Climate Change

A new kind of climate leadership

Today’s climate and environmental movements lack a diversity of perspectives and people, and don’t acknowledge or adequately value the leadership of women and people of colour

By Jane Zelikova, Giana Amador
Published: Tuesday 24 September 2019

This story originally appeared in the Scientific American. It is republished here as part of Down To Earth's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

New York City’s climate week is here and we (a climate change scientist and a climate policy expert, respectively) are excited to do the carbon math, develop research roadmaps, identify knowledge gaps, and cross the t’s and dot the i’s. This feels like a fairytale, a week tailor-made for us! But in this fairytale, the “heroes” have the luck of being born with the right skin tone, being cisgender, having credentials from the right kind of academic institutions, and presenting themselves with the right disposition (read: not “too angry” or “too emotional,” always measured). They receive ample funding, the assumption of expertise, positions of leadership, and unfettered access to power.

These heroes get to create a vision for a new world and when they get to write the story, they create it in their own image. Our heroes are too invested in their own ideas and in the current system, so the world they envision looks an awful lot like the one we live in today. Despite their best intentions, they inadvertently become the gatekeepers in a space that needs every idea, every solution, every single one of us. Their stories do not reflect society and fall so very short from addressing climate change. It's time for us to ask ourselves and each other: Whose imagination is shaping what is possible? What kind of a world are we building and who are we building it for?

Today’s climate and environmental movements lack a diversity of perspectives and people, and don’t acknowledge or adequately value the leadership of women and people of colour. Even today, an average of 83 per cent of environmental NGO board members are white and the majority of leadership positions at environmental NGOs are held by men. Venture capital investment goes overwhelmingly to men.

It is no surprise women, non-binary individuals, and people of colour continue to be excluded, leaving behind the very people who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. It leaves us in a room with the same 15 (mostly older, mostly male, mostly white) people who ask “How can we encourage workers to transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy jobs?” without bothering to invite any members from labor unions or frontline communities to the conversation. In this story, innovation only comes from certain places and certain people (according to Forbes, 99 per cent men).

This narrative, dominated by a homogenous chorus of voices, often elevates technology above all else, leaning into market-based solutions without acknowledging all the ways these solutions have left so many people behind and exacerbated existing inequities. In practice, this narrative also leaves us thinking that world-changing ideas are only rooted in technological innovation, forgetting that social change is critical for solving global problems.

History is full of examples of how this framework falls short. In Washington state, carbon tax legislation failed under a divided left—split because of a lack of recognition of the concerns of minority and low-income groups. The Waxman-Markey emissions trading bill in 2008 failed, in part, because agricultural communities were largely left out of the policy process.

The idea that the biggest progress in climate is coming from the establishment just doesn’t hold up. The most powerful climate idea in the last five years is rooted in environmental and climate justice movements and has been brought into the limelight by climate newcomers. The Green New Deal resolution was endorsed by 96 members of Congress and nearly all top 2020 Democratic Presidential candidates. Just this month, CNN hosted a climate town hall with Democratic presidential candidates — the result of hard work from young activists from organizations like the Sunrise Movement. It would have been difficult to imagine that either of these things would have happened even a year ago. 

These examples are just inklings of the type of progress that could be made when we elevate a new kind of climate leadership. But the status quo often prevents these ideas from seeing the light of day.

So this climate week, we are calling for a new narrative with new heroes whose climate solutions are rooted in empathy, empowerment, and openness. To elevate new leadership, we have to move beyond pointing out the problematic nature of the current system and get to the work of envisioning a different one. We have to put our money where our mouth is.

We at Carbon180 are launching a fellowship program that gives a new, diverse set of climate leaders the platform, resources, and dollars to solve complex problems in new and truly revolutionary ways. We are committed to this new kind of climate leadership, not only because it’s fair, but because we know it’s absolutely critical to addressing the climate crisis.

This is just the beginning. As we build this movement under fresh leadership, we welcome the participation of new and established voices alike— addressing the climate crisis will take all our ingenuity, collaboration, and vision. We’re stronger together, so join us.

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