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Why the Environmental Justice Movement Should Think Locally

Saving the planet starts with saving the communities the fossil fuel industry tends to trample.

Erik McGregor/LightRocket/Getty

On a chilly December morning, Gabriel Jamison stood in front of a construction site in Brownsville, Brooklyn, with a sign and a megaphone. “National Grid has the nerve to sit there and come into a low-income neighborhood,” Jamison said, as National Grid employees continued to work in the background. “We’re not going to tolerate that.” Surrounded by a handful of other demonstrators, Jamison was protesting the expansion of a fracking pipeline by National Grid, an energy company that serves New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Within two hours, they could call the day a temporary success: Construction stopped. The National Grid workers packed up their gear and left.

Officially called the Metropolitan Natural Gas Reliability Project, the pipeline Brownsville residents were protesting will transport fracked gas from Pennsylvania to a 110-acre liquefied natural gas facility in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. On this journey, the tubes will run about seven and a half miles underneath many low-income Brooklyn neighborhoods, starting in Brownsville. Since 2017, National Grid has installed almost five miles of new gas mains that extend through parts of Bushwick. The final construction phase, which is currently at a standstill, aims to expand another 6,200 feet to Greenpoint.

It’s not just that natural gas contributes to atmospheric warming—pipelines are also fraught with more acute forms of risk. From 2010 to 2019, there were over 6,200 pipeline incidents in the United States, resulting in 140 deaths and 656 injuries. And in the case of the North Brooklyn pipeline, locals are also irate that National Grid is asking ratepayers to pay $185 million to complete the project. “We call it the secret racist pipeline,” said Jamison, who is an organizer with the Brownsville Residents Green Committee, one of the local groups fighting for community-owned green energy. The pipeline’s planned track runs beneath majority-nonwhite communities.

Grassroots environmental movements like this aren’t new. But in contrast to prior decades when large organizations focused on national legislation dominated the conversation, these local fights are increasingly crucial—and recognized as so—in today’s political environment. And now that the American environmental movement is incorporating equity and environmental justice into its platform, organizations like the Brownsville Resident Green Committee are becoming more prominent.   

President-elect Joe Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan is a big step for the nation’s climate policy. After four years of the Trump administration systematically dismantling environmental programs, many environmentalists are thrilled that Biden has vowed to rejoin the Paris Agreement once he takes office. But other local organizations are wary of top-down solutions. “These leave communities out,” said Lee Ziesche, community engagement coordinator at Sane Energy Project, a New York–based nonprofit organization that opposes fracking. Instead, Jamison, Ziesche, and others argue that community-led groups are essential to make the necessary environmental changes. “Grassroot movements are where the solutions can be found,” said Tina Johnson, the international policy adviser at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people harmed by pollution and climate change in the Gulf Coast region. “I think that is something that gets overlooked at the federal level.” 

Beltway politics have a long history of advancing special interests, with more than $2 billion spent on lobbying climate change legislation from 2000 to 2016, according to a study published in the journal Climate Change. The electric utility sector spent the most on climate lobbying, followed by the fossil fuel and transportation industries. Thomas Ross, a veteran activist who works with the Frack Outta Brooklyn coalition of community organizations, notes that Greenpoint, the intended destination for the contested pipeline, provides a powerful historical example of the ramifications of exactly this sort of political influence. It is the site of the largest known oil spill in American history, which was quietly settled between the state and officials of Mobil Oil (now ExxonMobil) without fines or timetables.

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, corporations have also demonstrated their ability to convert their profit margins into control over political institutions. While the White House passed an economic relief package last year that gave Americans a stimulus check worth $600 per person, big businesses—from the embattled aviation industry to fossil fuel companies—received massive bailouts. And corporate influence is not confined to the federal level nor to the coronavirus pandemic: Last July, the speaker of the House in the Ohio state legislature was arrested by the FBI on suspicion of bribing legislatures with $60 million to deliver a multibillion-dollar bailout in July 2019 to a failing energy company with taxpayer funds. The same state legislature also passed a bill escalating criminal charges for protesting fossil fuel infrastructure. The provisions of this legislation were modeled after a generic bill created by the right-wing, big-business-funded American Legislative Exchange Council in response to the 2016 protests at Standing Rock.

National Grid has followed a formula familiar to corporations all over the country. Since 2010, the company has spent just over $25 million lobbying against everything from the Safer Pipeline Act of 2019 to a Massachusetts bill that aims to remove barriers to solar energy for low-income neighborhoods. It’s the local communities that experience the brunt of such lobbying—and policies made by government officials to solve these types of problems ultimately fall flat, said Johnson. “It should never be forgotten that legislation where communities are being engaged [is what] puts stuff over the finish line,” she said.

Local environmental groups are fighting for more than just pipeline-free communities. These nonprofits have also been involved in efforts like the Solar Pioneer Bootcamp, a one-day tutorial that teaches youth how to install and repair solar panels. This is part of the larger Solarize NYC program, an initiative that plans to expand access to reliable and affordable clean energy for all New Yorkers. So far, Solarize Brownsville, a branch of Solarize NYC, has outfitted more than 200 homes with solar panels. “Imagine the skills that those kids learned,” Jamison said. “They could do real jobs. They know how to sell solar.” What’s more, studies show that employment programs like this one help reduce youth violence. While “everyone talks about killings in Brownsville,” Jamison notes, “no one talks about the positivity” that such programs represent.

This type of local work isn’t an isolated phenomenon. Other small, grassroots organizations like Cooperation Jackson in Jackson, Mississippi, are pushing for community-based environmental action. In the predominantly Black city of Jackson, poverty rates are high, with a quarter of residents living below the poverty line. Cooperation Jackson aims to create worker cooperatives that bring in paying jobs, such as sustainable farms and a lawn care cooperative. Additionally, they have started the Jackson Just Transition plan to end the city’s dependence on fossil fuels and move toward solar-thermal energy; fully electric public transportation; and affordable, sustainable housing. Similarly, the Red Nation, a coalition of Native and non-Native activists, advocates for a Red Deal response to colonization, capitalism, and climate change. “We cannot expect politicians to do what only mass movements can do,” its central document reads. It calls for divestment from the “exploitative and extractive violence of fossil fuels” through unified community action. 

As the pandemic costs people jobs, homes, and loved ones, local environmental action is more vital than ever. Fighting climate change isn’t just about reentering the Paris Agreement or pro–renewable energy legislation, it’s about making sure the needs of communities are met, said Johnson. “I would love to talk about climate policy, but what does that look like in reversing or adjusting human suffering?” she said. “What are the policies that are going to help this country back, while reducing greenhouse gases?”

For Jamison, these questions are at the forefront of community-based climate activism. In 2019, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced New York City’s Green New Deal, which includes $14 billion in investments and a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Perhaps because of this, de Blasio called on National Grid to halt the North Brooklyn Pipeline project last December, yet activists are still waiting for any official action.

“Mayor de Blasio can talk about a Green New Deal, but who gets access to that? Because Black people damn sure don’t get no access to a Green New Deal in Brownsville,” Jamison shouted into the megaphone that cold December day. “When you start these conversations about our access to renewable sustainability, who the hell gets it?”

He expanded on this point when we followed up with him afterward. “We can give everyone in New York City access to clean energy,” he insisted, citing the kind of public control modeled by cooperatives and Community Land Trusts. The principle behind community-based climate fights, in his view, is simple: “More or less, it’s equity.”