Connecticut activists assemble at Climate Justice Teach-in

March 2018 Jacqui Patterson

Jacqui Patterson,  director of the national NAACP’s Environmental and Justice Program, addressed the issue of environmental racism in her speech at the Climate Justice Teach-in in West Hartford, Connecticut.

WEST HARTFORD, Conn.—On Feb. 24, around 170 crowded into the Elmwood Community Center here to hear, as the promotional material described the event, “Experts and activists exploring some of the toughest questions facing the climate movement.”

Jacqui Patterson, the director of the national NAACP’s Environmental and Justice Program, told the stories of individual people of color whose bout with climate change was inextricably intertwined with issues of income and racism. Anne Hendrixson, who teaches a course called “Beyond the Population Bomb” at Hampshire College, worked to try to dislodge the audience’s conviction that reducing population would mitigate climate change.

Sean Sweeney, the coordinator of Trade Unionists for Energy Democracy, brought down the house with his explanation of the failure of a strategy of private investment and the necessity to move quickly to the social ownership of energy systems and their control by democratic means.

Alexis Rodriquez of the Connecticut Puerto Rican Agenda won the crowd to an understanding that without decolonization, true recovery on the island was impossible. Workshops put activists on the road for organizing a Sept. 9 state demonstration for a transition to a 100% renewable energy system and numerous other climate-related campaigns. The teach-in opened with the following remarks by Christine Gauvreau of 350 Connecticut:

Why are we here? In Todd Miller’s new book, “Storming the Wall,” he says that when the Berlin Wall fell in 1988, there were 16 border fences around the world. Now, he says, there are 70. What we are looking at is what one geographer called “a situation of border fortification in a warming world.”

In India, one such militarized border wall is meant to keep out the millions of Bangladeshis whose farmland is increasingly falling into the ocean. In the U.S. the administration hopes to keep out farmers from Honduras, where the climate extremes that are disrupting agriculture are the greatest in the hemisphere. Wars for oil and gas in the Middle East have displaced incredible numbers. Over 5 million people from Syria are now living outside the country in camps.

The new expanded border regimes around the globe are meant to enforce a division, in the face of extreme climate change, between—as the title of another book terms it—“The Secure and the Dispossessed.” While we in the climate movement in the U.S. and Europe are organizing to stop the flow of fossil fuels and demand an emergency transition to renewables, military think tanks here and around the globe are churning out white papers on the kind of security regimes necessary to defend the major industrialized nations from the hundreds of millions of people they expect to be on the road by 2050.

Like economic refugees in general, those forced to roam due to displacement by climate extremes have no legal status. A resident of the South Pacific whose island has been inundated has no national rights anywhere on the globe. Climate change is underway, and its reality can be increasingly measured not only in parts per million but in human lives. A third of the world’s population lives on the coasts, and much of the remainder will face weather extremes.

In one of the most dystopian responses to climate change, major foundations and the U.S. AID are pushing reactionary population control measures in Africa, Latin America, and India—all to nip those unruly populations in the bud, all in the name of defending the globe from climate change. On the level of brute force used by extractivists and their governments, we can cite the Guardian newspaper, which tells us that today there are four environmental activists assassinated each week.

In the U.S. we have survivors of Katrina and Sandy, let alone Harvey and Maria and the fires out West, who remain abandoned by the system. Today, in Connecticut, we must rally against the cruel decision of FEMA to kick Puerto Rican climate refugees out of their hotels. In the U.S., fear of the dispossessed and the future dispossessed is used to justify every more powerful surveillance and police powers. And all this comes on top of a legacy of environmental racism whose virulence and scope continues to astound.

The point is that the climate movement is faced with a momentous choice. Without the concerted intervention of people with a sense of justice and humanity, the response of the powers that be to climate change is clearly a very dark and very reactionary one. It is a vision of walls, wars, policing, displacement, dispossession, gentrification, populationism, and an ever increasing effort to separate the secure and the dispossessed. Such a future is unacceptable.

Shaping an alternative future is up to us. To challenge this dystopia, we cannot limit ourselves to demanding lower parts per million.

We must somehow create a social power greater than theirs. We must create a view of the future more powerful than theirs. We must find a way to create a majority movement against the fossil fuel enablers but also against the dystopian world that they envision in the wake of climate change.

A majority movement would have to admit the role of the Pentagon in stoking fossil fuel wars and spreading environmental destruction. A majority movement must be fortified by the powerful moral legacy and combativity of the civil rights and African American nationalist struggles and the youth of Black Lives Matter. It must have the power of organized labor, which however threatened and diminished, starts and stops the trucks, the trains, the construction, and all production every morning.

It must have the imagination and grit of the immigrant rights movement that just 12 years ago, in 2006, put millions into the streets and shuttered the doors of businesses around the country in the largest U.S. demonstration to date. It must have the determination of the Dreamers, who made their cause one of the most well known in the country. And can a movement flourish today that does not appear as allies to women and gender non-conforming people?

So, our teach-in today is meant to challenge us to think about how we create a climate movement that is seen by all as about justice and about emancipation. Our speakers and workshop presenters are extremely well equipped to lead us in that discussion. What we  in Connecticut do with these new insights and knowledge is up to us.