guest contributor Lawrence EarlyThis month’s contributor is Lawrence Stephen Early IV (he/him/his). Lawrence is a queer, black, and disabled engineer who centers his work on sustainability, mental health, justice, systemic inequality, and improving life for all living beings. During his time as an undergraduate, he focused primarily on global energy infrastructure and water security, along with studying and shifting sustainability agendas on campus and beyond in accordance with evolving frameworks. After graduating from Yale University with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and certificate in Energy Studies this past May, Lawrence has worked as a research engineer for a sustainable architecture firm, using his free time to protest, create music, design sculptures, and write about climate and society. 

It’s an understatement to say that 2020 is and will be remembered as a watershed moment in the world. In the US, an overwhelming US presidential election, a major inflection point around police brutality, and the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic have all contributed to a rising mass awareness around the foundational institutions of our country and globe, and the impending threat of the climate crisis. While the outcome of the presidential election means there should be some expected policy progress around climate, an informed context of Energy involves seeing it from a larger context, e.g. that we can’t understand Energy as it relates to our society and economy without seeing it in the full context of systemic racism and injustice that exists elsewhere.

Part of why discussions of energy have lacked interconnected understandings of social and political justice is that conventional energy (i.e. fossil fuels) tends to poorly serve individual communities and the globe at large, given its largely profit-centered and centralized nature. At the same time, it is no longer news to most that fossil fuels have extremely detrimental impacts on the Earth, by contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, deleterious extraction and many more problems that are often left unconsidered in dominant conversations about it. These obscured dimensions, however, are incredibly important, and understanding them helps us also explore how a rise in renewable energy provides far more than simply a route to curb anthropogenic climate impacts.

Centering Racial Justice by Understanding Racial Impacts

In the context of the United States, energy and electricity, despite being a universal necessity, is not experienced the same way by all communities. In the South, for example, it is common for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) residents in neighborhoods to incur disproportionately higher electricity bills, even as 40% qualify for low-income energy assistance. Black Americans are 52% more likely than their white counterparts to live in areas experiencing urban heat island effect, which leads to heightened health impacts as they are vulnerable to heat waves and face a greater risk of utilities being cut off. Redlining and histories of segregation also place these communities in areas that face the greatest flood and hurricane risk, among other climate threats. Coupled with this, the majority of BIPOC communities live in areas that experience the poorest air quality, largest burdens of corporate pollution, and non-consensual “development” without community investment (as in the case of the Tribal Nations and communities with the Keystone XL Pipeline). Seeing these examples, it becomes incredibly clear that “climate and race are inextricable,” as Yerina Mugica of NRDC succinctly put it. Nearly thirty years ago, Dr. Robert D. Bullard introduced the framing of this as environmental racism.[1] And three decades later, our communities are building from the ground up to work against these institutional failures, by pushing for a Just Transition and Just Recovery.

Just Transition, Just Recovery and Energy as a Defining Role

climate protest at yale, 2019

In Harvard-Yale Puerto Rico, Climate Change and Fossil Fuel Divestment Protest, 2019. Source: WSJ

Just Transition and Just Recovery, as beautifully explained by Leah Obias and Emi Yoko-Young of Race Forward,[2] speak to the concept of a sustainable reality built with a focus on social equity- the acknowledgment of the racial injustice as a foundational starting point, rather than an obscure or topical idea held in side-conversations of environmentalism. It extends to the economic dimension by advocating for a regenerative (and restorative) economy, refuting the extractive model that has originated from and reproduced systemic inequality. Furthermore, the concept emphasizes responsive action that will allow communities to rebuild mutually supportive networks, rather than endure failed superficial aid and other half-measures from external actors that continue to displace individuals and communities (as seen in Michigan (Flint), Louisiana, and Puerto Rico). As one of the greatest threats BIPOC communities face is climate disaster, renewable energy becomes an essential part of the core resilience for a Just Transition and Just Recovery.

What It Actually Looks Like: Uplifting BIPOC Communities with Renewable Solar

Understanding the surrounding context of energy remains crucial to creating livable and thriving communities. There are so many B-corps, grassroots and community organizations that work together to build an energy resilient future that deepens the positive relationship between us and the lands that we occupy. In resistance to the Keystone XL Pipeline (and TransCanada, the company responsible), Indigenous-led coalitions on the ground have begun crowdfunding to install solar arrays within the pipeline route- coining it as “Solar XL,” and launching the “Promise to Protect” as a commitment to ongoing resistance in and out of the courtroom. In Puerto Rico, responding to the devastation of Hurricane Maria[3] and insufficient governmental aid, communities have invested in solar microgrids (self-sufficient, decentralized, neighborhood-scale electric grids), and invited community members to schools and local safe-points to obtain electricity, food, and other resources as the rebuilding continues.

Jason Carney, Kristal Hansley, and Mark A. Davis are only three of the Black individuals who have created solar companies that focus on improving the accessibility of rooftop solar for Black, Hispanic and low-income communities in the last decade, creating jobs and pushing for legislative changes in the process that reduce the disproportionate energy threats faced in these neighborhoods by fostering an Energy Democracy. Driven by the inseparable relationship that BIPOC communities have always had to our environment and land, this work will only continue to strengthen the possibilities of a sustainable future.

Renewable energy will become increasingly important to the political autonomy and decentralized resilience of at-risk communities. The mutual aid and continuous learning and unlearning of what is possible reestablishes the investment Black and Indigenous peoples have to land, which has been consistently threatened by institutions that overlook and exploit this relationship. Now, this relationship serves as an advantage to all of us in the fight against climate change and the fossil fuel industry.

For those who wish to help or learn more about these projects, here are a few places and organizations to help get started.

Key Takeaway: The energy sector lies at the heart of racial and climate justice, by defining the livable environment for Black, Indigenous, communities of Color. Understanding these disparities, and new frameworks, we can see that renewable energy (solar in this context) provides a promising path to community resilience and hopeful change.

[1] Published 30 years ago, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality emphasizes the intersections of environment, health, and race for communities in the United States.

[2] https://www.raceforward.org/system/files/pdf/reports/RaceForward_Energy_Democracy.pdf

[3] Note: Puerto Rico has been impacted by two other major hurricanes along with Hurricane Maria (Irma, and Dorian).