There’s nothing like the giant oil companies to provide us all with lessons about power and prejudice.
The climate crisis offers a lens to understand many of the inherent injustices on this planet: There’s an almost perfect inverse relationship between how much of the problem you caused and how much of the pain you’re feeling. Furthermore, it offers the best chance to actually right some of these wrongs: The economic rearrangement that must accompany any successful effort to fix the planet’s climate system is an opportunity to make sure that the people who’ve always been left out won’t be put at the back of the all-electric bus.
“This is the kind of conversation I hope people are having all over the country.”
Jacqueline Patterson is the director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program. She says she recognized environmental injustice decades ago while working in Jamaica, where Shell Oil contaminated community water supplies. Then later, while volunteering in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, she saw another side of the inequity in climate disaster response. Patterson co-founded Women of Color United and has served as a senior women’s rights policy analyst for ActionAid, integrating a women’s rights lens for food rights, macroeconomics, and climate change.
I spoke with her about how we can broaden the idea of a “just transition” and meaningfully address the issue of marginalized communities. In the economic shifts, will there be opportunities for healing and righting wrongs? And what is “just,” anyway?
This is the kind of conversation I hope people are having all over the country and, indeed, the planet.
Bill McKibben: Tell a bit of your story.
Jacqueline Patterson: I got into this—well, long story short, my first conscious experience with environmental justice was when I was in the Peace Corps, living in Jamaica. And one of the communities I was working with, they had their water supply contaminated by Shell Oil. It was this very typical David and Goliath situation—the community had been drinking this stuff for some time, and when it was brought to light, a bunch of community leaders got together to get justice from Shell. And they just wanted to fund a few ventilated pit latrines and give some money to the school. It put in stark relief the imbalance of power, what little justice there is for communities if they don’t actually build and wield power against these entities that can act pretty heartlessly.
At a later juncture of my career, when I was doing gender justice work, I was noticing there wasn’t a gendered analysis around climate change in the U.S. when there was such a well-understood conceptualization of it internationally, and a set of interventions and policies and so forth. So I got a grant to go around the country and focus on the Women of Color Climate Justice Road [Tour]—I was doing video, lifting up women who were disproportionately impacted by climate change, and looking at people who were working on climate justice, explicitly or implicitly.
From there I connected with NAACP. I said, “Surely, you must have some women I can interview?” And they said, “Well, not that we know of, but we have this grant we got six months ago on climate justice. You interested?” I said I’d do it for one year to get it off the ground, but that of course was 2009.
McKibben: Eight years developing the NAACP’s climate justice program. What have you learned?
Patterson: There’s been so much evolution, but there’s so much left to do—I like starting things up, and it gets less stimulating once it falls into the maintenance stage, but this work has never really reached the maintenance phase as it is ever evolving. It’s critical to get new folks engaged, to puzzle through how to speak to folks around climate. How does this resonate with folks in ways that are compelling, what are the solutions that are truly transformational? That’s the evolution I’m seeing.
The first couple of months I was doing these intro-to-climate-justice workshops at these regional trainings the NAACP has. The first one I did was “Climate Justice 101,” covering topics like, here’s how climate change is a multiplier of injustice, how even the way our society is constructed exacerbates climate change.
But many people had little framework for hearing it. Climate was so hard to fit into what NAACP usually did. People see this word “climate” and didn’t see how it fit into our bedrock civil rights agenda.
“People see this word ‘climate’ and didn’t see how it fit into our bedrock civil rights agenda.”
But now we have a cadre of folks who readily and deeply get the connection—unfortunately because of their lived experience, because of the pattern of changes climate is causing. We’re having more and more conversations about intersectionality, about how the entities that are paying into ALEC [the American Legislative Exchange Council] to push back on air quality regulations are the same ones who are pushing back against our voting rights, pushing forward on these restrictive voting policies.
People are seeing how it’s all fitting together in ways that weren’t as apparent seven years ago. More people anyway. I wouldn’t generalize it, but it’s making more sense to more people.
McKibben: So what’s the best way for people to pitch in?