To solve the climate crisis, look to the leaders on the front lines

To solve the climate crisis, look to the leaders on the front lines
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It’s not every day that a cabinet secretary turns up in our working-class, multiracial and largely immigrant neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. But when Energy Secretary Jennifer GranholmJennifer GranholmFederal watchdog calls on Congress, Energy Dept. to overhaul nuclear waste storage process Energy Department's loan program helped Tesla; now it needs to help low-income communities Biden administration launches new effort to help communities with energy transition MORE visited last week, she didn’t just smile for the cameras, say a few nice words and ride off in her electric vehicle. She listened carefully to members of our community. She made it clear that she recognizes we are valuable sources of local knowledge, and practical solutions. 

We need officials who are aligned with frontline solutions and are ready to tackle the climate crisis. We need the resources of the federal government combined with the creative solutions and commitment of people living in communities that have been hit hardest by the impacts of climate change and dirty energy. 

Granholm learned of the years-long effort to turn Brooklyn’s old industrial waterfront into a new hub for green jobs — an effort from community-based environmental justice groups like UPROSE, which I lead.

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We told her that we want to keep the working-class character of our neighborhood. We also want to build up our community and not see our neighbors driven out by gentrification.

Moreover, as the recent and ongoing heat emergency reminds us, frontline communities like ours are doubly victimized — both by deadly exposure to extreme heat impacts, and by the antiquated polluting power plants in our neighborhoods that supposedly keep the lights on for the rest of New York City by running on the hottest days of the year — the very same days when air quality is at its worst. 

The climate disasters metastasizing before our eyes, thanks to extractive fossil fuel companies and their enablers, are only the latest expressions of environmental racism. Sunset Park already suffers more than our fair share of problems with asthma and other pollution-related health problems. We are already seeing what more severe rainfall events, rising waters, and stronger storms — like Superstorm Sandy — mean for our waterfront neighborhood. 

This year, after years of effort, we scored a major win: New York state picked our South Brooklyn Marine Terminal for a wind-turbine assembly and maintenance hub that will service offshore wind-energy projects. The state is matching $200 million in private-sector investment for this project, which will transform our run-down waterfront and give Sunset Park a toehold in the fast-growing clean-energy sector while supporting 1,000 good-paying and stable jobs. This is an example of “green re-Industrialization” — industrial redevelopment that addresses climate change while strengthening community cohesion, building up the local economy, and creating good jobs for local people.  

So many communities like Sunset Park will depend on just transition from an extractive economy to a regenerative one. Across the nation, communities of color on the front lines of the climate crisis — communities that have suffered worst and first from climate change and the effects of dirty energy — are also at the forefront of developing practical solutions to local problems, creating jobs and tackling the effects and causes of climate change. 

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  • On South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation is building a sustainable neighborhood of affordable water- and energy-efficient solar-powered homes with access to community gardens, play spaces for children, and training programs for Oglala Lakota people to learn green building trades. Other initiatives include a demonstration farm, a farmers market and classes teaching the Lakota language, lifeways and spirituality.  
  • In South Carolina, the New Alpha Community Development Corporation installed solar-powered panels that draw clean drinking water from the air on a predominantly Black church to serve a community whose water-quality problems are exacerbated by increasingly severe storms and flooding. New Alpha hopes to expand the project to build a community-based drinking water business that can create jobs and build local wealth, to go along with a community greenhouse, outdoor recreation initiatives, and plans for a green jobs training center.
  • In upstate New York, PUSH Buffalo turned an abandoned school into affordable senior housing and much-needed community gathering space, all powered by our state’s first community solar energy project. It’s in PUSH’s 25-square-block Green Development Zone, where community-led initiatives to develop in an environmentally and economically beneficial way include green jobs training programs, a hiring hall, home weatherization programs, community gardens, and a green infrastructure and landscaping enterprise.

These are the kinds of climate-smart infrastructure projects that are naturals for the Biden-Harris administration’s Justice40 Initiative. Justice40 pledges to steer 40 percent of the benefits of federal climate spending to what the executive order creating it called “disadvantaged communities,” and that I think of as communities on the front lines of the climate crises, like ours. 

Frontline leaders are cautiously excited about Justice40. Of course, the devil is in the details. If implementation doesn’t center the communities where climate and dirty energy inequities most clearly need to be addressed — and where climate inequities and many other problems are being solved at once — it won’t live up to its potential to transform our response to climate change. 

The future we envision centers on everyday members of our communities sitting at the table in seats of power — not as passive recipients of ideas that flow from outsiders’ good intentions, but as valued partners in building bold and practical solutions ready for scaled investment. If we follow that path, we can have stronger communities, a healthier planet, and a growing economy that benefits every person — from a cabinet secretary in Washington, to my working-class neighbors in Sunset Park. 

Elizabeth Yeampierre is executive director of UPROSE, a community-based multicultural environmental justice group in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. She is also an attorney, co-chairs the Climate Justice Alliance, is a philanthropic trustee of The Solutions Project and was the first Latinx woman to chair the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council.