Climate Justice Advocates Testify At House Committee Hearing

February 7, 2019

In their first hearing since Democrats claimed Congress, the House Natural Resources Committee heard from climate advocates. We sat down with one witness, Climate Justice Alliance's Elizabeth Yeampierre

In their first hearing since Democrats claimed Congress, the House Natural Resources Committee heard from climate advocates. We sat down with one witness, Climate Justice Alliance's Elizabeth Yeampierre


Climate Justice Advocates Testify At House Committee Hearing

Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor.

In his 2019 State of the Union address, President Trump celebrated the U.S. being the top producer of oil and gas, but failed to mention the climate crisis.

DONALD TRUMP: We have unleashed a revolution in American energy. The United States is now the number one producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world. For the first time in 65 years, we are a net exporter of energy.

DHARNA NOOR: The following morning, the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing that focused on climate change.

RAUL GRIJALVA: The majority of Americans consider meaningful action on climate change to be a moral and economic imperative. And they’re absolutely right.

DHARNA NOOR: The committee heard from climate skeptics.

JUDITH CURRY: Based on current assessments of the science, manmade climate change is not an existential threat on the timescale of the 21st century, even in its most alarming incarnation. However, the perception of a near-term apocalypse and alignment with a range of other social objectives has narrowed the policy options that we’re willing to consider.

DHARNA NOOR: And climate justice advocates.

ELIZABETH YEAMPIERRE: All around the country there are examples of frontline communities developing projects that engage in innovative infrastructure, further control, and create jobs. Some are at the early stages, while others are ready to be scaled up and replicated. They will benefit more people and communities if there’s political will, public investment, and incentives to do so.

DHARNA NOOR: Elizabeth Yeampierre is the executive director of Uprose, and the co-chair of Climate Justice Alliance. I caught up with her after the hearing.

Talk about how you’re feeling now that you’ve just testified before the hearing. We heard from climate deniers, we heard from people at the front lines of climate justice movements. We heard from people advocating for profit-driven solutions to the climate crisis.

ELIZABETH YEAMPIERRE: I feel a little overwhelmed. I’m not going to lie. It felt that–it felt like there’s a lack of alignment. But it also reminds me that, regardless of whether there are climate deniers or people who are approaching this differently, that we have to go back to our communities and focus on the solutions that are coming out of that creativity, that energy, and that resistance, because we are doing things that are innovative and that address not just, you know, coal pollutants and the kind of environmental injustices that we’ve dealt with, but also with carbon. So it really reminded me that that’s where the solutions are, and that’s what we have to–we need to amplify that. We’ve got to work on that.

DHARNA NOOR: It’s interesting that you say that these communities are innovating, that the front lines are producing innovative solutions, because Committee Chair Rep. Grijalva today said that he was concerned that some people were trying to innovate their way out of the climate crisis.

ELIZABETH YEAMPIERRE: Another argument people use to excuse the federal government for taking action is saying that we can innovate our way out of it. That there is a technological fix over the horizon that we need to find, and that while innovation is important, do you believe that–and that’s an excuse to say we don’t need any new laws, we don’t need regulations, we don’t need incentives. We’re going to technologically innovate our way out of this.

DHARNA NOOR: Talk about why the innovation coming from the front lines is different from the sort of technocratic approach to the climate crisis.

ELIZABETH YEAMPIERRE: I think the innovation comes out of our values and out of our culture, and we have been innovating for generations. We had to survive. And so we had to be innovative just be here right now, just for me to be here talking to you, or for us to be talking to each other. But what we’re seeing happening all over the United States is a lot of different approaches to creating what we call a just transition; basically, operationalizing an economic framework that creates local livable communities. In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where my organization is based, we just recently launched the first community-owned solar co-operative in the state of New York. That’s coming from a grassroots organization. And so it’s looking at how do we reduce energy? How do we educate our communities so that they understand the connection between carbon and their survival? And how do we make it possible for them to own the utility and put some money in their pocket?

That comes from a community engagement process. And our organization and our community is not unique in coming up with solutions like that. We’re seeing it happen in PUSH Buffalo up in upstate New York; we’re seeing that happen down in Kentucky, in Little Village, in Chicago, in Michigan. And we’re seeing it happen all over the country, and our members are really engaged in figuring out what does a finance model look like that’s not extractive? How do our communities get to own this? And how do we move away from a capitalist model that has basically been built on the backs of our people? Because climate change is going to threaten our survivability.

So we’re all looking at that, and we’re all sharing information and expertise so that we don’t have to duplicate efforts. I’ve learned a lot in the past year, for example, about food systems, and what does that mean in an urban community, and how do we support organizations that are doing that, so that instead of competing with each other, we’re complementing what each other is doing? What we find often happens in the climate movement is that it’s just as top-down and capitalist as the system that put us here in the first place. So trying to figure out how do we collaborate, share resources, and not compete with each other, but learn and strengthen each community because of the knowledge that exists in the collective?

So all of that is part of the way that we think about community, and how we think about movements.

DHARNA NOOR: You mentioned the need to move away from these capitalist ideas of solving the climate crisis, but some would disagree. For instance, Governor Baker of Massachusetts testified today, and he said that we need to look to solutions that are market-driven, and profitable, even.

ELIZABETH YEAMPIERRE: We need strong federal leadership and a bipartisan vision on climate change that prioritizes practical, market-driven, and cost-effective solutions.

Market-driven is what got us to where we are now. This is a nation addicted to consumption. Those of us who come from poor families, we–all of a sudden we can have things, and we want things because we never had them. And I think climate change is telling us that we have to live with what we need, and not with what we want any more.

So I remember meeting this woman who crossed the border with a gallon of water, and she said to me, I want shoes. I want so many shoes. And I’m like, sister, that’s because you never had them. But climate change is now asking us to do something different so that the children that you came here to protect, you know, survive. So, yeah, market-based solutions really got us here. We need to think about community-based solutions instead.

All over the country we’re doing a number of things. We’re looking at infrastructure very closely, trying to figure out how we how we change the landscape, and using infrastructure to do that. And educating our base so that–so that they’re trained to have those jobs. In Kentucky, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth are doing the same thing, moving people away from coal that has been killing them for so many years to a regenerative economy. So that literally is happening everywhere.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah, you talked about the connection between these industries extracting from the earth, literally extracting, but then also extracting resources from particularly poor communities, communities of color. Can you explain that connection?

ELIZABETH YEAMPIERRE: Yeah. I mean, the workers who get treated badly, that are exposed to toxics and toxicants, that get poor wages, and at the same time have no choice but to work in those those industries, one of the things that we talk about is what does a just transition look like? We can’t tell people that they have to choose between, you know, a regenerative job and putting food on the table. There has to be a process. What’s the timeline for something like that? We want to move people away from coal. And I’m certain that people would want to do that if they know that there’s something to take the place of the jobs that they had.

DHARNA NOOR: You mentioned today that millions of subsidies, millions of dollars in subsidies, are going to fossil fuel industries, and imagine what could happen if those millions were going to communities who had these sort of innovative solutions. Talk about what that future could look like.

ELIZABETH YEAMPIERRE: It’s interesting that the money flows to where people think the priorities are. And that in our communities we often think that all the resources come from EPA, when there are all these agencies that literally should be funding and putting resources into addressing climate change. A lot of the resources go into subsidizing and creating a welfare system for corporations that are literally extracting our resources and putting all of us in harm’s way. So I think that flipping that formula and putting those funds in our communities will make it possible for us to build from the ground up.

There was also a mention about transportation. 80 percent of all the federal funding for transportation goes towards expanding and taking care of highways, with no discussion about how we build and invest in mass surface transit. We’ve got entire communities that are just transit deserts with no access to mass surface transit, and have to depend on cars. There’s all kinds of things that can be done to really realign our priorities so that we can address climate change. And one of the first steps is making sure that those resources are going straight to the front lines and straight to where the harm is potentially the most deep.