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OP-ED: Climate crisis demands diverse leadership

Jennie C. Stephens
Tribune News Service
FILE - In this July 25, 2019, file photo, the sun sets in Cuggiono near Milan, Italy. A new U.N. report on warming and land use says climate change is hitting us where it counts: the stomach. The scientific report on Thursday, Aug. 8, finds that as the world warms it degrades the land more. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno, File)

With California Sen. Kamala Harris as the Democratic pick for vice president, and Rep. Ilhan Omar winning her Minnesota primary on Tuesday there is new reason to be optimistic about transformative national action on climate and energy. These pioneering women will work to shift priorities to ensure climate and energy policy is fair, just and inclusive.

Today, it is anything but.

Low-income communities and people of color suffer the most from our current fossil fueled energy system and from the climate disruptions that this system has caused. The fossil fuel industry, mostly led by white men, generates huge profits while strategically dismissing and denying the dangers.

Black Americans are more likely to live in the shadow of oil refineries and coal-fired power plants, and to get sick and die from breathing polluted air. Lacking parks and green space, many low-income neighborhoods bake during heat waves, the deadliest impact of climate change.

Just as they have borne the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, these vulnerable communities are disproportionately impacted by extreme weather events — and receive fewer resources for recovery. Yet, communities of color pay more for energy, and are at greater risk for electricity shut-offs.

For too long, concerns of vulnerable communities have gone unheard in the halls of power. Without diverse leadership, the United States has invested in sustaining corporate profits and supporting the powerful fossil fuel industry rather than prioritizing the basic needs of people and communities.

Even well-meaning renewable energy incentives have disproportionately benefited white, well-off communities — and further exacerbated racial and economic disparities. This lack of representation has led to inadequate policies that widen inequities instead of leverage opportunities for job creation and advancing social justice.

With more diverse leadership, there is hope for innovative climate and energy policy that places social, economic and racial justice at its core. When women and people of color show up in leadership spaces where they have historically been excluded, their lived experiences provide powerfully different perspectives on social justice.

Those perspectives are shaping a new policy agenda. Both Omar and Harris have been avid supporters of the Green New Deal, and both have resisted the influence of the oil and gas industry.

Omar introduced the “Zero Waste Act” to reduce landfills and incinerators that emit toxic pollution in low-income communities. And, with four other Democratic leaders, Omar recently introduced the “End Polluter Welfare Act” to eliminate taxpayer subsidies for the fossil fuel industry.

In collaboration with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Harris has proposed climate-equity legislation requiring the government to assess and quantify the impact of any environmental legislation or regulation on low-income communities.

Beyond Omar and Harris, millions of other diverse leaders across the country are embracing antiracist, feminist approaches to climate and energy. The “Squad,” as it has come to be known, is growing beyond the original group of four junior nonwhite congresswomen who have been the target of President Donald Trump’s racist misogyny. As Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts has said, “Anyone who is interested in building a more equitable and just world is a part of the Squad.”

With the rampant pandemic revealing systemic racial, health, economic and environmental injustices, diverse leadership and broad representation are essential to confront the interconnected challenges ahead.

It is time to grow the Squad and demand antiracist feminist leadership to restructure society for inclusive healthy prosperity for all.

— Jennie C. Stephens is director of Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs. Her book, “Diversifying Power: Why we Need Antiracist, Feminist Leadership on Climate and Energy,” will be published by Island Press in September. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.