Professor Jennie C. Stephens explains why antiracist and feminist leadership must play a vital role in mitigating the climate crisis
The four non-white Congresswomen known as the ‘Squad’ have radically changed climate discourse and climate policy in the United States and one, Ayanna Pressley, has said: “Anyone who is interested in building a more equitable and just world is a part of the Squad”. As the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis alter every aspect of society and exacerbate economic and racial injustices, we need to grow the Squad. The biggest challenges facing society are linked: the best opportunities for change are when these challenges are addressed together. We must build and foster multiracial, multi-ethnic, gender-balanced coalitions of ambitious and optimistic leaders advocating transformative changes. Every country needs leaders to push back against the concentration of wealth and power that is threatening democratic processes, exacerbating injustice, and accelerating climate chaos. We need leadership to counter the male-dominated climate deniers who are resisting change to perpetuate profits for the fossil fuel industry and other corporate elites who benefit from fossil fuel reliance. We need visionary leaders who recognise that many of our legacy systems and practices need to be restructured not only because they are accelerating climate chaos, but also because those systems and practices continue to favour rich white men who have disproportionate power and influence. It is increasingly clear that incremental steps and small tweaks to the status quo are insufficient. Therefore, we need bold and ambitious leaders who are committed to ending fossil fuel reliance by prioritising economic justice and by investing in the universality of human rights and a future that offers dignity for all. To achieve these broad systemic changes, we need diverse leadership to better represent the needs and interests of the families and communities that are disproportionately affected and most vulnerable to climate disruptions.
Growing the Squad involves supporting bold and diverse leaders who bring their experiences to resist legacy power structures while also reclaiming and restructuring practices and systems to advance a just, equitable, and sustainable future.
Beyond climate isolationism
We need leaders who can help move us beyond climate isolationism, a phrase I use to describe the framing of climate change as a narrow, isolated, discrete problem that needs a technological solution. This framing is inadequate because climate change is so pervasive; it impacts everything and everyone. This narrow way that climate change is typically discussed—as an isolated threat separate from other issues—provides limited opportunities for people to connect and engage. Many climate and energy experts have focused public discourse on carbon reductions, greenhouse gas emissions, and global average temperature, but using these abstract, scientific concepts has proven to be ineffective. Not only does this technical way of talking about climate change resonate with only a small subgroup of society, it also projects the need for sacrifice and hardship rather than highlighting benefits and opportunities.
When the climate crisis is framed as a scientific problem with only a technological fix, the human element is ignored, and the challenge seems distant and unapproachable. This narrow approach has been ineffective in mobilising transformative change and has also resulted in climate and energy programmes and policies that exclude and disadvantage low-income communities and communities of colour. Most incentive programmes for rooftop solar and home energy efficiency exclude many lower-income and black and brown communities and disproportionately benefit well-off households and white communities.1 Recent US research shows that even when corrected for racial differences in income and home ownership, white majority districts have installed 37 percent more rooftop solar systems than black and Hispanic majority ones.2 This unequal distribution of incentives is both unfair and unjust, and it reinforces economic and racial injustice.
Towards energy democracy
A compelling alternative to the narrow lens of climate isolationism is energy democracy, a growing social movement that envisions a fossil-fuel-free future in which individuals, households, and communities rely on a regionally appropriate diverse mix of renewable energy with local ownership, local control, and local benefits (see figure above). Energy democracy connects the renewable transformation with redistributing political and economic power, wealth, and ownership to create a more just and equitable world.3 Investing in renewable energy is much more than a substitution of energy technologies: it provides an opportunity to reverse the economic oppression associated with concentrated wealth and fossil fuel reliance by empowering local energy production and control.4
Three kinds of activities are central to the energy democracy movement: resisting the legacy energy agenda that continues to support fossil fuels; reclaiming energy decision-making so that the public interest is prioritised over corporate interests; and restructuring energy systems to maximise distributed local and regional benefits. How renewable energy is deployed—who is included, who is excluded, and how benefits are distributed—matters a lot. To leverage the interconnected social justice benefits, renewable energy must be explicitly linked to investments designed to meet the needs of families and communities rather than large corporate interests. This requires moving beyond narrow carbon accounting and the scientific and technological framing that has dominated climate policy so far.
When underserved, marginalised and frontline communities directly facing climate injustice are prioritised for renewable energy investments, the energy transformation benefits people who have been excluded for too long. Many communities of colour are more vulnerable because of the legacy of harm from centuries of racism, colonisation, and economic injustices. When a commitment is made to ensure that all low-income and frontline communities are powered by local, clean, reliable wind energy or solar power, a cascade of other benefits beyond reliable local electricity is possible. The focus on energy is not just about how we keep the lights on and how we heat and cool our buildings. Energy is also a basic component of many aspects of life – affecting jobs, health and well-being, transportation, housing, and food. Leaders who link climate and energy to these other aspects of social justice are leveraging the connections between investments in technology and infrastructure with investments in people, families, and communities.
Why antiracist and feminist leadership?
The Squad is growing with a new kind of leadership emerging to confront the climate crisis in an inclusive way. Such leaders reject white, patriarchal leadership over-focused on technocratic investments based on narrowly defined results, and on domination and competition that has worsened the climate crisis, reinforced racial and gender disparities, and excluded diverse voices and perspectives. New coalitions of leaders are calling for public investment in collective, collaborative action that harnesses human potential, nurtures people, and builds strong communities. Antiracist, feminist leadership centres the legacy of problematic power dynamics in every process, practice and policy, demanding continual recognition and active resistance to racism and misogyny in all its many forms and structures.
This is an edited extract from Chapter 1 of Diversifying Power: Why We Need Antiracist, Feminist Leadership on Climate and Energy. Copyright © 2020 by Jennie C. Stephens. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C. All author proceeds from sales will be donated to the NAACP’s environmental and climate justice programme.
- Deborah A. Sunter, Sergio Castellanos, and Daniel M. Kammen, “Disparities in Rooftop Photovoltaics Deployment in the United States by Race and Ethnicity,” Nature Sustainability 2 (January 10, 2019): 71–76.
- Sunter, Castellanos, and Kammen, “Disparities in Rooftop Photovoltaics Deployment.”
- Jennie C. Stephens, “Energy Democracy: Redistributing Power to the People through Renewable Transformation,” Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 61, no. 2 (2019): 4–13.
- Denise Fairchild and Al Weinrub, eds., Energy Democracy: Advancing Equity in Clean Energy Solutions (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2017).