How Covid-19 Made it Easier to Talk About Climate Change

Rhiana Gunn-Wright, a climate policy director and architect of the Green New Deal, explains the connections between the pandemic and the climate crisis.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright had asthma growing up.

So did many of her neighbors in Englewood, on the South Side of Chicago, where pediatric hospitalization rates for asthma were significantly higher than the rate nationwide in the early 2000s. Ms. Gunn-Wright had so many friends with asthma that she assumed it was a “childhood disease” that all young people had.

Only later in life did she realize it was linked to air pollution in the area, as was shown by research funded by the Environmental Protection Agency.

For some policymakers and advocates, even those organizing global climate strikes, the effects of climate change can feel distant, but Ms. Gunn-Wright, 30, never had that luxury. Her work on environmental justice has always felt personal, tied to the public health problems in her community.

In 2018, Ms. Gunn-Wright was recruited by the progressive think tank New Consensus, which focuses on climate and economic policy, to be a co-author on a paper titled “The Green New Deal.”

It laid out in detail a sweeping platform to fight climate change, and it was the basis of a congressional resolution introduced by Senator Edward Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York. The resolution outlines a 10-year mobilization to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions while creating new jobs and investing in infrastructure, galvanizing “every aspect of American society at a scale not seen since World War II.”

The Green New Deal quickly became a lightning rod among lawmakers. While Republicans cast it as a socialist plan to take away cars and planes, some Democratic presidential candidates embraced parts or all of the framework, and it was credited with encouraging spirited debate on climate policy during the 2020 primary race. Still others critiqued it for its breadth — and many of its specifics, including cost, are still in question.

A year later, the country is in the midst of new crises — a pandemic and an extraordinary economic downturn, amid waves of protest against systemic racism.

In Her Words spoke with Ms. Gunn-Wright about how the coronavirus has made climate issues even more stark, and about the challenges of leading as a Black woman in the predominantly white male world of environmental policy.

The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You’ve been sounding the alarm on climate change for some time. Now the headlines are all about the coronavirus. Has it gotten trickier to focus public attention on climate amid the spread of Covid-19?

In some ways, it’s easier to talk about climate change than when we first came out with the Green New Deal resolution. That’s because the connections between the pandemic and climate crisis are clear, starting with the fact that people of color — Black and Latino folks — are dying at far higher rates from Covid. And there’s already at least one study showing how Covid deaths are correlated with exposure to toxic air pollution.

During the first wave of Covid, the hot spots were in New York, Detroit and New Orleans. That lines up exactly with front-line communities exposed to climate change.

It’s never normal to surround people with toxic air pollution and cause them all sorts of respiratory problems, but before Covid that was the normal drumbeat of injustice. I think Covid has helped break that normalization.

Are you hopeful that some of the positive climate shifts in recent months, like our decreased reliance on air and car travel, will continue after the pandemic?

No, because they’re due to reductions in economic activity and not to policy change. Emissions go down during recessions as a result of decreased economic activity, but they always rebound. You’re going to see them kick into overdrive.

The field of environmental research and policy has long skewed white and male. Columbia University’s earth observatory just appointed its first- female interim director this month. What are some of the hurdles you’ve faced as a Black woman in this line of work?

I had to downplay my Blackness and my own anger. I had to depoliticize myself. Sometimes the connections that I talked about, between equity and the environment, weren’t taken seriously, so I wasn’t taken seriously.

I had at least one white man tell me that if we didn’t mitigate climate change, it would be my fault because the Green New Deal tied in equity and race, and that’s too much, so I will have ruined our changes at climate policy.

How did you respond to that?

I didn’t. Because what climate policy did I interrupt that was happening? There wasn’t anything happening at the federal level. I had a white man write me a multiple-page essay about how we have to tackle the climate crisis because it’s the most urgent thing facing humanity. But racial injustice, he wrote, has always existed, so why do we have to address that now? The way I responded was by doubling down. It became clear to me that part of my work is about elucidating these connections between climate and justice.

How are you working to put climate change and justice at the center of the country’s response to Covid-19?

I’m working on a paper now about green stimulus. It’s spelling out what an economic recovery looks like that is based in climate justice. Climate policy is often thought of as a very long-term thing, so we’re making the case for how it can be used for immediate stimulus and fit into our plans to rebuild the economy.

You’ve been both a political insider and outsider — working for candidates and as a researcher and organizer. Where do you get the most traction?

I sometimes feel that it is easier to do my work outside of the system, because it’s easier to be myself. The work I do is stressful, and the ability to look in the mirror and recognize myself and to act in ways aligned with my values is really important to me.

What parts of yourself have you had to quiet while working inside political institutions?

The way I dress. My aesthetic is “just dropped off my kids and going on a Target run,” but I also have a half-sleeve tattoo and a nose ring. I’ve never seen a person on the inside, like a chief of staff or legislative director, with a sleeve tattoo. I’m very open about calling out white supremacy. And I have mental health issues: I have PTSD, anxiety and depression. I have yet to see a leader, that is someone on the inside, talk about that. The closer you get to the inside, the more the models of leadership and professionalism become exclusionary and focus on a dominant white male leader. I’m at this point in my life where I’m not willing to become a narrower person in order to gain power.

Speaking of people on the inside, Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, hasn’t fully endorsed the Green New Deal, but he did just release a sweeping set of climate policies. You’ve been critical of his new platform. Why is that?

I think it has great elements, but it tries to be transformative while keeping the power relationships that we have in our economy. I think returning power to marginalized communities is very important as part of climate action. For example, if Indigenous communities had the rights that they deserved, if their treaties were respected, we wouldn’t even be thinking about a Dakota Access Pipeline.

Some climate experts say there is a connection between women and environmental action. Why are women more likely to bear the brunt of climate disasters?

Actually, gender is a place where we need to strengthen our analysis. We haven’t done enough thinking about the care economy. Care jobs are green jobs, in the sense that they are low carbon emission jobs. And with Covid, it has become clear how broken our care economy is. On the child care side, it could very well be decimated. Family child care providers are closing and won’t have the support to reopen. With the Green New Deal, we elevated manufacturing jobs and construction, which are important, but it often feels like it’s about saving men’s jobs and the women don’t appear. When there was a gender gap in the original Green New Deal, the Feminist Green New Deal Network stepped in and started thinking through its impact on women. So I’ve been in conversation with them more and learning so much.

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