Episode 3: COVID-19 and climate justice

Episode 3: COVID-19 and climate justice


Below is a written transcript of Episode 3 of the HEATED podcast, out today on all your podcast apps, or at the audio file at the top. My guest is climate justice advocate Anthony Rogers-Wright.

Today’s interview is extremely timely, coinciding with the release of troubling racial data about COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Just like climate change, coronavirus is disproportionately harming the most vulnerable in society. It’s imperative that the most privileged in society understand that, and put in the work to understand how they can fix it.

Today’s interview was conducted with that goal in mind. If you enjoy it, consider supporting the team behind it. We’re not getting paid for this work otherwise.

Support the HEATED podcast

This is HEATED, a podcast where we’re showing how the COVID and climate crisis stories are actually the same story. I’m Emily Atkin.

If you’re finding us here on our third episode, make sure you also check out episodes one and two. In episode one, the legendary environmentalist Bill McKibben explains how and why to be a climate activist during a pandemic. And in episode 2, journalist Kate Aronoff explains how Congress is and isn’t addressing climate change while dealing with the virus

Today, we’re talking with environmental justice advocate and organizer Anthony Rogers-Wright. Anthony and I have gone through a lot together; he’s been a source of mine since at least 2014. As you’ll hear, Anthony cuts through the jargon and the niceties. He’s intense, and this is a conversation that wouldn’t show up in the mainstream climate or health press.

Anthony is the policy coordinator for the Climate Justice Alliance, a huge network of communities on the front lines of climate change. Indigenous communities, urban black communities, rural low-income communities—the people Anthony works with all share one thing in common: They are all disproportionately harmed by the effects of climate change and pollution.

And now, these communities are being disproportionately harmed by COVID-19, too.

I wanna make clear that Anthony is speaking only for himself, not the Alliance, today. But his work advocating for environmental justice communities is why he’s here. As an environmental justice activist, Anthony is here advocating for the idea that all people, regardless of race, class, or social status, have the equal right to live in a healthy environment and a safe climate. 

But that’s much more an aspiration than a reality right now. The reality that we have to face right now is that we will not be equal in our suffering when it comes to climate change. And we will not all be equal in our suffering when it comes to coronavirus, either.

Black people, in particular, are on the front lines of both crises. In Chicago, 70 percent of the people who have died from COVID-19 are black, even though black people make up less than 30 percent of the population. In Michigan, 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths are among black people, even though they’re only 14 percent of the population. In Milwaukee county, Wisconsin, black people make up 26 percent of the population -- but 80 percent of coronavirus deaths. 

Meanwhile, scientists on Tuesday found that coronavirus patients are more likely to die if they live in areas with high air pollution. And Black Americans are 75 percent more likely than white people to live near oil and gas facilities. These facilities`spew air pollutants that trigger not only lung problems, but a whole host of other health problems that worsen COVID-19. All this from the pollution we create to heat our homes.

Clearly, COVID-19 and the climate crisis are connected issues. But so are COVID-19 and climate justice: an issue the environmental movement as a whole really needs to do better on. I brought Anthony on today to help us reflect on that. What he says can either make you feel guilty, or it can make you feel motivated. It can make you defensive, or it can make you reflective. You can be sad for yourself, or you can use this moment to act on behalf of populations more vulnerable than you are. The choice is yours. 

Enjoy the chat.

EA: Anthony. Welcome to the podcast. I'm really excited to have you on

ARW: Thank you so much, Emily, love talking to you. It's been years and you're not just one of my favorite climate journalists, but one of my favorite people. So thanks for having me.

EA: Aw thanks, Anthony. I understand that you are coming to us today at a particularly raw moment. Would you mind just explaining that?

ARW: The network that I'm a part of Climate Justice Alliance—and obviously as you stated earlier, speaking for myself here—people that our member organizations are affiliated with, some who I knew personally and some who I knew vicariously, we lost about 10 people over the last three or four days. These are folks who are in areas that were already in crisis before COVID-19 impacted them even more. Places like Mississippi, where people were being turned away for testing and treatment because of their lack of having health care access.

And then yesterday, I got the news that one of my mentors, Sabina, after a very valiant fight with pancreatic cancer for two years, succumbed to a combination of the two.

So shit has gotten very, very real. This isn't just news stories for us anymore. Those of us who represent frontline communities, environmental justice communities—many of our elders are feeling the impacts of COVID-19. Some have taken off work. Many are self quarantined. And I myself tomorrow, I'm going to get tested as well for COVID-19. So it's a very real moment. It's a heavy moment.

But at the same time, it sounds kind of paradoxical, but I think that it's also a moment for massive opportunity. And I'm really hoping that we can seize this moment as a climate community and as a left movement as well. Because what COVID-19 has really done is put a magnifying glass on everything that wasn't working already. Our economic infrastructure. Our healthcare infrastructure. Our racial justice infrastructure, or lack thereof. The prison systems. Everything is being exposed at once for how inadequate and anemic that it is. And so maybe that represents a silver lining and an opportunity in a paradoxical way.

EA: I'm so sorry. And I'm blown away by that number: 10 people in your network alone, in the Climate Justice Alliance network alone. And I feel like it just, like you said, puts this magnifying glass on what we mean when we say vulnerable communities. It's not just to climate change, it's coronavirus, too.

ARW: Good point. When we think about the climate shock events that really have gotten us speaking about the quintessential threat of climate change, right, we're talking Katrina, obviously, we're talking Maria we're talking Sandy, which, you know, really impacted our home state of New York. We're talking to Harvey, but even you know, ahead of those storms, Right, there were so many things that were already going wrong. And those storms exacerbated the issues that vulnerable populations were already going through.

We know for instance, that even to this day in places in New York City, like Staten Island, there are still public housing units that are connected to diesel gas generators, because the electricity hasn't fully been restored. This is years after Sandy.

One of my mentors, what she said to me was that COVID-19 is a dress rehearsal for the climate apocalypse. And it's up to us to do everything to make sure that that show never actually gets produced, and never sees its first day, its opening day. And I would have to agree with her. She's absolutely right. Because as you just said, communities like that were already in crisis are now close to apocalypse. We're talking about indigenous communities, people indigenous to Turtle Island, where this virus could wipe them out. I mean, that's not hyperbolic, at all. We have context, like with smallpox. And when you talk about the lack of infrastructure and investment in these indigenous communities, who are also many times rural communities who don't have the health care infrastructure that is no different from the lack of health care infrastructure. In places like my original homeland, Sierra Leone, I was talking to my dad the other day, and he straight up said, He's like, son, you know, you thought Ebola was bad. This continent is about to lose millions of people.

EA: And I feel like I hear so much every day on the news, from corporations, from doctors, from big media personalities. And I'm just not finding that many people who are speaking up for the most endangered, most marginalized in society. And you come to us working at Climate Justice Alliance, working with frontline communities across the country. Who exactly are we talking about when we're talking about vulnerable populations to both COVID and climate?

ARW: That's a really great question. We're talking about communities that have been rendered into sacrifice zones since FDR’s New Deal. Whether it's redlining, and the selection of certain communities that were selected for the placement of toxic facilities, refineries, mountaintop removal. So we're not just even talking about black, brown, and indigenous people. We're also talking about poor white folks from Appalachia, from West Virginia, who also happen to be the folk where Bill Clinton's welfare reform really, really impacted them with work requirements for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and things like that.

So we're talking about people who the government has basically stated, in no uncertain terms, that your life is not worth as much as someone who either lives in a coastal city or someone who is wealthy. That we are going to poison your water, we are going to prevent you from having access to clean water.

We're talking about Flint. We're talking about Detroit, where there's fucking water shutoffs. Like in Michigan right now, water is shut off. Or places like the Ponca here in Omaha, or the Omaha Nation where they don't have access to clean water because of years and years of neglect, and years and years and years of austerity for the sake of allowing—as Senator Sanders likes to say all the time—a few wealthy people to suck everything that they could and leave the scraps.

We're talking about people who have been deemed appropriate to be sacrificed so that mainly wealthy and affluent white people can get their energy, cool their homes, heat their homes, drive big cars, and treat the land however they want to.

So this is really just where we are seeing that climate change is barely about emissions and pipelines and fossil fuel infrastructure. It's really about the root causes of white supremacy, patriarchy and colonization. That is all coming to a head right now.

What I also like to say, Emily, is That COVID-19 is exposing the ineffectiveness of everything, including the left and the progressive movement. It's kind of like what I said on a call with some amazing labor leaders, Marty Smith from NMU, Sarah Nelson, who I think is maybe a key component of the future of the United States of America, and maybe the world, and hearing these stories about flight attendants exposed, frontline health care workers exposed. My reaction was, “Welcome to the covenant. How y'all are feeling today is how frontline communities feel every fucking day. So welcome to the covenant. Let's get to work. Together.”

EA: It makes me think of how many people in this country don't have access to tests, aren't getting tested, or don't think that what is potentially happening to them is COVID—especially in communities where perhaps you live next to a coal-fired power plant and you have asthma problems already, you already have respiratory problems, things like that.

ARW: So, I want to lift up one of our climate justice lines, most brilliant people, they incredible sister named Sylvia Chi who's the policy director for the Asia Pacific Environmental Network. On a call, Sylvia broke it down. And she said that we're talking about, oh, “Be careful of the immunocompromised. That’s who we have to center right now.” And we were mainly characterizing older people as being immunocompromised. But Silvia said, look—in communities like Richmond, California, where there's massive exposure to refineries, and to toxic air: Those people are also immunocompromised. Of all ages, of all ages, because of respiratory disease. Because of asthma.

You got places where people like Michelle Martinez from Michigan Environmental Justice Council, and Teresa Landrum from the same organization, fighting in Michigan's most polluted zip code, the 48217—Teresa's telling you there are children being born, babies being born, with asthma right away. So as soon as they are born, they are immunocompromised.

Frontline communities. Houston, New York, the Bronx. Everywhere. Detroit, Richmond, California. Kettleman City. Cancer fucking alley, Louisiana, where we're seeing COVID-19 really starting to, for lack of a better phrase, take off.

These people are in, what W.E.B. Dubois would say, double jeopardy. Because they live in frontline communities. They are black, brown, and indigenous. And COVID-19. So I would add to the Dubois’s theory and say they're in triple Jeopardy right now.

And by the way, there is no indication that this is going to be handled ahead of hurricane season, which is longer and more powerful now. So it's precarious. It's really, really precarious right now. There's so many threats that are coming at people at once.

EA: That in itself is outrageous enough to me. But there is an economic argument to be made there. Not only are we losing people we didn't have to lose. We are exacerbating our healthcare system, our hospital system, our doctors are overworked, because people are dying. People are experiencing these symptoms of COVID-19, and either can't differentiate between them or they've been exacerbated. And so when I hear people say that these two things aren't connected—when we're the EPA is relaxing air pollution enforcement mechanisms during COVID-19—it's like, do you not understand the connection? How do people not understand the connection between these two things?

ARW: What we've done on the left too much is that we've focused on the symptoms of this crisis and not the root causes.

The phrase that's in the lexicon right now, of course, is Green New Deal. And for me, what I would say is that we will never have a Green New Deal until we deal with white supremacy, patriarchy and colonization. We will never have Medicare For All until we deal with white supremacy, patriarchy and colonization. All of these social safety nets, all of these incredible plans that are being promoted by some great thinkers, people who I respect, people who you've already interviewed on this podcast who I love and look up to. But I don't see them asking the questions that really need to be asked. Like, can this be done as long as there is a system of white supremacy?

The big sickness is white supremacy, patriarchy and colonization. That is the sickness that we have to find a cure to. And then we can have solution multipliers like Green New Deal, like Medicare For All, like free college tuition. Because right now, the attitude of just like, “why would I help a neighborhood of people who I hate and that and I don't have to live in?” So we can't expect the average person who isn't in our echo chambers to see the axiomatic nexus between COVID-19 and this intersectional climate crisis.

EA: How are you saying specifically white supremacy, patriarchy, and colonization play out in your work during the Coronavirus crisis? Because you're working with grassroots organizations, you're working with marginalized communities. During Coronavirus, specifically, how are you seeing these play out?

ARW: Look at where the new COVID epicenters are starting to be created. New York City, even with gentrification, is a big population center for black brown people and people who are non white. Louisiana, which in my opinion is the state that houses possibly the most important cultural city in the United States of America in New Orleans, starting to really, really take off there and get out of control. Detroit, Michigan. There's a democratic governor in Michigan, who allowed for water utilities to be shut off. This definitely impacted disproportionately black and brown people who were already having issues with being able to pay their bills, put food on the table.

So, what I'm seeing is that some of the people that we lost were turned away because they didn't have access to health care. And even if they did have access to health care, we already know that there's a racialization in how people are treated, and how they are diagnosed.

So I'm the way I'm seeing it play out is the same way that I've always seen it play out. Which is that until this issue starts disproportionately impacting white people, it's not going to be taken fully seriously. So this is again why I say this is such an important time for a massive period of introspection.

Even when we say things like Green New Deal, it includes New Deal! New Deal has been referred to by Ira Katznelson, an amazing author, as “when affirmative action was white.” And by Eduardo Porter, he referred it as “welfare for white people.” The New Deal! And to see some thought leaders just say like, yeah, the New Deal was racist and exclusionary, but it still serves as a great foundation of what we can build off of! Like, really? Fuck you! You’re a white person getting to say that. You benefited from the New Deal. You were able to create generational wealth, where the New Deal also at the same time created sacrifice zones through redlining, and prevented black people from enjoying generational wealth. Which is why today, the average household median wealth for a black family is $17,000 versus $175,000 for an average white family. So even with things like that, I'm seeing the white supremacy. Because white supremacy right can be exercised both consciously and unconsciously.

EA: I want to talk too about policy. We’re talking about the Green New Deal a lot. And obviously we're not doing anything Green New Deal-esque in our relief packages to address Coronavirus. And I talked about that a little bit in my interview with Kate Aronoff, about the failure of imagination in Washington to address big problems.

But I'm wondering, if we had a political system where there was no failure of imagination, and we were able to address multiple crises together, what would we see come out of Washington right now?

ARW: I think first and foremost, a massive transformation of our agricultural and food production system—which is climate policy, by the way.

Here in Nebraska, about three years ago, I started an organization with my good friend, Graham Christensen, who's a sixth generation farmer. I met Graham through a program that I was in called the Young Climate Leaders Network. And when Graham started talking to me about regenerative agriculture, and how it is a solutions multiplier—we're talking about regenerating the soil. We're talking about getting soil back to doing what it's supposed to do, which is sequestering greenhouse gas emissions. I remember my first reaction to him was like, “Why the fuck aren’t we talking about this more? Are you are you kidding me? You're telling me that this can happen?”

And some of the farms that we've regenerated, we've heard from the wives of farmers saying, he's drinking less, he's hitting me less. He's being less abusive. He's happier. He's spending more time with his family.

So it would look like things that not only put money in our pocket, but improved our quality of life. I would hope that our government, to Kate's point—and Kate is obviously a brilliant writer and brilliant thinker herself—is that our government thinks too quantitatively and not enough qualitatively. And that's where there's that vacuum of imagination. And that's capitalism, right? It's just all about the money and the short term, quarterly profits and bottom lines. But we're not thinking qualitatively.

It would be thinking about the fact that education in South Korea is considered a matter of national security. They want everyone in their country to be educated, because in their minds, if their populace is not as educated as possible, it puts them at risk. That's just incredible thinking right there.

EA: We’ve talked a lot about whiteness in the environmental movement over many years, you and I. And this is a well-documented problem in the environmental movement is that it's just been so disproportionately white-led, especially in the large green groups. And I've often asked you to explain to my probably generally white audience why that is a problem, and why in order to solve climate change, we need that to not be the case. And I'm wondering if you can do that again, but in this specific moment. If you are seeing it at all, how are you seeing disproportionate whiteness in the environmental movement hinder or harm our response to Coronavirus?

ARW: This is great. So I have a chapter in my book that's coming out. Well, it was supposed to come out in September but it might be delayed now. And it's called “Whiter than Green New Deal.” You know, and from an essay that I wrote and got yelled at about by the way, back in the university. See, this is why I should have listened to you, even though I didn't know you yet, and gone to a public school. Because these private schools, they don't like it when you take on whiteness—they'll threaten to take away your fucking scholarship.

But from a piece that I wrote called Whiter than Green: I think that what has happened is that we've got to also look at, who were the founders of some of these organizations? I mean, Theodore Roosevelt. A white supremecist founded the Sierra Club. And people who got off, literally got off, on hunting and killing Native American people. And so you don't just get rid of that mentality to just because you make Aaron Mair the board president.

You do that though, by producing new leaders. And this is where I want to lift up Charlene Carruthers, the incredible, brilliant co-founder of the Black Youth Project 100. And she says in her amazing book, Unapologetic, that one of the agreements that we have to make is develop and build up new leaders and spokespeople.

So now, Sierra Club has amazing beautiful brothers like Ben Beachy, who will totally acknowledge and have no problem with being like, “Yes, my organization has been a problem in bringing people together.”

So the environmental community, and as well as the funders funding these movements, have a choice to make. Do you want to continue to foster a culture of competition? Or do you want to bring people together by fostering a culture of cooperation in how you fund and who you're funding?

So if you're funding Sierra Club, but you're not funding PUSH Buffalo; if you're funding League of Conservation Voters, but you're not funding Collette Pichon Battle and the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy, who enacted the first regional Green New Deal effort in the country; if you're funding NRDC, but you're not funding Bineshi Albert, and Tom Goldtooth, and Tara Houska, and all these other amazing indigenous leaders who are showing us the way—who are basically just saying things like, “Hey, we've been doing this shit for centuries, if you want to win, we're here whenever you want to listen to us”—and not just parade those people around when you need them to be the pipeline, that's when we will actually become a movement, instead of just a community.

EA: It sounds like to that it might be good for coalition building within the environmental movement—because we've talked about this disconnect before between the big white-led environmental national groups, and a lot of the grassroots climate justice environmental groups—a good way to coalition build might just be simply to push for more data and more information from these communities for the coronavirus outbreak.

ARW: Yeah, you really do want to kind of make sure that you have the data of people who are being impacted first and worst by it.

Here's the thing with pandemics. It doesn't work like gentrification. You can't just push some people out and then consider yourself safe. It's the same thing with climate change. You can for a while just be like “Oh, it's just those poor black and brown people. Oh, it's just those indigenous people.” Sorry, eventually it's gonna hit you. It's gonna hit you harder, because it's only getting stronger and more powerful.

I love what Bill McKibben said, when the brother had a cold in 2016, fighting to just get sane climate policy included the Democratic party platform. And he was like, “This is physics!” And Bill doesn't curse, so I'm just going to pretend that I'm Bill: “This is physics, and physics doesn't give a fuck about red states and blue states, or black or brown people, it's just gonna hit you!” And that's how I would have said it if I was Bill, but he's absolutely right.

EA: What is the one thing that you want to make sure people are doing in their lives today that could help disproportionately affected communities?

I want to talk specifically about that bullshit memo that EPA sent out. Here’s one thing that people listening to this can do right now. Call your governor and call your attorney general, and tell them to fucking ignore it.

Read the memo. It says “authorized states and tribes may take a different approach under their own authorities.” Hmm. Seems like like y’all have just, in effect, triggered the 10th amendment. So write to your governor and your attorney general, and either tell them to ignore it, or to get gangster. So maybe now they can impose all kinds of things that they might consider crazy, but we would consider pretty safe. Tell your governor that say that, hey: EPA has basically told me we can take a different approach. Tribes can take a different approach. So let's educate our people. Tribes can essentially say, “Well, if you can regulate this right now, maybe you need to turn that pipeline off that's going through our sovereign territory.” And maybe certain governors and attorneys general can say, “You simply cannot just say that a farm that has a bunch of animals that were supposed to be shipped is now a CAFO, but we're not going to regulate it as a CAFO.” No. You can just say no. So that's one thing.

EA: Is that true? I’m gonna have to look at that.

ARW: I'm gonna send it to you my friend. Yes, sis. This is verbatim, sister. This is the thing that is so dumb about Trump and Wheeler's EPA. Here's a quote: “This memorandum does not alter any provisions of any statute or regulations that contain legally binding requirements. And it is not itself a regulation.” Ignore that shit. Ignore that shit, people. Because they basically said it's not a regulation. And if EPA tries to sue a governor or a tribe, awesome. Imagine the headlines. I mean, you’ll write the piece Emily. EPA Sues Tribe For Protecting Its People. Great. Try us. Fuck around and find out.

EA: I mean, that’s the headline that maybe I would write, but I don't know about other places.

So, it just seems to me like the basic point that people should understand when talking about climate change and coronavirus and vulnerable communities is that the communities that are disproportionately affected by both crises are the same communities—and they're the communities that we tend to ignore the most. They're not the affluent white people. You have been affected by that personally. We talked about that right at the beginning. They're not the stories that we hear most often of the people who were losing.

Could you tell us about someone who you've lost recently? Who is a member of one of these communities? Just to humanize it a little bit?

AFW: Yes, absolutely. I sat on a board with her as a matter of fact—Sabina. I won’t say her last name just because I don't know if I have clearance for that. But Sabina, who, frontline community in Los Angeles.

Sabina was just all power. She was a warrior poet. And what she would say to me was, “You better make sure that my life wasn't in vain.” Like, cry. Sabina would say some shit like, “I'll give you two hours to cry, and then get your ass back to work. Because there's people who are still alive that are depending on what you and Climate Justice Alliance and all of our members do.”

But I do feel that every black and brown and frontline person that has been lost—I take it personally. I take it very, very personally.

There's a brother out in Pennsylvania, John Fetterman, who is now the Lieutenant Governor. When he was the mayor of his city, which was decimated by the 2008 collapse, and there was a lot of crime and a lot of people died—he would tattoo the name of every single person that died while he was mayor of that city on his arm. I'm tattooing the names of those people who we lost into my heart and into my mind, because that's what's gonna pull me through this.

Whatever is the results of my COVID-19 test tomorrow, I know that I have access to health care. I have that privilege. I have the privilege of working from home. There's a great sister Rachel, who I'm working with now. And she's like saying every day, every week as this continues, it's going to stop being three or four degrees of separation of people who we know that died. It's going to be four degrees, three degrees, two degrees. And then we're going to know somebody personally.

Let's not wait for it to get to that point. Let's act now, and get our shit together, and tell this fucking government to get its shit together.

If this isn't gonna cause us to act now, then I don't even want to be a part of the left anymore. I don’t. I don't want to be considered a progressive.

EA: Are you experiencing symptoms? Why are you getting a COVID-19 test?

ARW: Just kind the fluish-type symptoms, the sore throat, even losing a little bit of balance. But just you feel it in your heart. We all know our bodies better than anyone. We better go take care of that.

I can still smell stuff. Paula told me I used too much garlic just last night. So that's good. And I agree—I did it on purpose. But yeah, and definitely not feeling 100% maybe some people refer to them as mild symptoms. But most importantly, I need to know so that I just quarantine the fuck out of myself and make sure that I don't put anybody at risk.

EA: Well, I hope the best for you. And if you do have it, I hope it doesn't affect you. And then you're back to your normal stuff. You seem pretty normal right now.

ARW: Yeah, we'll get through this. I appreciate you so much Emily, everything that you do. everything that you write. You're a very, very big important part of variable of this environmental justice, climate justice equation. So thank you.

EA: Thanks, Anthony.

Alright, that’s it. Thanks for checking out the HEATED podcast. We're producing this in collaboration with Drilled, and thank you to Amy Westervelt for her partnership.

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