1. Just Energy Transitions and the Power of Intersectionality

    June 20, 2019

    By Sarah Naiman.

    Companies like Wheelabrator [a waste incinerator company] come in here because they can. They can come in they can use their wealth and their power to really buy their way into communities and that’s the sad reality and that’s why we really do need to protect communities of environmental justice. They’re usually communities of color, of low-income, and minorities.—Representative Rose Lee Vincent.

    The dependence of low-income communities on revenues from dirty energy facilities is problematic because it pits economic benefits of jobs and funding for public programs (through taxes) against public health and environmental protections.  As part of my fellowship with Clean Water Action, I had the opportunity to talk with community leaders across Massachusetts about just energy transitions, an approach that deliberately links various economic, social, and economic interests and concerns to develop multifaceted solutions to polluting energy generation.

    Massachusetts’ community leaders also discussed 1) how dirty energy facilities like power plants and waste incinerators have impacted their life and 2) the efforts they took to fight back against these large companies that have been poisoning their communities. From these interviews, I not only heard the heart-wrenching stories of cancer, auto-immune disorders, and the struggle against corporate power, but people also talked about their successes. While community leaders were concerned about their health and were active in efforts to close the dirty energy facilities, many also fought to ensure just transitions of the sites so that their communities maintained economic stability and other benefits after the closing of the dirty energy facilities.

    These efforts to consider economic, health, and environmental concerns highlights the intersectionality of environmental issues. That is, it is difficult to address an environmental problem without also considering the economic and social elements that are tied to the same issue. Within the context of just transitions and dirty energy, it is unjust to close a power plant for environmental or health reasons without 1) understanding how that may impact the livelihoods and economic stability of people living in the community and 2) developing a plan to address the loss of jobs and economic impact.

    In the Boston area, I was introduced to the Green Justice Coalition, a collaboration that has worked towards just transitions from polluting energy generation. It was the first time I was able to engage in conversations with groups that represented the labor, social justice, and environmental concerns of communities to work towards establishing more sustainable and resilient communities. Mark Liu, a representative of the Chinese Progressive Association and member of the Green Justice Coalition, talked about how the work pushes people outside of a single-interest approach to problems,

    Things that are good for the environment, good for the community, and good for workers…that’s ideally what we want from all of our campaigns, so it helps us not have to be so siloed that this is a housing issue, this is a worker issue, but this [coalition] is something that tries to bring together all of the issues that we’re working on.

    Historically, the Coalition has worked on a variety of campaigns and issues that include energy efficiency, access to public transit, solar equity, just transitions from polluting energy generation, and microgrids.  These campaigns are especially important, as many of them are working to address public harms or the lack of access to public goods in areas designated as environmental justice communities by the state of Massachusetts.  

    My conversations with community leaders and members of the Green Justice Coalition emphasized the interconnectedness of environmental, social, and economic disparities.   To address these complex problems, coalitions that bring together various interests are extremely important to ensure that we have a united movement and environmental and economic efforts are not pitted against one another.

    References:

    Environmental Justice Policy in Massachusetts: https://www.mass.gov/service-details/environmental-justice-policy

    Green Justice Coalition: http://greenjusticecoalition.org/


    Sarah Naiman is in her second year of her Ph.D. at Cornell University studying Latinx engagement in environmental work. This summer she is a Climate and Health Fellow at Clean Water Action in Boston, MA working to elevate the voices and experiences of community members around energy justice.