Years of lead-contaminated water. Thousands of residents owed $600 million from their city. A former governor facing criminal charges for mishandling the disaster. These are all consequences of the Flint, Michigan water crisis.

The crisis in Flint is just one example of how systemic racism and environmental destruction intersect. Concerns about racist public policies are one of the many reasons why climate justice continues to be a topic of importance for environmentalists and UC Santa Cruz students.  

Climate justice correlates global warming with race and class injustices, and acknowledges that marginalized groups such as poor communities and communities of color are often the ones burdened by the effects of climate change.

The event “Changing Climate: The Role of Environmental Justice” brought these discussions to a public platform on Feb. 10. Hosted by the UCSC Institute of Social Transformation (IST), the event featured a Q&A between climate justice expert Rhiana Gunn-Wright and moderator Sikina Jinnah, an associate professor of environmental studies. 

“Climate is more than just the environment and that a lot of things make up the climate and all of those things have to be tied to justice,” Gunn-Wright said. “It’s also important to talk about how climate change is an outgrowth of systemic oppression including race, patriarchy, and colonialism.”

The goal of the conversation was to answer questions around how climate will impact a post-COVID economic recovery and how the Biden administration could handle issues of climate justice.

The director of the Institute of Social Transformation, Chris Benner, said the event drew in nearly 1,400 audience members, ranging from UCSC students and alum to Santa Cruz County residents wanting to learn more about climate justice. The event has been in the works since early November, when Benner was relieved about the results of the election. President Biden is now working with progressive legislators on climate policy.  

Rhiana Gunn-Wright: Climate policy expert at the Roosevelt Institute and contributor to the Green New Deal, Gunn-Wright has spent the last three years studying climate policy and working at progressive think tanks like the New Consensus and Roosevelt Institute. Gunn-Wright is a vocal activist for environmental protection.

Sikina Jinnah: Associate professor of environmental studies at UCSC. She has written multiple books on the relationship between policy, government, and climate change.

“We wanted someone to speak about justice in regards to climate justice. Part of it was inspired by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the introduction of the Green New Deal to Congress,” Benner said. “This moment could really galvanize this broad constituency around a significant range of interventions in our country that would address both racial justice and environmental justice issues.”

Gunn-Wright discussed her own role in drafting the Green New Deal and its place in climate justice, asking what changes would be needed for an economic transformation — the essence of the Green New Deal is to shift away from fossil fuels to a more sustainable source of energy. Gunn-Wright said the economy is so dependent on the fossil fuel industry that shifting away from it would be as fundamentally different as a person changing their diet from cheeseburgers to red algae. 

Yet these changes are essential for a cleaner Earth. 

Gunn-Wright’s work emphasizes deconstructing existing political systems and institutions. She said replacing them with concepts tailored to a multi-racial democracy will help fight climate change. 

“When you talk about oil and fossil fuels, it’s because of white supremacy and the uneven power distribution. [They] have that power to drive out Indigenous populations, stomp out the poor communities, and dump pollution on communities of color,” Gunn-Wright said. “That split has literally created different realities. [Poor communities] understand why fossil fuels are so dangerous, folks who have more power who are richer and whiter don’t really see the consequence of fossil fuels.”

During the conversation, Gunn-Wright commented on the benefits fossil fuel companies reaped from COVID-19 economic relief bills, and mentioned that the Federal Reserve supported fossil fuel companies by buying junk bonds from them.

Associate professor of environmental studies Sikina Jinnah presented Gunn-Wright with questions from the audience to close out the event. While some of the questions hoped to clarify points on capitalism and the Green New Deal, most were about pursuing careers in climate justice and environmental protection. 

“I say for people who want to get interested in it, start where you are,” Gunn-Wright said. “Climate touches everything — policy, violence, trade, design, architecture, urban planning — all of it is connected to climate. There are a lot of lanes in, so find a lane.”