This weekend, it’s anticipated that thousands of people worldwide will take to the streets to “Rise for Climate, Jobs, and Justice.” The events are meant to bring attention to the need for climate action and leadership from elected officials on the climate crisis.
The main event takes place in San Francisco, California where planners are vying for the attention of California Governor Jerry Brown, who is convening the Global Climate Action Summit. Many in the climate community have called for Governor Brown to take more aggressive action to transition the state from fossil fuels before his term concludes this year.
The fervor of the moment is further compounded by the fact that, according to some estimates, human activity will have emitted enough greenhouse gases to warm the planet by 1.5 degrees Celsius on the same day that the climate marches will be taking place.
As the marches and rallies commence, the climate community will once again ask itself and the world what climate action looks like and who should be delivering and leading it. We’ll hear chants, proclamations and platitudes. We will likely see some arrests for acute direct “actions” that momentarily disrupt traffic and banking operations. But then, those who descend on San Francisco will return to their respective homes—some with a new sense of hope and some with a continued feeling of frustration.
In what has become customary for these “people’s” climate marches, groups and individuals representing on the frontlines will be given the honor of leading the marches. Unfortunately, these groups and individuals are not given the same deference as it pertains to leading the climate “movement.” This is unfortunate, because these groups possess a wealth of knowledge, abilities, and traditions that are not only the best chance we have of bringing people together, but perhaps the best chance of saving the planet in the process.
A wise man once said, “We have no right to sit silently by while the inevitable seeds are sown for a harvest of disaster to our children Black and white.” While I am not a betting man, I would wager that I could convince a plurality of the people that these words were written by a renowned climate “activist.” (Incidentally, I’ve put it to the test, which, incidentally, did not result in financial gain, quite the opposite actually.)
Those words were, in fact, written by W.E.B. DuBois, 50 years before Charles Keeling discovered that humans could increase the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, 75 years before Exxon knew what their products were doing to the atmosphere, and 85 years before global warming became a public issue. In the same vein, around the same time as #ExxonKnew, James Baldwin wrote, “We are responsible for the world in which we find ourselves, if only because we are the only sentient force which can change it.” No doubt, the words of both authors are germane as it pertains to the unfolding climate crisis.
In characterizing this paradigm, Dr. Steven Osuna explains the need for a framework in our current moment to, “listen to the sounds, visions and cries of the aggrieved, oppressed and exploited who struggle everyday…” He goes on to declare the need for a struggle praxis that embraces a commitment to ending racial capitalism and the myriad systems of oppression that uphold and reproduce it. This commitment is the BRT, which the great Cedric Robinson describes as, “an accretion, over generations, of collective intelligence gathered from struggle, which compels us to address the contradictions of racial capitalism and the neoliberal turn that has only exacerbated the brutality that so many face.”
Osuna and Robinson adroitly, and not inadvertently, characterize the brutality that so many, but disproportionately Black and Brown people, are facing due to the violence of the racial capitalocene and the resulting climate crisis. Climate change is a radical system that requires radical solutions; this truth is not only an invitation to embrace the BRT, but also to view it as, perhaps, a last-ditch effort to save the planet and the “movements” who seek to save the lives of those residing on it in the process.
But the venerable Angela Davis dispatches of this myopia explaining, “I think it’s important to point out what is often called the Black radical tradition. And the Black radical tradition is related not simply to Black people but to all people who are struggling for freedom.” Her words are an invitation for white people and historically white-led enviros to embrace this idea as a means to address and dismantle a climate crisis that’s upheld by white supremacy.
The BRT has already demonstrated a genuine willingness to include white people, some of whom risked and gave their lives, like our departed sister and brothers Viola Liuzzo, Andy Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner. Moreover, white people played an integral role in the Freedom Riders campaign initiated by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and completed by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Compare this to the inclusion of melanin-blessed folk in historically white-led environmental group, and the case for addressing the climate crisis on a BRT platform is even more firmly established.
In 2016, when Black Lives Matter UK (BLMUK) shut down the London City Airport, they explained while climate change does not only affect Black people, “the climate crisis is a racist crisis.” Here we see the BRT in action as BLMUK adroitly demonstrated the need to include the discussion of race and white supremacy as necessary to address and dismantle the climate crisis.
However, this proclamation did not exclude or frighten white people away, just as SNCC’s message of Black liberation didn’t scare white Freedom Riders away.
In fact, the majority of the people who took part in shutting down the London City Airport were, in fact, white. In explaining this, BLMUK said, in part, “…it should not be surprising that we would be able to find nine white people who believe Black Lives Matter. There is a need for white people to take responsibility in a society that privileges them through racism and anti-Black racism.”
In 1966, SNCC released their Basis of Black Power position paper. Therein, they suggest, “It must be offered that white people who desire change in this country should go where that problem (racism) is most manifest. The problem is not the Black community. The white people should go into white communities where the whites have created power for the express purpose of denying Blacks human dignity and self-determination.” These words are not a condemnation, castigation or attempt to be dismissive. Actually, here we see SNCC inviting white people to take part in the process of direct action against white supremacy.
Even if this comes across as paradoxical for some, it still makes perfect sense. White people already organize for climate action in white communities more frequently than in “communities of color.” The next step is to develop messaging that better establishes the axiomatic nexus of the climate crisis and white supremacy. The good news is that we are seeing more and more studies that prove intersectional messaging invokes the need for racial justice in order for there to be complete justice is resonating. As such, it really comes down to a choice of placing the planet and its inhabitants over the fear of alienating white donors by including the BRT as a major part of messaging and organizing.
Addressing climate change is not as much about shutting down one pipeline, electing a few candidates, or “protesting” at a bank and then sending out emails to raise money on these “actions,” as it is about directly confronting and dismantling the system of white supremacy that allows for our slash, burn, and emit economy and way of life. Whereas, too often, we see a whack-a-mole approach to climate action by the white-led enviro nonprofit apparatus, the BRT calls for collective action that confronts and transforms the entire system such that multiple forms of oppression are addressed simultaneously in a way that brings people together.
A closer look at both of these ideas reveals their roots in the BRT, Energy Democracy is described as, “a way to frame the international struggle of working people, low income communities, and communities of color to take control of energy resources from the energy establishment and use those resources to empower their communities.” Denise Fairchild, one of the editors of the informative and instructive book Energy Democracy: Advancing Equity in Clean Energy Solutions further elucidates the concept’s nexus with the BRT explaining, “As opposed to the academic, scientific and policy perspectives of mainstream environmental professionals, [Energy Democracy] gives voice to community-based-organizations. Their perspective radically from the mainstream environmental community about how to get real about climate change.”
The difference in perspective that Fairchild speaks of is associated with the idea that community-based organizations represent the frontlines of the climate crisis, and the idea that, similar to the BRT, these organizations/communities understand, as Fairchild points out, “confronting race, racial discrimination and racial oppression is central to developing a sustainable, decentralized energy alternative,” which is of course necessary to address and dismantle the climate crisis efficaciously. This is exemplified especially in the call for a Just Transition to 100 percent renewable energy with the tenets of Energy Democracy, as opposed to Just-A-Transition.
And we are so distracted by this separation that we lose focus on how separated we are from the land—and so we maintain a kind of unconscious status quo that prevents us from working together for change. This Samsara must be broken if we are to address and dismantle climate change with efficacy. No single person, race/ethnicity, gender identity, religious dogma, scientific discovery, or magic spell has the capacity to do this in solitude. The sooner we fully allow ourselves to understand how white supremacy and racism actually operate, the sooner more will realize that a fusion of people is necessary to confront the climate crisis; and then single-issue silos will come crashing down.
And let’s face it, time really fucking matters because we’re running out of it faster than we are fresh water. And that’s saying a lot.
The same reason why a Poor People’s Campaign must not be led by wealthy people, is the same reason why the climate fight cannot be led by mostly affluent people and affluent organizations with mostly homogenous staffs. To this end, white-led enviro groups, and their majority white patrons, need to ask themselves two serious questions: Do they just want to survive the climate crisis a little while longer than melanin-blessed people on the frontlines, or do they want to survive? If their answer to the former is, “no” and the latter is, “yes,” this will require severing the symbiosis of climate change and white supremacy—it will require confronting the racism and white supremacy that exist in “progressive” spaces and it will require embracing the BRT, which seeks to topple all forms of oppression for all people.
I’m reminded of choice words from one of the greatest natural organizers ever, Ella Baker, “Remember, we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit, a larger freedom that encompasses all of mankind.” Climate justice practitioners, while primarily focused on the frontlines of the crisis, vindicate the ideas of Baker, and other keepers of the BRT, in that they understand that the liberation of those most vulnerable to the climate crisis will intrinsically result in liberation for all. Once we cancel out the variables that separate us, we’ll be able to dispatch of the systems that are holding a gun to all of our heads and our planet.
The BRT is the hostage negotiator we need to disarm racial capitalism of one of its most dangerous weapons, climate change.