Fairness in RenewablesAny new economic system built on clean energy must adequately address the inequities of the old system. That means broadening our thinking of what a “just” transition will require.scroll down arrow

In Kotzebue, a city on the northwest coast of Alaska, frigid Arctic winters and high energy costs have encouraged renewable energy development since the late 1990s.YES! PHOTO BY STEPHEN MILLER

The Transition to Renewables Is Hard — and EasyAlaska shows that breaking ties with big oil can make life better for everyone

YES! PHOTO BY STEPHEN MILLER

As mayor of the Inupiaq village of Buckland, Tim Gavin has overseen the installation of wind turbines and solar panels that offset the high price of energy in remote Alaska.YES! PHOTO BY STEPHEN MILLER

Early in summer 2015, a barge hauling two deconstructed wind turbines lumbered out of Seattle bound for the Alaskan Arctic. It traveled along the western edge of Vancouver Island, passed the pristine wilderness of the Tongass National Forest, slipped across the Gulf of Alaska, rounded Cape Sarichef into the Bering Sea, and worked its way up the coast toward the Bering Strait, 3,000 miles from home.

Stephen Miller

Stephen Miller is an editor at YES! Magazine. He covers climate and environmental justice. Follow him on Twitter @SMillerPNW.

By August, the ice in the Chukchi Sea had dispersed enough for the barge to get into Kotzebue Sound. There, the white towers, black blades, and the rest of the parts were loaded onto a smaller boat that made its way past Puffin Island to the southeast end of Eschscholtz Bay.

After winding 26 miles inland up the Buckland River, the turbines were placed on trucks for the last 5 miles to a hilltop where they were erected and began to spin.

That is one way to get to Buckland, a village of about 400 mostly Inupiaq Alaskans that sits near the Arctic Circle.

I hopped on a small plane in the coastal town of Kotzebue and landed on a red dirt runway on a clear morning in early May. A small welcoming party waited in the shade of a radio tower to receive returning family and friends.

Distance and isolation affect every aspect of life in rural Alaska. Nearly everything must be brought in at considerable expense. Groceries, construction materials, cars, toys—everything costs more. In a region with prolonged subzero temperatures and darkness, and where the cash economy merely supplements subsistence livelihoods, energy is prohibitively expensive. Arctic residents pay as much as five times more for power than those in the Lower 48.

The Arctic is not alone in its crippling reliance on oil. Alaska is in the throes of a deep fiscal crisis, due to the plunging value of crude, taxes on which account for about 85 percent of state revenue. Legislators need to close a $3.7 billion deficit. They’ve slashed spending on education and social services. They’ve trimmed the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend, an annual check that’s gone to all Alaskans for more than 40 years. They’re considering reinstating an income tax.

I came to Buckland to see about a different option: a “just transition” to renewable energy. Wind turbines and solar arrays have been popping up across the state. I found wide agreement that it’s time to break ties with the fossil fuel industry and establish an economy that keeps everyone’s lights on independent of global oil markets. But I wanted to see if this transition toward renewables can really be “just,” improving all lives in concrete ways. Because the rest of the country isn’t far behind in the kinds of issues that Alaska faces.

“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. But now we have a cadre of folks who readily and deeply get the connection.”
Jacqueline Patterson in Why Climate Change is a Civil Rights Issue

From the Editors

Social Justice in This Transition

  • Stephen Miller

    Miller

  • Shannan Stoll

    Stoll

  • Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz

    Loeffelholz

In some places in this country, it’s easier to talk about climate change if you avoid the words “climate change.” Melting ice caps and mass migrations are distant and abstract. And for some people, they’re too politicized.

Cover of YES! Issue 83

This was certainly true in Alaska, as editor Stephen Miller learned during a reporting trip for this Just Transition issue. In that state, the politically liberal and conservative live side by side, conservationists and hunters dealing with the same receding glaciers. Yet, Miller found that a good strategy to open up conversations about climate change was to lead with the economy.

Why did we choose Alaska? We wanted to know what it looks like to break ties with the fossil fuel economy at every level. Where better to look than the politically diverse state where energy prices soar above the rest of the country and over-dependence on the oil industry has resulted in a fiscal crisis.

The switch to renewable energy is not an easy thing there. Wind turbines must be brought in from 3,000 miles away. Solar panels spend months in the dark. And state legislators are notoriously linked to oil industry interests.

Still, it’s happening. Renewable energy development makes economic sense, and the same is true in the Lower 48.

But before we jump into new economies built on new clean energy systems — ones that will begin to heal the planet — we want to recognize that this moment of change offers an opportunity for social justice. Climate justice groups have been pushing for a “just transition” for a long time — and we want to make sure that any new economic systems adequately address the inequities of the old system. That means broadening our thinking of what a just transition will require.

As Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program, explains to climate justice leader Bill McKibben in his interview, our current economy — of which climate change is a symptom — is built on winners and losers — and the winners tend to be White, male, and affluent. A just transition would turn this model on its head by centering the voices of disadvantaged communities, lifting up the needs of those most impacted by climate change, and redefining our relationship with energy and the environment.

That’s the just transition we want, and it’s happening.

In the coal country of Appalachia, mountain ecosystems are being restored, bringing not just new and healthier jobs, but also food security. In urban India, electric rickshaws offer a technologically appropriate transportation solution while honoring a rich culture of rickshaw practicality and entrepreneurship.

And what about extending a just transition to Earth and our ecosystems? As Kayla DeVault points out in her essay describing the new legal personhood of New Zealand’s Whanganui River, shifting Western thinking toward sovereignty and self-determination and away from exploitation and extraction is possible, and it can have dramatic consequences.




Return to the story

I’m greeted by Mayor Tim Gavin, an Inupiaq man of 55, dressed in a neon green safety shirt and gray sweatpants. We ride through town on a pair of Honda four-wheelers.

Buckland is quiet this morning. “Village life,” Gavin says with a grin. “Everyone’s up all night and sleeps to noon.” Last night he took his daughters caribou hunting, and brown pelts are draped over a four-wheeler out front. Like the other houses in Buckland, Gavin’s place is single-story, wooden, rectangular, and built on stilts.

It’s the shoulder season. The snow has nearly disappeared from the rolling hills but the tundra has not yet regained its vibrant green. For months out of the year, Buckland sits in the dark and cold. Now, each day adds about nine minutes of light, and the river is breaking up, taking chunks of ice downstream to the Chukchi Sea.

There is a school with about 180 students, a health clinic, and a grocery store where a gallon of milk typically runs around $8 and cigarettes $13. As with most Native villages, there is not much of a cash economy. The sale of homemade wares brings in a bit. Most paid jobs are with the tribe or state government, and these are most often held by women. Men pick up odd jobs and hunt and fish year round.

Hunting may put food on the table, but it doesn’t keep on the lights—or the internet. This morning, one of Gavin’s daughters sings along to a YouTube video on a computer as another scrolls through her iPhone. Gavin’s electricity bill has run as high as $900 a month. That’s expensive, even by Arctic standards; though others in the region pay as high as $600. In the Lower 48, the average is $114. The turbines have helped bring Gavin’s bill down to around $400. To address cost disparities, Alaska pays a subsidy to rural users who draw less than 500 kilowatt-hours a month. Heavy users, like Gavin and businesses, see the immediate effects of renewables.

YES! PHOTO BY STEPHEN MILLER

This year, May marks the early breakup of the Buckland River and the beginning of summer vacation for Ivory, Rosie, and Nita.YES! PHOTO BY STEPHEN MILLER

To say people here are dependent on oil is an understatement. Even with the turbines, the town relies on five 300-gallon tanks to supply its diesel generators, and each home has its own supply of heating fuel. “We burn through them quick when it’s 40 below,” Gavin says.

Alaska has become a proving ground for sustainable energy; in particular, the microgrid—a small power grid that serves one community in isolation.

Critics argue that renewable energy performs inconsistently, but microgrids mix sources like wind and solar with existing diesel generators. Engineers can manage a grid and keep fossil fuel input to a minimum. The Renewable Energy Alaska Project estimates that efficiency and renewable projects across the state saved 22 million gallons of diesel fuel in 2015 alone—worth nearly $61 million. While the grid does not yet run entirely on renewables, that is now within reach.

I had thought I could get to know Alaska’s renewable energy transition by touring Buckland’s renewable energy facilities, but it turns out the real story is more pragmatic.

The first stop is not the wind turbines on the hill, but a state-of-the-art treatment plant that pulls water from the river and filters it using a magnetic process that removes organic matter and inorganic contaminants like iron. There are only a few of these in the state. The facility was built when fuel prices were lower. As the cost of diesel to power the plant rose, residents couldn’t afford their bills and began to default.

“We realized we had a real crisis on our hands,” says Ingemar Mathiasson, energy manager for the Northwest Arctic Borough. He says failing water and sewage systems and $12-a-gallon fuel pushed a coalition that included the borough and tribal corporations to look seriously into energy alternatives.

Mathiasson led a feasibility study and inventory of resources that found the region was rich in wind and, perhaps surprisingly, solar potential. Solar can work in the Arctic during the several months of the year when the sun hardly sets. Towns in other parts of the state have also tapped geothermal energy, and communities along the coast can use hydroelectric power. Kodiak, a town of 6,300 at the top of the Aleutian Islands, is the state’s poster child for renewable energy: Wind and hydro generate nearly all its power.

In 2010, the coalition received funding from the federal government’s Coastal Impact Assistance Program. They then began the years-long process to install the 30 solar panels that now reduce the cost of powering the treatment facility, and the two wind turbines west of the village.

YES! PHOTO BY STEPHEN MILLER

Homes in Buckland are built on stilts to keep them above annual floodwaters that, due to diminished snowfall, haven’t come in recent years.YES! PHOTO BY STEPHEN MILLER

It’s early afternoon when Gavin and I make our way up the hill to the two 100-kilowatt wind turbines. It’s a clear day and a parade of clouds casts shadows on the tundra below. It appears endless.

The turbines looming 120 feet above us were developed specifically for the Arctic. Black blades reach out 68 feet from a rotating hub and pivot to make the best use of wind speeds as low as 7 miles per hour and as high as 56. The blades operate well in dense air at extremely low temperatures. On a decently windy day, the turbines can produce about a third of Buckland’s power.

The parts, labor, and 5-mile cable back to town cost about $6.2 million, money the coalition scraped together from federal and state grants. Mathiasson’s research shows that the region, including Buckland, nearby Deering, and the city of Kotzebue—a combined population of fewer than 4,000 people—has saved $4.5 million in diesel fuel since Kotzebue’s wind turbines came online more than a decade ago. Kotzebue has been experimenting with wind in the Arctic since the late 1990s. The village projects are new and relatively small, though planned solar and battery additions will significantly increase their impact.

“The bottom line for rural Alaska is that the more independent we can become from having to import fuel from other places, the more resilient the communities and Alaska as a whole will be,” Mathiasson says.

Buckland and other communities take advantage of every possible energy savings. When the windmills generate more power than is needed, the excess goes to heat water pipes in the treatment plant. Waste heat from the diesel generators is used to warm the city office. In Kotzebue, the electricity co-op uses its waste heat in that city’s hospital. Efficiency is the first step toward sustainability.

Heading back into town, I can’t help noticing yards that spill over with nets, traps, engine parts, steel drums, and all manner of apparent refuse. Anything within reach, however, may still hold some value. Arctic life is a struggle just to get the things one needs. Imagine waiting for the sea to thaw to receive deliveries replacing something that had been thoughtlessly tossed away a season before.

YES! PHOTO BY STEPHEN MILLER

A dump outside Buckland.YES! PHOTO BY STEPHEN MILLER

The Inupiaq people of this region were semi-nomadic when Western settlers established towns. They still rely on the land and ocean for their food and living, but the land is changing.

On a projector in a back room of his house, Gavin traces the river’s course via Google Earth. He points out previous Bucklands—abandoned settlements his ancestors inhabited years ago, before the ever-braiding river or changing food sources caused them to relocate. The site of the previous village is within view, across the river where a few weathered wooden structures still cling to the tundra. The Inupiaq keep adapting.

Today, the river is foremost in Gavin’s mind. As long as anyone can remember, the river, swollen by melting snow, begins to break up in early June. The event lasts a couple of days and usually results in an ice dam that floods the village (hence, houses on stilts). But in recent years, the ice has slipped out quietly in May.

“Look!” Gavin says, pointing to a live-feed screen that displays a view of the river. “We’re supposed to be flooding right now, but there ain’t enough snow out there.”

But it’s not really the flooding Gavin’s worried about. At this time in previous years, there would still be enough ice to support a snow machine, allowing hunters and trappers to work their routes. Instead, the river is a slushy mess not strong enough to hold a hunter, not open enough for a boat. Gavin and the others are usually stuck waiting on the banks.

YES! PHOTO BY STEPHEN MILLER

Buckland Mayor Tim Gavin’s collection of ancient tools, found in the crumbling banks of the Buckland River, tell the story of the people who have inhabited the tundra for millennia. YES! PHOTO BY STEPHEN MILLER

At breakfast the following morning, Oscar Walker drops by for coffee. His wife works for the school district, and he is a subsistence hunter who, unlike Gavin, has shunned the digital age. He prefers the old ways of doing things.

Walker recently learned that his wife has gout. “The doctors want to put her on meds, but I won’t let them,” he says. “They keep you in a cycle where you depend on them for assistance programs to make it easier.” Instead, he’s committed to healing her body by harvesting as much of their food from the land as possible.

That has become more difficult as the ice has dissipated, he says.

In recorded history, there has never been less ice in the Arctic seas than this past year. A biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Kotzebue put an early end to his team’s study of Chukchi Sea polar bears because the ice had retreated so far north they couldn’t find the animals.

In the spring and fall, the Inupiaq hunt oogruk, or bearded seal. Oogruk rest on shelves of solid ice between dives for mollusks. Hunters use the ice to get within striking distance of a seal. (Hit an oogruk in the water and good luck getting it out.) Poor ice has both diminished the chances hunters will find a seal and increased the difficulty of getting to it if they do.

Gavin and Walker know that these changes are the result of fossil fuel use on a grand scale. If Buckland were to power itself entirely on renewables, the impact on global warming would be negligible. But making that switch would save the community thousands of dollars a year—money that could then be spent at the grocery store to supplement a livelihood that used to come from the land.

YES! PHOTO BY STEPHEN MILLER

Using a traditional Inupiaq reel, Vernetta Nay Moberly fishes the frozen Kotzebue Sound for sheefish, a diet staple on the Arctic coast. YES! PHOTO BY STEPHEN MILLER

Construction of a few wind turbines in Arctic villages won’t stop climate change and can’t undo much of the damage the fossil fuel economy has already done here. But the transition to renewables and microgrids like Buckland’s can provide local economies a measure of control.

Energy ownership is crucial to the just transition I came to the Arctic to explore. And this is where Alaska Native tribes are particularly well-positioned to benefit.

Alaska’s tribal system is unique. Tribes were organized into 13 for-profit corporations under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, an effort to resolve ownership disputes over 44 million acres of land. Tribal corporations, like any other, invest and pass profits on to their shareholders—in this case, tribal members.

Though ANCSA resolved bitter land disputes in a way that empowered Native groups, some criticize it for encouraging tribal corporations to develop resources for profit. “Sometimes living and thriving on your land is best accomplished without developing the land. But what is your cash economy in rural Alaska if you don’t develop your land?” said Elisabeth Balster Dabney, executive director of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, which promotes conservation and sustainable resource stewardship in interior and Arctic Alaska. As resource extraction can damage the land on which indigenous cultures depend, tribal leaders looking to bolster their economies face difficult decisions.

Buckland falls within the NANA Regional Corporation, which owns the only hotel in Kotzebue and has investments ranging from an oil company in the Gulf of Mexico to the town’s grocery store. Profits from these ventures are paid to Inupiaq members as a dividend, as are those generated by the energy co-op. This model localizes economic investment and keeps cash in the community.

“The only sustainable future is harvesting energy as close to home as you can,” Mathiasson says. “By harvesting energy locally, you’re also creating a local workforce, and that money stays in the communities instead of being part of the diesel fuel equation.”

That’s not to say these small renewable grids are sizeable employers. Buckland sent two workers to Anchorage for training on the new systems and as line technicians to handle outages and other issues.

Buckland, Deering, and Kotzebue will add solar arrays and new batteries in 2018. The towns can then run almost entirely on renewables for half the year, and supplement with wind power year round. As these systems expand throughout the region, more technical positions will become available, with preference for local hires. The North Slope oil industry, in contrast, hires nearly 40 percent of its workforce from outside the state.

YES! PHOTO BY STEPHEN MILLER

Wooden sleds sit idly as Arctic residents have come to rely on gas-powered snow machines. YES! PHOTO BY STEPHEN MILLER

For most people, a better future is about economics.

Fisheries built towns up and down the coast, and the Klondike gold rush brought tens of thousands of eager prospectors, but nothing transformed Alaska like the oil industry. The state’s first oil well was drilled in 1902, and at the peak in 1988, oil companies pumped 2 million barrels of crude a day. When the oil money was flowing, it built Alaska’s schools, hospitals, roads, and bridges and established the Alaska Permanent Fund—the world’s only universal basic income program.

Now that the price of oil has plummeted, that money no longer fills the state treasury. And though industry investors are seeing profits decline, it is state residents who must live with the long-term effects.

“The oil companies are not committed to the long haul, and Native people are paying the price as their hunting and fishing get destroyed,” says Enei Begaye, a Navajo woman who directs the indigenous rights advocacy group Native Movement in Fairbanks.

In the past when the economy slumped, state lawmakers responded by calling to expand drilling, to get oil flowing through the pipeline again. But the latest bust even has conservative residents doubting the economic strategy of “drill, baby, drill.”

“The oil companies like to push the narrative that Alaskans want more oil development, but that’s not true,” Begaye says. “Nothing will replace the oil money,” and never again will the state see such profits. “If we just think about how much money we can make, we’re missing out on what an economy can be.”

YES! PHOTO BY STEPHEN MILLER

The frozen tundra from overhead near Kotzebue Sound. YES! PHOTO BY STEPHEN MILLER

The question I brought to the Arctic was whether this oil low point, coupled with the effects of climate change in a state proud of its wild beauty, is enough to tip the scale toward a new way of thinking.

Only a few of those I spoke to had even heard of the “just transition” movement. People here focus on more immediate, practical issues—but that’s why renewable energy is winning. It makes economic sense. The microgrid technology has been proven, and costs are coming down.

One important lesson for the Lower 48 is the need for political will. None of this transformation would exist without significant government investment, and the current fiscal crisis has brought many plans to a halt. For the transition to continue, Alaska’s legislators will need to get fully on board.

Though the state has weathered economic downturns before, it hasn’t had to do so with billions of dollars of infrastructure fixes necessitated by melting permafrost. It hasn’t done so while ocean acidification threatens its fishing industry. And it hasn’t done so at a time when renewable energy sources can outcompete oil.

“Renewables are growing,” Mathiasson says. “I think the grassroots level is strong enough; the people want a cleaner energy source, and they want to see a better future.”

Stephen Miller

Stephen Miller is an editor at YES! Magazine. He covers climate and environmental justice. Follow him on Twitter @SMillerPNW.

Just the Facts

Why Not Even Trump Can Stop the Renewables Revolution

Photo by Karsten Würth

Photo by Karsten Würth

YES! infographic by Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz

Why Climate Change Is a Civil Rights IssueQ&A with Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program

YES! Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon

Jacqueline PattersonYES! Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon

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.

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.

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?

Patterson: That’s the question I get the most. So many people have so many different capacities, knowledge, skills. So I end up giving a broad set of strokes — join your local EJ group, or participate with your local welfare rights organization or whatever the group is that’s addressing those most marginalized by society. Put yourself in service to the leadership of those on the front line. And there are groups like NAACP — we have 2,200 branches around the country, and it’s in the bylaws that they’re supposed to have an environmental committee, but they don’t all have enough people. So join your local NAACP chapter.

One person walked up to me after I did one of my university talks and said, “I’m a geologist, what can I do?” I gave her multiple examples — I talked about fracking. If you could help map out some of the groups, help them understand the connection between fracking and seismic activity. If you can look at the Florida situation and look at the increase in sinkholes, help people understand that sea level rise is affecting the limestone and making sinkholes more likely. She walked away inspired as she had never thought how her self-titled “geeky career path” could actually help out with addressing climate change!

McKibben: What kind of stories really help audiences get it?

Patterson: Well, there’s one story I tell to help people understand intersectionality: There’s a picture I show of this young boy named Antoine, who lives in Indiantown, Florida, 3 miles from a coal-fired power plant. He has severe asthma. There’s a picture of his bag of medicines that show what he depends on to get by from day to day. And there’s a picture of him as a young boy watching other kids play in a fountain. Another one shows him looking out the window and watching kids go to school. Not him — there’s so many poor air quality days that would put his life at risk if he went.

I talk about the connection between the very facility that is driving climate change and the increased concentration of pollutants that come from climate change. And the kids who can’t go to school. Or have a hard time paying attention because the other things that come out of smokestacks [are] lead. Or they might be drinking it from their water supply. I want people to see all those levels of risk kids have from these impacts.

And then I overlay it with the maps that show these same communities are food insecure — more likely to get Doritos and Cheetos than kale or quinoa. And I overlay that with the fact that when you have this many problems, including living next to a toxic facility, on average your property values are 15 percent lower. So that affects the quality of their schooling because they’re less resourced — fewer tax dollars. And then I show an image of a child standing on a milk crate being fingerprinted.

If you’re not on grade level by grade 3, you’re much more likely to enter into the school-to-prison pipeline. And then the same entities that fight against the regulations to help the air are the same entities pushing forward punitive criminal justice measures, and privatizing our prisons, and so on. People see that through the lens of an actual child, how all those systems come into play. How they come into play against his chance to be a thriving adult.

YES! Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon

Jacqueline Patterson YES! Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon

McKibben: How do you make people feel empowered?

Patterson: Well, climate change might be big enough to help us start reimagining things. Usually by the time I finish describing the problem side of my presentations, most people are properly depressed, but when I get on the transformation side, I start to talk about how these systems are predicated on exploitation of natural resources and of human resources. Or humans, period. How these systems are so deeply flawed — instead of commons, we have sacrifice zones. And how climate change is really a byproduct of this systematic world of winners and losers. And then we talk about the ways we really need to flip this on its head.

We talk about how when we have a system based on capitalism, by definition it means there are winners and losers. And communities of color, women, and so on are on the losing end. But it’s the 99 percent that are on the losing end in various degrees. And then we go through the various systems — how we deal with our waste, the way we are generating energy, how it’s possible for us to have 100 percent renewable energy. System by system, we talk about it. And then we talk about the whole economic and political system — the people who are using the profits from this old system to suppress democracy, to stay in control. That’s part of our narrative of transformation.

McKibben: Can we speed up that democratic transformation quickly enough?

Patterson: No. That’s why we talk about doing two things at once. As we are taking back our democracy by overturning Citizens United and getting money out of politics and so on, we also have to be the change we want to see in the world, even before our political system catches up. So, the things that the Institute for Local Self-Reliance does around helping us develop recycling systems, our own energy systems, our own food systems. How we shift power away from the Monsantos, the Exxons. How we shift away from these systems at the same time that we’re changing the rulemakers and the rules. We have to do it all at the same time.

What I’ve heard from different folks is that just transition is about energy access and affordability, it’s about livelihood for oneself and one’s family, and it’s about being sensitive about tax revenues and how we’re shifting them."
—Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program

McKibben: People talk a lot about “just transition,” but what does that mean? Something more than retraining coal miners for solar jobs? What does it look like?

Patterson: There are a lot of sensitivities around even using the term. I will say what I’ve heard from various front-line groups, defining what it looks like in their communities.

One thing: We’re talking about poor communities. People have lost their lives for not being able to pay for electricity. They’re burning down their houses by using candlelight or because their oil has run out and they have to use heaters, or they’re on respirators and their electricity goes out. So as we’re transitioning to renewables, we need to make sure there are not unintended consequences in terms of rate increases. For those communities, just transition means their bills don’t fluctuate upwards. Ideally, their bills would go down.

For some folks, just transition means they’re owning part of the energy infrastructure; they’re not just a consumer writing a check every month. For others, it’s the jobs that are affected in mining or other parts of the energy industry. They need to feel that they have a choice, a choice that feels like it enables them to provide a similar level of support to their families and doing work that is fulfilling to them. You have a town like Steubenville, Ohio: It’s not just the people who work in coal plants; it’s people who work at the 7-Eleven. Because the whole town is built on that coal.

In sum, what I’ve heard from different folks is that just transition is about energy access and affordability, it’s about livelihood for oneself and one’s family, and it’s about being sensitive about tax revenues and how we’re shifting them. It can be a huge part of the economic engine for the community that’s being replaced.

But as I say, there’s lots of sensitivity around people who aren’t the ones who are going to be undergoing the transition. It’s a concern when Big Greens and others are using the term and getting funded for using the term. It’s become the term du jour for foundations, and those front-line communities become objectified.

We need to have conversations where there’s this certain level of trust, of grace. We’re all raised in this capitalist, patriarchal world. It’s in all our blood. There’re so many fissures in our movement, and I think a lot about how to have these conversations in a way that is forthright but also full of grace.

McKibben: What’s key to that?

Patterson: Well, I think a willingness to work together. It’s funny, I was just talking to some friends about their condo complex where people were always fighting. They said their best memory of being in that condo was when “Snowmageddon” hit, and people had to suspend all these different battles and focus on the fact that it was an emergency. They had to eat together and shovel together, while trusting that they were all working toward these common aims. They had to work through any roadblocks, literally and figuratively.

We need some kind of acknowledgement that that’s where we are, in an emergency.