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Green New Deal Architect Rhiana Gunn-Wright Warns the Green Transition May Leave Black People Behind

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As the cost of the climate crisis continues to rise and climate justice groups demand more government action to halt the heating of the planet, we speak with policy expert Rhiana Gunn-Wright, one of the architects of the Green New Deal. She says the Inflation Reduction Act championed by President Biden, which is the largest climate bill in U.S. history, has many provisions that “structurally leave out Black people.” She urges a more inclusive green transition that centers the needs of communities of color. “There is an increasing sort of narrative about the tension between justice and urgency that’s presenting a false choice.” Gunn-Wright’s latest essay, published in the new digital magazine Hammer & Hope, is titled “Our Green Transition May Leave Black People Behind.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at the climate emergency. The Guardian is reporting Hurricane Idalia might become the costliest climate disaster to hit the United States this year. The Category 3 left a trail of destruction from Florida to the Carolinas. Forecasting company AccuWeather is projecting the storm might cost $20 billion. Last week, NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, revealed the United States had already suffered at least 15 weather disasters that caused $1 billion or more in damage.

While the costs of the climate crisis continue to escalate, climate justice groups are warning the government must do far more to combat the climate emergency.

We’re joined now by Rhiana Gunn-Wright. She was one of the architects of the Green New Deal. She has just written a new piece for Hammer & Hope headlined “Our Green Transition May Leave Black People Behind.” She writes, “I’m an architect of the Green New Deal, and I’m worried the racism in the biggest climate law endangers our ability to get off fossil fuels.”

Rhiana Gunn-Wright, take it from there. Explain why you’re so deeply concerned.

RHIANA GUNN-WRIGHT: So, I am really deeply concerned, because the Inflation Reduction Act, the biggest climate law, basically, in U.S. history, is setting up the framework for the clean energy transition to come, and so far there are many provisions in the bill that just structurally leave out Black people or just don’t address the needs particularly of Black frontline communities. And at the same time, the debates and the decisions about how to implement the IRA in those — in those cases, too —

AMY GOODMAN: The Inflation Reduction Act.

RHIANA GUNN-WRIGHT: — we are seeing a trend of the desires of Black frontline communities, again, in particular, being set aside, in some cases being dismissed. And it’s very troubling, because this is what’s going to sort of guide the clean energy transition for the foreseeable future. And as we’ve seen before in U.S. history, there is often a sense that we can get to justice later. But when does later come? And so, all of that amalgamation of factors is what has gotten me worried at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: Rhiana, you write, “the racist compromises and the marginalization of Black people and their demands that facilitated the bill’s passage have seeped into the climate movement.” Talk very specifically about what you mean.

RHIANA GUNN-WRIGHT: So, what I mean is that in order to pass the IRA, Senate Democrats, leadership in particular, had to broker a deal with Senator Manchin. And part of that deal included compromises, particularly around allowing opening up lease sales in the Gulf, as well as compromises that allowed the building of the Mountain Valley Pipeline to move forward. And it’s worth noting that both those things had been blocked by court challenges from environmental groups and climate justice activists. So, both of those things were moved forward, despite those challenges, by the compromises in order to let the IRA pass.

And so, when I say that it seeped in, what I mean is that, in doing that — right? — you created some momentum where there was a sense that some amount of racism was a necessary cost for the IRA to move forward, because both with the Gulf sales — the lease sales in the Gulf and with the Mountain Valley Pipeline, those things disproportionately impact Black frontline communities. And so, when I say that it seeped in, I have noticed in debates there’s been a real sidelining — I think you see it in particular in the conversation about permitting reform — there has been a real sidelining of Black, Brown and Indigenous voices and their calls for a just transition in the debates about how to effectively implement the IRA. And, I mean, when I talk about permitting reform, I mean there is a big push, in particular, to weaken NEPA, despite the fact that NEPA, the National Environmental Permitting Act, is one of the main tools that frontline communities have to protect themselves and push back against polluting infrastructure.

And the real troubling part about that being forefront in the permitting reform debate is that the IRA also takes a real all-of-the-above strategy when it comes to the energy transition. So that means that it’s basically investing in tons of technologies across the board. A lot of that’s in renewable energy. A lot of that’s in technologies that a lot of people argue can help prop up fossil fuels, even as they could help decarbonize at the same time. And so, what that means is that you’re going to, along with the concessions, still see a buildout of fossil fuel infrastructure, as well as renewable energy infrastructure.

And so, gutting NEPA actually puts frontline communities in a really vulnerable position, even if it is to speed up renewable energy transitions, where, at the same time, you have a lot of climate justice activists also calling for permitting reform, but in a way that protects democratic participation, that is about — right? — increasing the amount of planning, that is about making community consultations upfront, more powerful, less antagonistic, trying to sort of build a procedure for infrastructure decisions that helps build trust. But those recommendations are largely being sort of pushed aside, talked about as insufficient, because, I think — like I said, in part because of the concessions that happened with the IRA to pass it, there is an increasing sort of narrative about the tension between justice and urgency that’s presenting a false choice, that says, essentially, we have to do whatever we have — we have to increase the deployment of renewable energy by any means necessary, even if that means reducing democratic participation, because there’s just, like I said, a narrative that says we don’t have enough time to make sure that the transition is just, if there is any chance that that doesn’t come in the form of just like regulatory streamlining across the board.

AMY GOODMAN: Rhiana, you call for the expansion of Justice40, a Biden administration initiative that aims to direct 40% of the benefits of federal clean energy and other climate investments to disadvantaged communities. How can this be expanded? And how can the Biden administration nationally subsidize divestment from fossil fuels? We’ll end with those two questions.

RHIANA GUNN-WRIGHT: Can you repeat that last question?

AMY GOODMAN: How can the Biden administration nationally subsidize divestment from fossil fuels equitably?

RHIANA GUNN-WRIGHT: Oh, OK, totally. So, on the first part, so Justice40 is the administration’s — pretty much their signature environmental justice initiative, which says that 40% of the benefits of climate and energy investments need to go to disadvantaged communities. I call for the expansion of Justice40 because Justice40 was actually initiated before the IRA, and so it is unclear right now whether Justice40 will apply to IRA spending across the board.

What we have seen with Justice40 is there is a tendency to mostly include programs that are sort of legacy environmental justice programs, like weatherization, energy efficiency, or just programs that are sort of siloed in the environmental justice camp, and not necessarily spending related to the energy transition more broadly. So I’m calling for Justice40 to cover all of that, right? Because that’s how we make sure —

AMY GOODMAN: And, Rhiana, we just have less than a minute to go. So, I want to —

RHIANA GUNN-WRIGHT: — that the transition does, in fact, benefit everyone, if all of the spending is included.

At the same time, I do note that, like, funding for projects and technologies that frontline communities have repeatedly opposed, say, like carbon capture and storage, that shouldn’t be included in Justice40. At the end of the day, it’s just disrespectful if that is not actually the vision that frontline communities have for their role in the green transition. They want to get polluting infrastructure out entirely, so we should be investing in renewable energy projects that they’re asking for, whether that’s community solar, microgrids, publicly owned and provided renewable energy — excuse me — microgrids. Those are the sort of things that, over and over, frontline communities and the groups that represent them say that they want to get out of a green transition.

AMY GOODMAN: Rhiana, we’re going to have to leave it —

RHIANA GUNN-WRIGHT: As far as the Biden administration, how to divest from — 

AMY GOODMAN: We have less than 30 seconds, Rhiana, just less than 30 seconds, on that last point of the Biden administration.

RHIANA GUNN-WRIGHT: Sure, yeah. For fossil fuel divest, well, one is there have to be no new leases for fossil fuel projects. The second is that we really need to form, at the very least, a commission to discuss how do we have a responsible wind down of fossil fuels. Right now we’re leaving the divestment and wind down of the fossil fuel industry up to the industry entirely. And what we’re seeing over and over is they’re not investing in that. And it’s very increasingly unlikely that they, in fact, will be investing in low-carbon energy in a real way. And so, without really a publicly planned transition, we’re going to end up with a transition off of fossil fuels that’s not just inequitable for Black people, but that harms workers, residents, everyone, consumers, and especially folks from regions where fossil fuels are a big part of that local economy.

AMY GOODMAN: Rhiana Gunn-Wright, I want to thank you so much for being with us, one of the architects of the Green New Deal. We’ll link to your piece in Hammer & Hope, “Our Green Transition May Leave Black People Behind.”

Coming up, we look at why thousands of Afghan evacuees are being arbitrarily detained overseas waiting to come into the United States. Back in 20 seconds.

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