist language (‘s—hole countries’)” and “are simply the continuation of a tradition of Whites demeaning and frightening Black and Hispanic Americans with impunity.” It’s important for all of us to open up our conversations on race to describe global climate inaction to date.
A first step, rising up with clarity can trigger the action we require on climate as part of accepting the equal humanity of those who suffer the most. If we do so, ennui and feelings of inadequacy would dissipate quickly and be replaced with leadership, determination, and teamwork so we achieve a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions in the US and around the globe.