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Dear Climate Week: We can do better

Climate Week logo

As I scanned the room at a popular Climate Week event last year, I felt a wave of uncharacteristic cynicism come over me. While I’m painfully aware of the erasure of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in what we know as the environmental movement today, the sea of white men in suits made me feel distinctly out of place, no matter my credentials. 

After more than a decade in the energy industry, championing innovative social impact models through energy efficiency, renewable energy infrastructure and built environment projects, I am no stranger to a roomful of older white men. Local government conventions, school district trade associations and networking events were unsurprisingly un-diverse. Like many others, I’ve been tokenized during client interviews and through performative corporate DEI attempts that were more words than actions.

In 2019, an eager Climate Week attendee actually asked if I was a panelist who also happened to be of Asian descent; we were the only two Asian women at the event, yet our distinct features relative to the room apparently were not distinct enough.

The Climate Group has done a solid job inserting our global climate crisis into mainstream conversations. Co-hosted by the United Nations and the city of New York, this global event has bridged dialogue among national, state and local governments and the private sector on global goals related to sustainable development for 11 years.

However, when it comes to addressing the dire needs of our current reality, Climate Week can do better. In a year when converging crises in public health, climate, race and the economy are unearthing the pervasive yet seemingly invisible inequities in our society, it’s problematic that the intersection of climate and race are not core to the event.

In a year when converging crises in public health, climate, race and the economy, it’s problematic that the intersection of climate and race are not core to the event.

Communities of color are disproportionately bearing the brunt of our pandemic and wildfires, just as they do in the climate crisis overall. BIPOC have been working without proper PPE in unhealthy air quality, providing essential services including logistics, delivery and agriculture, just as people of the global majority who contribute the least to GHG emissions make up the frontline communities facing coastal erosion, extreme heat and the negative impacts of climate change.

In a year when communities of color have been unduly harmed by both climate and COVID, and protestors have been in the streets demanding racial equity for months, why are issues of climate justice not front and center on the Climate Week agenda? 

This year’s Climate Week will be held online. Helen Clarkson, CEO of The Climate Group, shared the rationale "that we cannot afford to cancel or delay the important conversations, commitments and negotiations that need to take place... We can not only deliver Climate Week NYC in 2020, but also showcase what a truly successful virtual offering can look like." 

Given the state of emergency spiraling from the converging health and climate crises, the decision not to postpone the event was commendable. But holding Climate Week virtually also provides a unique opportunity to finally address the exclusion that has challenged past events. It is a missed opportunity to not take advantage of the flexibility and accessibility of a virtual platform to widen the speaker pool, diversify the topic areas and ensure the dialogue tackles the challenges BIPOC communities are wrestling with today. Just as COVID-19 disproportionately impacts people of color, so does our climate crisis. 

To live up to its objectives of elevating climate dialogue, and to meet the expectations of the moment both today and into the future, Climate Week must address the issue of climate justice head on by:

  • ensuring access for Black, Indigenous and People of Color; 
  • creating accessibility where physical and unconscious bias barriers previously prevented it;
  • recognizing the history and harm of environmental racism in our past, and using it to frame all conversations about climate justice moving forward; and
  • including panelists of color for representation, for technical expertise and for their lived experience in today and tomorrow's climate crises.

A scan of Climate Week’s current programming is disappointing on all these fronts. The Hub Live is still an exclusive event with no mention of how accessibility will be broadened so that delegates, elected officials and executives can listen to frontline climate communities — not just talk amongst themselves. While the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent public health crisis has become the focus of this year’s Climate Week, there’s no mention of the racial justice crisis in America and around the world, even though they are inextricably intertwined. Save for noting a "just transition" as a means to achieve a net-zero future on the Climate Week home page, prioritizing climate justice and tackling environmental racism are absent from the agenda. 

Furthermore, the 10 themes of Climate Week sideline justice as a topic for the youth movement to handle. Why is this vital topic reserved only for youth? Why should Gen Z be responsible for solving the injustices that Baby Boomers, Gen X and Millennials have allowed to persist? Especially when the older generations are in positions of power, shaping the agenda, controlling the access and stifling innovation by perpetuating the status quo?

With the opportunity to "showcase what a truly successful virtual offering can look like," here are my suggestions on how Climate Week’s 10 Themes could be amended to embrace climate justice:

  1. Clean Energy Transition → Clean and Just Transition
  2. Transport and Infrastructure → Equitable Transport and Infrastructure
  3. Industry and Built Environment → Industry and the Inclusive Built Environment
  4. Finance, Investment and Jobs → Breaking Barriers to Finance and Investment; A Green Economy for All
  5. Food and Land Use → Regenerative and Decolonized Food and Land Use
  6. Nature and Science → BIPOC Best Practices in Nature and Science
  7. U.S. and International Policy → Intentional Solidarity and Climate Refugees in U.S. and International Policy 
  8. Youth, Public Mobilization and Justice → Intergenerational Mobilization 
  9. Sustainable Travel and Tourism → Ecotourism and Racism in the Outdoors
  10. Climate Impacts and Adaptation → Intersectional Climate Impacts and Adaptation

Beyond the programming, I call on all of us — the business leaders, community organizers and individuals driving climate action — to question what we are doing to promote climate justice and inclusion, not only at this important event but also in our own organizations: 

  • For sponsors and corporate representatives at Climate Week, who are you sending on behalf of your company? How can you widen access and elevate BIPOC voices in your own workforce? Are you going to see the same peers that you see at every industry event, and if so, how can you create space for other likely marginalized colleagues to have this opportunity?
  • For the non-profits and NGOs tirelessly advancing climate justice locally, how can we model Climate Week dialogue on their justice-centered work? Some to consider would be We Act, New York State Climate Action Council and its Energy Efficiency and Housing Advisory, and Climate Justice Working Group — and that’s just in New York. While it’s wonderful to have an international stage to share effective strategies and collaborate cross-border, it’s equally important to recognize the struggles and injustice happening in our own backyard with communities of color and/or low-income that need climate justice action.
  • For speakers and panelists, question how you’re using your platform. Whose voices are you amplifying, and which audience members are you centering? What does the representation look like on your panel, and not just in terms of diversity of thought, but in diversity of race, gender, able-bodiedness and lived experience?
  • For individual participants, consider broadening your network, not just for sales leads and prospects but to understand different and diverse perspectives. Which organizations might you connect with that are focused on disadvantaged, vulnerable, and frontline communities? Which partners outside of your normal sphere could help expand your reach to communities of color, particularly as they care more about climate change than their white counterparts? Seek out ways to support and engage with local communities through grassroots events that strengthen the intersection between climate and racial justice. 

To be clear, this is not a call-out of Climate Week or The Climate Group. It’s a call in — a concept coined by Ngọc Loan Trần as a less-disposable way to hold ourselves accountable and a reminder that our private actions should match up with our public posts.

This is a challenge to The Climate Group, to Climate Week participants and to any impact-driven business leader, to integrate social, racial and climate justice into your work — not just through the people and organizations you invite in, but in the way we recover from COVID. A just recovery would not solely tackle the economic downturn we’ve experienced as a result of the pandemic but it will accept the interrelated nature of the economy with climate, COVID and race to develop a whole-systems and just approach to building back better — a just recovery, as organizations such as 350.org are working towards

So, while these recommended improvements are tailored for Climate Week, centering justice in climate work is entirely applicable to other conferences and, more broadly, to board agendas and business strategies for a just recovery, and to longer-term just transition to a sustainable future.

I’m taking on this challenge by infusing every climate action conversation with an intersectional lens, starting with a webinar to be held during Climate Week, co-hosted by Porter Novelli and Plan C Advisors, featuring leaders who’ve shaped programs at Impossible Foods, PepsiCo, Molson Coors and ENGIE to showcase how companies can be effective corporate citizens and center climate justice in their efforts to build better businesses and enable a just transition.

Will you join us? Let’s not miss this opportunity. Come be better.

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