Introduction: Growing the Squad
Within the first few days of January 2020, unprecedented wildfires forced hundreds of thousands of people in Australia to be evacuated from their homes, a stream of earthquakes crippled Puerto Rican communities still struggling from the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and records were broken as the city of Boston reached two consecutive days of balmy 70 degree weather. During that same week, as impeachment loomed, President Donald Trump provoked a crisis in Iran with the targeted killing of a leading general. Even before the corona virus had emerged as a global pandemic, for many the year started with angst about the state of the world and an unsettling fear about the future.
Despite the disturbing climate chaos and geopolitical tensions, some of us were able to find hope and optimism as we celebrated changes happening at a more local level. During the same early days of 2020, hundreds of inspiring new leaders committed to transformative change and social justice were sworn in to elected office in cities and towns throughout the United States. In the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts,
where I live, an impressive woman, Sumbul Siddiqui, became, at age thirty-one, the first Muslim mayor in the state. And just across the river, Boston formed its most diverse city council ever. For the first time, women and people of color held the majority of the thirteen Boston city council spots. With this multiracial gender-balanced leadership comes a shift in priorities. Kim Janey, the second African American woman to be voted in as president of the Boston City Council, declared following the swearing-in ceremony at historic Faneuil Hall, “It is not enough to have diversity. We need full inclusion.” Boston’s new leadership is calling for bold action to address growing inequities. Compared with other US cities, Boston ranks among the highest in income inequality1
and has among the worst racial disparities in wealth2
Boston also has a worsening crisis in affordable housing and an inadequate public transit system that is not serving many of the communities that need it most. But with a city council that now better represents the people and communities struggling the most, there is a new sense of urgency and hope for structural changes in Boston. And when that urgency and hope for social justice is linked to the city’s commitment to ambitious climate action, the potential for larger transformation to a more just equitable future seems not only possible, but also likely.
I first met Siddiqui in the summer of 2017 at José’s, a local Mexican restaurant, when I had just moved to Cambridge and she was running for her first term for the Cambridge City Council. During our brief conversation as we sat at adjacent tables eating chips and salsa and waiting for our dinner, I was impressed with how she communicated her strength and compassion as well as her deep commitment to her
community. She arrived in Cambridge at the age of two, when her family emigrated from Pakistan. Her family had won a spot through a lottery in one of Cambridge’s large affordable housing complexes. Siddiqui discussed her priority focus on inclusive access to affordable housing, and I mentioned my work on climate and renewable energy. She quickly connected the dots and talked enthusiastically about the opportunities for integrating solar panels and energy-efficient design into new affordable housing construction.
Siddiqui and other local leaders are joined at the national level by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a first-term congresswoman from New York, and the three other junior nonwhite congresswomen, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. This group of four women became known as the “Squad” after Trump suggested in a tweet that they “go back and help fix the totally broken and the crime infested places from which they came.” In response to this public display of racist misogyny, Pressley said, “Anyone who is interested in building a more equitable and just world is a part of the Squad.”
At this time in human history, when both the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis are altering every aspect of society and exacerbating economic and racial injustices, we need to grow the Squad. We need more bold leaders committed to social justice who recognize how the biggest challenges facing society are linked and that the best opportunities for change are when these challenges are addressed together. We must build and foster multiracial, multiethnic, gender-balanced coalitions of ambitious and optimistic leaders advocating for transformative changes. The United States needs leaders who are willing and able to push back against the concentration of wealth and power that is threatening our democracy, exacerbating injustice, and accelerating climate chaos. We need leadership to counter the male-dominated climate deniers who are resisting change to perpetuate profits for the fossil fuel
industry and other corporate elites who benefit from fossil fuel reliance. We need visionary leaders who recognize that many of our legacy systems and practices need to be restructured not only because they are accelerating climate chaos, but also because those systems and practices continue to favor rich white men who have disproportionate power and influence. It is becoming increasingly clear that incremental steps and small tweaks to the status quo are insufficient. Therefore, we need bold and ambitious leaders who are committed to ending fossil fuel reliance by prioritizing economic justice and by investing in the universality of human rights and a future that offers dignity for all. To achieve these broad systemic changes, we need diverse leadership to better represent the needs and interests of the families and communities that are disproportionately affected and most vulnerable to climate disruptions.
We need to support leaders who can help move us beyond climate isolationism. Climate isolationism is a phrase I use to describe the common, yet ineffective, framing of climate change as a narrow, isolated, discrete problem that needs a technological solution. This framing is inadequate because climate change is so pervasive; it impacts everything and everyone. As the authors of the 2019 book A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal
state, “All politics are climate politics.”4
We need a paradigm shift so that climate action is integrated into all policies and recognized as an opportunity for new investment in and commitment to broad structural changes.
Beyond Climate Isolationism: From Threat to Opportunity
Although the secretary general of the United Nations declared in 2018 that climate change is the defining issue of our time,5
the climate crisis is much more than a singular “issue.” Just as a single virus has upended human society, influencing everything, changes in Earth’s climate are
also influencing every aspect of society, including the economy, our health, and access to food, energy, water, housing, and transportation. We are now in a new era of human existence. We know the future will be fundamentally different because of more frequent and intense climate disruptions of all kinds, including devastating storms, floods, droughts, and wildfires, as well as the spread of new infectious diseases and accelerated species extinction. Climate change is also a threat multiplier, which means that climate impacts exacerbate other problems. Around the world, drought due to shifting rain patterns, for example, has led to food shortages, which then result in conflict and forced migration.6
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlights the urgency of prioritizing timely ambitious and coordinated action in ending fossil fuel reliance and adapting to climate impacts.7
As the increase in global average temperature accelerates8
and greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, the costs and risks of delayed action are escalating, and the value of transformative change is growing.
The narrow way that climate change is often discussed—as an isolated threat that is separate from other issues—has limited opportunities for people to connect and engage. Many climate and energy experts have focused public discourse on carbon reductions, greenhouse gas emissions, and global average temperature—but using these abstract, scientific concepts has proven to be ineffective. Not only does this technical way of talking about climate change resonate with only a small subgroup of society, it also projects the need for sacrifice and hardship rather than highlighting benefits and opportunities.
When the climate crisis is framed as a scientific problem with only a technological fix, the human element is ignored, and the challenge seems distant and unapproachable. For those looking at the world through this narrow lens, decarbonization is usually the goal. With this approach, costs of specific carbon mitigating technologies or practices are often projected and compared. Although carbon accounting and
technology cost estimates provide helpful ways to assess some proposed changes, these quantitative measures cannot be the only way to consider climate action. Climate isolationism has encouraged too many leaders to be blind to the important opportunities for improving people’s lives and strengthening communities as we transition away from a society reliant on fossil fuels.
Many proposed technological “solutions” are also expensive and perceived as options that are only accessible to the rich. Driving a Tesla electric vehicle, for example, is not an option for most people, so many people feel disempowered and disengaged, with limited options for acting on climate change. This disempowerment is compounded by science and engineering being fields that continue to be dominated by white men. Despite efforts to diversify science and engineering, persistent racial, gendered, and economic injustices of our economy and our educational systems perpetuate exclusive access to science and engineering. Participating in science continues to be a selective activity only accessible to a privileged few. The lack of diversity within the fields of science and engineering limits the scope of inquiry and constrains the types of connections that are made among science, technology, and society. As we move to incorporate innovative responses that promote social justice to climate change beyond technological justifications for energy transformation, we need to include other kinds of expertise, experiences, and perspectives.
The narrow approach of climate isolationism has not only been ineffective in mobilizing transformative change, but it has also resulted in climate and energy programs and policies that further exclude and disadvantage low-income communities and communities of color. For example, throughout the United States, most incentive programs for rooftop solar and home energy efficiency exclude many lower-income and black and brown communities and disproportionately provide benefits to well-off households and white communities.9
Recent research identified large racial disparities showing that even when corrected for
racial differences in income and homeownership, white majority census tracks have installed 37 percent more rooftop solar systems than black and Hispanic majority census tracks.10
This unequal distribution of incentives is both unfair and unjust, and it reinforces economic and racial injustice.
Strengthening climate resilience requires us to restructure society by prioritizing social justice for all and ensuring healthy and resilient communities. As the impacts of climate disruptions become increasingly difficult to ignore, momentum is building. More and more leaders are reframing the climate crisis not only as a growing threat, but also as an opportunity for transformative social change and investment for the public good.
A renewable-based society will rely on both large-scale renewables (including large offshore wind farms, mega solar farms, and large geothermal power plants) and small-scale distributed renewables (including household and community wind and solar farms, wave and tidal systems in coastal communities, and distributed geothermal heating). The diversity in scale and sources of renewable energy means that every household, every community, and a variety of organizations can benefit. Unlike fossil fuel resources, which are geographically limited so that some countries profit from their extraction while others compete for access, every community around the world has some regional renewable resources. Renewable resources are plentiful and reliable, so a renewable-based future will be founded on abundance and predictability rather than scarcity and volatility. With committed leadership and political will, a locally appropriate mix of renewable power could be deployed to meet the energy needs of every community—not only in the United States, but across the globe.
A compelling alternative to the narrow lens of climate isolationism is energy democracy, a growing social movement that envisions a fossil-fuel-free future in which individuals, households, and communities rely on a regionally appropriate diverse mix of renewable energy with local ownership, local control, and local benefits (figure 1-1
). Energy democracy connects the renewable transformation with redistributing political and economic power, wealth, and ownership to create a more just and equitable world.11
Leaders who embrace energy democracy recognize that investing in renewable energy is much more than a substitution of energy technologies. Rather, the renewable transition provides an opportunity to reverse the economic oppression associated with concentrated wealth and fossil fuel reliance by empowering local energy production and control.12
Three kinds of activities are central to the energy democracy movement: resisting
the legacy energy agenda that continues to support fossil fuels, reclaiming
energy decision-making so that the public interest
is prioritized over corporate interests, and restructuring
energy systems to maximize distributed local and regional benefits.13
A key feature of energy democracy is the critical recognition that “how” renewable energy is deployed—that is, who is included, who is excluded, and how the benefits are distributed—matters a lot. To leverage the interconnected social justice benefits, renewable energy has to be explicitly linked to investments designed to meet the needs of families and communities rather than large corporate interests. Doing so requires moving beyond narrow carbon accounting and the scientific and technological framing that has dominated climate policy so far. The energy democracy vision, including the resist, reclaim, and restructure framework, provides a valuable lens to guide participation, governance, and leadership on climate and energy.
Figure 1-1. Moving from climate isolationism to energy democracy represents a paradigm shift that broadens opportunities for transformative change.
When underserved, marginalized, and frontline communities are prioritized for renewable energy investments, the energy transformation provides benefits to people who have been excluded for too long. Frontline communities are those communities that are facing climate injustice head-on. Many of these communities are communities of color, which are more vulnerable because of the legacy of harm from centuries of racism, colonization, and economic injustices. When a commitment is made to ensure that all low-income and frontline communit...