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Ensuring Racial Equity in Climate Decision-Making: Q&A with Debra Gore-Mann, BECC Keynote

October 21, 2022
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Our actions this decade are critical to averting the worst impacts of the climate crisis. How can we make decisions that reduce climate pollution at the necessary pace? And how can ensuring equitable participation of low-income communities and communities of color in climate and energy decision-making lead to better outcomes?

These are some of the questions we’ll explore with Debra Gore-Mann, the opening keynote speaker at the 2022 Behavior, Energy & Climate Change (BECC) conference this November 13–16 in Washington, DC. Gore-Mann is president and CEO at The Greenlining Institute, an organization working to create a future where communities of color can build wealth, live in healthy places filled with economic opportunity, and meet the challenges posed by climate change.

Cohosted by the ACEEE, BECC is the leading conference examining how understanding human behavior and decision-making can help us accelerate the transition to a low-carbon future. This year's theme, Engaging All Voices, calls us to prioritize equity and inclusivity as we brainstorm behavioral solutions to the climate crisis.

Ahead of the conference, we chatted with Gore-Mann about how to advance racial equity as we work to mitigate climate change. Here are excerpts of our conversation.

Why does racial equity need to be at the center of efforts to address climate change?

There has always been an undeniable connection between race and disproportional negative environmental impacts created by industry and institutions, systems, policies, and behaviors operating in pursuit of wealth and power. Due to pervasive socioeconomic conditions and deliberate policy choices, low-income communities of color are on the front lines of the climate crisis. This means they bear the consequences—like more polluted cities, major heat waves and floods, and deteriorating infrastructure—first and worst.

When we prioritize equity, we focus on creating change for frontline communities first where support is most needed due to the lingering impacts of systemic injustices like environmental racism and redlining. Equitable approaches to climate change acknowledge the disparate conditions communities of color face and prioritize solutions that move us toward a future where everyone can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential.

By centering racial equity, we honor the knowledge, networks, skills, and other strengths and assets found in communities of color. Communities know best what they need to thrive and how to leverage their unique skills and resources to create positive change. When we focus on the specific needs of frontline communities and empower them to lead decision-making, we can create equity frameworks to address climate change without perpetuating the systemic harms that created unequal conditions in the first place.

What are one or two examples of collective behaviors that can help fight racism and mitigate climate change?

One of the most important collective behaviors to help fight racism and mitigate climate change is to deeply involve those communities who have experienced the harm of environmental racism in every step of the process, from planning, shared visioning, to data collection, identifying and prioritizing problems identified by the community, and examining outcomes. Giving voice to those who have experienced unfair treatment and impacts provides a path for addressing their needs and creating holistic solutions. When historically marginalized communities are centered, the outcomes are better for all and more durable.

How might government or utility behavioral approaches differ when working with communities of color or low-income communities, given historic structural barriers to energy access and energy conservation?

Accountability is key. Government officials are elected by the people, and low-income and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities have the right to demand that their local government address historic structural barriers to energy access and conservation. Government and utility approaches must acknowledge the compounding effects of racism and other intersections of identity (gender, disability, age) or circumstances (citizenship status, homelessness, incarceration) to truly serve people of color and address the barriers they face. While acknowledgment and awareness are important first steps, when working with low-income communities, the old assumptions of energy efficiency and cost-effectiveness should be challenged as well. These assumptions can contribute to the inequitable forces that created disparate conditions in the first place.

Dynamic engagement between communities and the governments and utilities that serve them can challenge the status quo and bring about innovative approaches to access, affordability, and adoption of energy uses. Past successes have included changes grounded in collecting and disaggregating data, requiring upfront plans for serving the most vulnerable communities, and implementing race-conscious approaches to counter persistent racial inequities.

What does it look like to give community members ownership over climate solutions taking place in their own neighborhoods?

Ownership of climate solutions in one’s own neighborhood looks like multi-faceted problem solving that centers both short- and long-term safety, health, and wellness. Community ownership looks like neighbors and neighborhoods caring for each other with compassion to lift communities out of poverty and build prosperity. Community ownership looks like solidarity and working toward shared positive outcomes to build a future that expands rather than contracts opportunities.

Not only do strategies for climate adaptation, mitigation, and resilience need to center equity, but equity must also be part of the design process. That requires considering unintended negative outcomes on communities that are already marginalized. Shifting processes to increase community power and address needs and concerns enhances the positive impact of climate initiatives.

How can we make sure that the investments made by the Inflation Reduction Act, the major U.S. climate bill signed into law in August, maximize benefits to low-income communities and communities of color?

Recent legislation—the American Recovery Plan Act, Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors for America Act, Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and, most recently, the Inflation Reduction Act—collectively distributes billions of dollars of resources to all Americans.

First, low-income communities and communities of color must receive an equitable share of the investments and directed benefits that are being developed by industry, capital markets, and government. These market players must be able to meaningfully facilitate, organize, and articulate community-based needs and plans. This is the intent of the Justice40 initiative of the Biden–Harris administration.

Climate change is a threat multiplier. All the inequities that communities are facing—whether economic, social, or health related—are significantly compounded by climate change. To help communities be truly resilient, investments and benefits should focus not only on creating a more resilient physical environment but also on increasing economic opportunities, improving health outcomes, and preventing displacement. It is important that benefits don’t simply “bounce back” to the unjust status quo of climate injustice but are able to “bounce forward” to contribute to healthy, resilient, and sustainable communities.

To hear more from Gore-Mann and learn how equity and energy justice integrate with climate action and energy use, register today to join us at BECC 2022.

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