Three weeks ago I stood in a crowd of thousands outside the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. Hosted by California governor Jerry Brown, the international summit was billed as a crucial moment between the 2015 Paris Accord and the 2020 goal post for curbing carbon emissions, identified by climate scientists.
Inside, members of our delegation were disrupting a speech by Michael Bloomberg. Outside, we had entrances blocked by locked-down protesters and a rally of frontline communities — mostly Indigenous Peoples, African American, Latinx, Asian Pacific Islander, and low-income and poor white folks — people who are most likely to live near toxic industries and experience climate displacement.
For four hours we were able to shut down the conference and turn press attention to the impact of climate change on our communities, shining a light on the profiteering that drives so much climate policy. My job was to hand out buttons to delegates. “Show you support frontline communities? We’re for people over profit, and keeping fossil fuels in the ground!” Most attendees waved me off. Some accepted a button while offering words of support. One person shouted that we should be protesting Donald Trump.
With Trump rolling back virtually all federal action on climate and stacking his administration with oil executives, California is the biggest game in town trying to claim the mantle of climate leadership in the U.S. I traveled to the Bay Area to represent the Southern Maine Workers’ Center at a week of actions called Solidarity to Solutions (Sol2Sol) led by It Takes Roots, an alliance of over 250 grassroots organizations that explicitly draws the connection between the climate crisis and liberation struggles, and works for Black liberation, indigenous sovereignty, gender justice, immigrant rights, housing rights, land defense, and workers’ rights.
In Maine, my political home is with the Southern Maine Workers’ Center, where we organize for workers’ rights and the human right to health care. In the past, I’ve been more active in the movement to end fossil fuel extraction — as a student fighting for fossil fuel divestment at USM, and as part of a campaign to end the use of Maine’s aging rail system to transport highly explosive Bakken crude oil. Rallying in the streets outside the summit, it felt like homecoming to be part of an intersectional movement where working on climate change doesn’t mean checking other issues at the door.
While Jerry Brown is directing California to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045, he has done nothing to limit new oil development, and approved fracking in California during his tenure. The summit also heavily promoted carbon trading, which Indigenous Peoples oppose because it leads to corporate land grabs of indigenous territory, and essentially privatizes the atmosphere. Last November when indigenous protesters interrupted Jerry Brown’s speech at the UN climate conference in Germany shouting “keep fossil fuels in the ground,” Brown responded with “let’s put you in the ground so we can get on with the show here.”
Our window to act on climate is razor thin, but fossil fuel interests would love nothing more than to get on with the show. We’re already locked into a changed climate, but we can avert the worst case scenarios. The urgency is real. The question is will it be used to further entrench a profit-centered economic system, or will it catalyze a transition to a system where no community is treated as expendable? As Quinton Sankofa of Movement Generation has said, “Transition is inevitable. Justice is not.”
But justice is possible. At the same time that we were protesting corporate false solutions, we were lifting up the very real solutions, led by frontline communities, that have the potential to keep our planet livable — like agroecology, indigenous stewardship, and decentralized energy democracy.
Author adrienne maree brown has put it this way: “We are living now inside the imagination of people who thought economic disparity and environmental destruction were acceptable costs for their power. It is our right and responsibility to write ourselves into the future.”
This is the first installment of a series that I will use to spotlight community-based solutions in Maine and the region — the territory of the Wabanaki People. I will use this column to explore what a Just Transition (a transition with justice) could look like in northern New England. What does it look like to curb the effects of climate change while revitalizing rural communities? What solutions do immigrant communities bring? Why is Wabanaki sovereignty and stewardship of land and water essential to our shared climate future? Join me in this column, Weathering the Storm, as I seek out and lift up the voices of those who are imagining our livable future into reality.