Are we missing the point about climate change?

California is facing its worst wildfire season on record. Tropical storms and hurricanes are brewing in the Atlantic with abnormal frequency. The effects of climate change are becoming more apparent, but if we focus on climate change as the problem to solve, we’re missing the bigger picture, say Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine Wilkinson. They teamed up to co-edit the book “All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis.” The book features poems, essays and other works of art by their “binder full of climate women.” Johnson and Wilkinson also created an accompanying nonprofit, The All We Can Save Project.

“Marketplace’s” Molly Wood spoke to Johnson and Wilkinson about the book and how they think of the intersection of the climate and racial justice movements. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Molly Wood: This is not the type of climate change book you expect. It’s storytelling, it’s beautiful. And when did we find ourselves at a point where we stopped talking about climate as the thing we live? You know, the air we breathe, the rain that falls or doesn’t fall? Ayana, I’ll start with you. Do you think it’s important to recenter the conversation as a human problem?

The carbon footprint concept

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Yeah, and even more so a problem caused by a very small group of humans who made some horrible decisions on behalf of the rest of us. One of the problems with the environmental movement is that it has allowed the fossil fuel industry to spread the blame across all of us. You know, BP created this concept of a carbon footprint that we’re now all obsessed with instead of thinking about how we can focus on systems change, how we can transform our energy and transportation and buildings and agriculture and land use and manufacturing. That’s the work that needs to be done. Not just all of us, you know, not emitting anything, because that doesn’t work. I mean, we’ve seen during the pandemic that even at the beginning, when people were all basically staying home, that emissions only went down 7% or 8%. So the whole individual responsibility thing is not going to get us there. And so this book puts forward a more collective vision.

Wood: We are a business and economic show. And we can’t, of course, leave out how our economic system — Ayana, you just touched on this a little bit — its corporate emissions. How much of this storytelling is also about making the simple economic argument that saving people also saves money?

Johnson: It’s not a major theme in the book. Katharine, did you want to talk about our one main finance essay from Régine?

Katharine Wilkinson: Sure, yeah. So we were really excited to collaborate with Régine Clément, who runs CREO. And she’s grappling with the question, how do we use the current economic system? How do we use extractive capitalism to transform extractive capitalism? So I think that the tricky thing to me is that the rules of the game have to fundamentally change. We can’t just play the game better. I don’t think that will get us to the kinds of radical emission cuts that need to happen this decade, and then beyond. But there’s clearly a really strong economic case for climate solutions.

Wood: And then, of course, the book is full of women. And a lot of them are women of color.

Jonhson: It’s our binder full of climate women.

Wood: A binder full of climate women. I feel like this conversation about racial justice, climate justice, social justice, the importance of involving women in these conversations, how many women are leading solutions all over the world is still kind of new and still kind of nascent.

Johnson: Which is so lame, but you’re right.

Wood: Which is pretty lame, but maybe takes some explaining. What is this relationship between racial justice and climate change? And why don’t people understand that?

Communities of color

Johnson: I think we don’t understand it, because we don’t want to, because it complicates something that is already really hard, right? That’s the pushback that I hear most often. It’s not like, “I’m a racist, and I want to save the planet.” It’s more like, “Solving climate change is hard enough, without bringing in all these other layers. Can we just please focus on climate change now, first, and we’ll deal with, like, police not murdering Black people for no reason later?” And the answer is no. No, we can’t. We have to walk and chew gum on this one. And there are many reasons for that. One is just it’s the right thing to do. And so I hate having to give other reasons. But one of those other reasons is, you know, we know from polling by Yale and George Mason universities that people of color actually are more concerned about the climate crisis. But how can we expect Black people to be focused on climate solutions when making sure they have the basic right to live and breathe? And so this “I can’t breathe” has become a rallying cry across the racial and climate justice groups, that it’s not just in relation to police brutality, but in the ways that communities of color are burdened with more polluted air and where power plants decide to locate themselves, and then, you know, people who are breathing that dirty are being more at risk for extreme forms of COVID. And so, of course, these things are all connected. And wouldn’t it be great if we were building the winning team by including the people who were already on board and wanted to help?

Wilkinson: And I just want to add that when we think about climate change as “the problem,” I think that’s where we start to miss these intersections and entanglements. When we understand, actually, that climate change is a manifestation of the problem, right? It’s emerging out of a system that we’re getting so much feedback that it’s not working. Racial violence is part of that feedback. Massive wealth inequality as part of that feedback. The epidemics of loneliness and meaninglessness are part of that feedback. But if we’re just thinking about climate change as “the problem we need to solve,” then our analysis isn’t deep enough about what’s actually going on here, and that’s what it’s actually going to take to solve it.

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