Why the Environmental Justice Movement Should Think Locally

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On a
chilly December morning, Gabriel Jamison stood in front of a construction site
in Brownsville, Brooklyn, with a sign and a megaphone. “National Grid has the
nerve to sit there and come into a low-income neighborhood,” Jamison said, as
National Grid employees continued to work in the background. “We’re not going
to tolerate that.” Surrounded by a handful of other demonstrators, Jamison was
protesting the expansion of a fracking pipeline by National Grid, an energy
company that serves New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Within two hours, they could call the
day a temporary success: Construction
stopped. The National Grid workers
packed up their gear and left.

called the Metropolitan
Natural Gas Reliability Project, the pipeline Brownsville residents were
protesting will transport fracked gas from Pennsylvania to a 110-acre liquefied
natural gas facility in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. On this journey, the tubes will run about seven and a half miles underneath many low-income
Brooklyn neighborhoods, starting in Brownsville. Since 2017, National Grid has
installed almost five miles of new gas mains that extend through parts of
Bushwick. The final construction phase, which is currently at a standstill, aims to expand another 6,200 feet to

not just that natural gas contributes
to atmospheric warming—pipelines are also fraught with more acute forms of risk.
From 2010 to 2019, there were over 6,200 pipeline incidents in the United States, resulting in 140
deaths and 656 injuries. And in the case of the North Brooklyn pipeline, locals
are also irate that National Grid is asking ratepayers to pay $185 million to
complete the project. “We
call it the secret racist pipeline,” said Jamison, who is an organizer with the
Brownsville Residents Green Committee, one of the local groups fighting for
community-owned green energy. The pipeline’s planned track runs beneath
majority-nonwhite communities.

Grassroots environmental movements like this aren’t new. But in contrast to prior decades when large organizations focused on national legislation dominated the conversation, these local fights are increasingly
crucial—and recognized as so—in today’s political environment. And now that the
American environmental movement is incorporating equity and environmental
justice into its platform, organizations like the Brownsville Resident Green Committee are becoming more prominent.   

President-elect Joe Biden’s $2 trillion climate
plan is a big step for the nation’s climate policy. After four years of the
Trump administration systematically dismantling environmental programs, many environmentalists are thrilled that Biden has vowed to rejoin the Paris Agreement once he takes office. But other local organizations are wary of top-down solutions. “These leave communities out,” said
Lee Ziesche, community engagement coordinator
at Sane Energy Project, a New York–based nonprofit organization that opposes
fracking. Instead, Jamison,
Ziesche, and others argue that community-led groups are essential to make the
necessary environmental changes. “Grassroot movements are where the solutions can be found,”
said Tina Johnson, the international policy adviser at the Deep South Center
for Environmental Justice, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people harmed by
pollution and climate change in the Gulf Coast region. “I think that is
something that gets overlooked at the federal level.” 

Beltway politics have a
long history of advancing special interests, with more than $2 billion spent on
lobbying climate change legislation from 2000 to 2016, according to a study published in the journal Climate Change. The electric utility
sector spent the most on climate lobbying, followed by the fossil fuel and
transportation industries. Thomas Ross, a veteran activist who works with the Frack
Outta Brooklyn coalition of community organizations, notes that Greenpoint, the intended destination
for the contested pipeline, provides a powerful historical example of the
ramifications of exactly this sort of political influence. It is the site of
the largest known oil spill in American history, which was quietly settled between the state and officials of Mobil Oil (now ExxonMobil) without
fines or timetables.

Throughout the Covid-19
pandemic, corporations have also demonstrated their ability to convert
their profit margins into control over
political institutions. While the White House passed an economic relief
package last year that gave Americans a stimulus
check worth $600 per person, big businesses—from the embattled
aviation industry to fossil fuel companies—received massive bailouts. And corporate influence is not confined to the federal
level nor to the coronavirus pandemic: Last July, the speaker of the
House in the Ohio state legislature was arrested by the FBI on suspicion of bribing legislatures
with $60 million to deliver a multibillion-dollar
bailout in July 2019 to a failing energy company with taxpayer
funds. The same state legislature also passed a bill escalating criminal
charges for protesting fossil fuel infrastructure.
The provisions of this legislation were modeled after a generic bill created by the
right-wing, big-business-funded American Legislative
Exchange Council in response to the 2016 protests at Standing

National Grid has followed a formula familiar to corporations all over the country. Since 2010, the company has spent just over $25
million lobbying against everything from the Safer Pipeline Act of
2019 to a Massachusetts bill that aims to remove barriers to solar
energy for low-income
neighborhoods. It’s the local communities that experience the brunt of such lobbying—and policies made by government officials to solve these types of problems ultimately fall flat, said Johnson. “It should never be forgotten that legislation where communities are being engaged [is what] puts stuff over the finish line,” she said.

Local environmental
groups are fighting for more than just pipeline-free communities. These nonprofits have also
been involved in efforts like the Solar Pioneer Bootcamp, a one-day
tutorial that teaches youth how to install and repair solar panels. This is
part of the larger Solarize NYC program, an initiative that plans to expand
access to reliable and affordable clean energy for all New Yorkers. So far,
Solarize Brownsville, a branch of Solarize NYC, has outfitted more than 200
homes with solar panels. “Imagine the skills that those kids learned,”
Jamison said. “They could do real jobs. They know how to sell solar.” What’s
more, studies show that employment programs
like this one help reduce youth violence. While
“everyone talks about killings in Brownsville,” Jamison notes, “no one talks
about the positivity” that such programs represent.

This type of local work isn’t an isolated phenomenon. Other
small, grassroots organizations like Cooperation Jackson in Jackson,
Mississippi, are pushing for community-based environmental action. In the
predominantly Black city of Jackson, poverty rates are high, with a quarter of residents
living below the poverty line. Cooperation Jackson aims to create
worker cooperatives that bring in paying jobs, such as sustainable farms and a
lawn care cooperative. Additionally, they have started the Jackson Just
Transition plan to end the city’s dependence on fossil fuels and move toward solar-thermal energy; fully electric public transportation; and affordable,
sustainable housing. Similarly, the Red Nation, a coalition of Native and
non-Native activists, advocates for a Red Deal response to
colonization, capitalism, and climate change. “We cannot expect politicians to
do what only mass movements can do,” its central document reads. It calls for divestment from the “exploitative and extractive violence of fossil fuels”
through unified community action. 

As the pandemic costs people jobs, homes, and loved ones, local environmental action is more
vital than ever. Fighting climate change isn’t just about reentering the Paris
Agreement or pro–renewable energy legislation, it’s about making sure the needs
of communities are met, said Johnson. “I would love to talk about climate policy, but what does
that look like in reversing or adjusting human suffering?” she said. “What are
the policies that are going to help this country back, while reducing
greenhouse gases?”

For Jamison, these questions are at the forefront of
community-based climate activism. In 2019, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced New York City’s Green
New Deal, which includes $14 billion in investments and a 30 percent reduction in
greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Perhaps because of this, de Blasio called on
National Grid to halt the North Brooklyn
Pipeline project last December, yet activists are still waiting for
any official action.

de Blasio can talk about a Green New Deal, but who gets access to that? Because
Black people damn sure don’t get no access to a Green New Deal in Brownsville,”
Jamison shouted into the megaphone that cold December day. “When you start
these conversations about our access to renewable sustainability, who the hell
gets it?”

expanded on this point when we followed up with him afterward. “We can give
everyone in New York City access to clean energy,” he insisted, citing the kind
of public control modeled by cooperatives and Community Land Trusts. The
principle behind community-based climate fights, in his view, is simple: “More
or less, it’s equity.”

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