Climate Change and Two Dimensions of Justice

Multiple unfolding crises this year have laid bare, and exacerbated, deep inequities in our society. The poorest people around the world and communities of color here in the U.S. are once again bearing the heaviest burden from the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic crisis, and climate impacts. The long overdue uprising for racial and social justice over the past few months gives me hope that society may be ready to accelerate efforts to address the root causes of these inequities, including structural racism in the U.S. At the same time, stemming the crises is critical to prevent further widening the distance between the “haves” and “have nots.”

Climate change is one of those unfolding crises that is exacerbating inequities around the world. It places the heaviest burdens on those least able to shoulder more. Whether it is droughts or sea level rise forcing millions of people to leave their homelands, fires burning down families’ homes without the safety-net to build back, or flooding devastating crops and driving hunger, it is consistently those least responsible for climate change that are suffering the most from its consequences.

The central goal of the Foundation’s Climate and Clean Energy program is to protect people from the worst impacts of climate change. Doing so is a race against time. As pollution accumulates in the atmosphere, the climate impacts become more and more dire. So, society must reduce pollution as quickly as possible. Avoiding the worst climate impacts can prevent even deeper inequities in society and is thereby one critical way to pursue justice.

There is also a second element of justice that society must address, even as we keep our eye on the ball of rapidly cutting pollution and accelerating the clean energy transition: how to make a society built upon clean energy more equitable. The current energy systems that drive climate change contribute to structural inequities in society. The fossil fuel industries underlying those energy systems have been massive wealth generators over the past century for certain communities. On the flip side, communities of color and low-income communities in the U.S. bear the heaviest pollution and health burden from that infrastructure, have less access to convenient and affordable transportation to get to work and shopping, pay disproportionately more of their household income for energy, and are now facing the dire prospect of being left in the dark and cold as utility service shut-off moratoria are lifted.

As our nation transitions to a clean energy system that curbs climate change, the nation has a crucial opportunity to make that new system a just and equitable one. We must ask ourselves: who will get the jobs and wealth created by the new trillion-dollar industries? Will the clean energy system provide more equitable access to the mobility, light, and heat that families need? How can a new system maximize pollution reductions in communities that have borne the largest health burdens of the current polluting system? Will the nation honor its debt to those who worked hard and often sacrificed their health to build this nation and whose livelihoods still rely on fossil fuels? Whose voices will be heard in the policymaking process?

The Foundation’s Climate and Clean Energy program has taken some initial steps over the past few years to support advocacy for equitable policy models to advance clean energy and to support building grassroots capacity. We are proud to support the work of leaders at groups like the National Consumer Law Center, Greenlining Institute, Green for All, and Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund. But we recognize that we have more to learn and additional partnerships to explore in order to more effectively meet both the justice imperatives of curbing climate change as quickly as possible and advancing equity through climate solutions. We look forward to deepening our exploration in the coming year to learn where the Foundation’s Climate and Clean Energy program can have the greatest impact in creating a more just society through the solutions we support to accelerate the clean energy transition.

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