Adrianna Quintero is the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Energy Foundation. Ms. Quintero is an expert on environmental law and has written and spoken extensively about the effects of climate change on communities of color and the importance of diversity and equity in the conversation about climate change. The Journal of International Affairs spoke with Quintero about the unequal impacts of climate change and how to prioritize equity in climate action.
Journal of International Affairs (JIA): Prior to joining the Energy Foundation, you founded Voces Verdes at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to amplify Latino leadership in the environmental movement. Can you explain what that organization does and why its work is important?
Adrianna Quintero (AQ): I began as an attorney at NRDC in 1999, working on pesticides and drinking water issues. Soon after I started, I noticed that even though we were working on issues that directly impacted communities of color, these weren’t represented in the mainstream environmental movement. This didn’t make sense to me, since, as a Latina myself, I knew that we cared about these issues. I set out to change this, focusing my work on the impact that the Latinx community was facing, and explored this initially, in a report titled, “Hidden Danger: Environmental Health Threats in the Latino Community.” The report shed light on the extent of environmental harm facing the community, and how a lack of engagement and outreach exacerbates these problems. That began my journey to build greater representation and leadership by Latinos and communities of color in the environmental movement.
In 2008, VOCES was launched with the aim of amplifying Latinx leadership on climate change, and in doing so, motivating others to join the fight. No longer could legislators assume that Latinos didn’t care about the environment, or that we were a single-issue monolithic group. VOCES leaders—organizations, businesses, and individuals—had a lot to say about climate change and embodied the support for climate action and a clean energy future that poll after poll show exists among Latinos.
JIA: One of your articles states, “Environmental harms like climate change hurt people of color, women and girls, and the poor first and worst.” Can you explain why this is the case and how these communities are affected?
AQ: Sadly, around the world, women and girls continue to have significantly less power than men socially, economically, and politically. Women are still paid less, and discriminated against on everything from education, to jobs, to healthcare. Women and girls are also more vulnerable because they are the primary caretakers for their families. Women and girls are also primarily responsible for gathering food and collecting water, which due to climate change, are becoming increasingly difficult and dangerous, with droughts requiring them to travel longer distances, risking health and safety to find water and food sources.
Women and girls also face greater risk of sexual violence and intimidation when they have to flee their homes during a storm or after a climate disaster, and because they continue to face higher levels of poverty worldwide, climate impacts and displacement have greater long-term effects on women. When these women are women of color, the discrimination, risk, and level of poverty is even worse.
I have tried to resist using the concept of economic empowerment for a number of reasons. When empowerment emerged as a concept among grassroots movements, they did not try to qualify it in this way, they saw it as a holistic phenomenon which embraced different aspects of people’s lives. This business of talking about economic empowerment is, I think, a product of the compartmentalized ways in which academics and policy makers think so that the world is divided by disciplinary boundaries or by sectoral responsibilities. But as a result, many people seem to equate economic empowerment with changes only in the economic dimensions of life. I would prefer to think of economic opportunities as providing a specific entry point into the possibility of progressive change that can happen in different spheres of our lives just as progress on the political front can also open up new possibilities that are not confined to the sphere of politics.
JIA: There is a tendency to think of oppression, such as the instances you’ve described, as a relic of the past that we need to “fix,” but this elides the possibility that current policies and attitudes are actually perpetuating the oppression. How does the existing environmental policy regime in the U.S. either mitigate or reinforce environmental racism?
AQ: Most people assume that environmental laws and policies protect us all, but laws are not always applied or enforced equally, and as a result, poor communities and communities of color are left to bear the brunt of pollution and its health impacts like asthma, heart disease, and cancer.
Not only are environmental laws and policies less likely to be adequately enforced in communities of color, most regulations are not created with adequate community input and participation, and therefore fail to address the needs of the most impacted communities. As a result, even laws that may not seek to reinforce environmental racism can have that impact, or in the best case, not go far enough to dismantle it.
While public input is supposed to be an integral part of our political process, too often these policies are crafted out of the view of the public. Impacted communities are left out of the process intentionally by those who don’t want community concerns reflected by lying to them about impacts or obstructing the process. In other cases, even when there may be an opportunity for communities to be involved, language barriers, access to meetings or public hearings, or the complexity of the issue at hand, makes it difficult—if not impossible—for them to participate in a meaningful fashion. If I’m a Latina mom who speaks limited English, heading out to a public hearing about the dumping of a chemical by a large corporation in my neighborhood, or if I want to express support for policies designed to stop climate pollution, I not only have to find the time in my schedule and someone to watch my kids, I need to also figure out how to represent my concerns. This can be frightening and difficult, especially when there are “experts” reassuring me that they’re doing nothing wrong, and that the jobs in my community might be lost if they are not allowed to move ahead with their project. Even I, as an attorney, have to prepare and get up to speed, and I do this work for a living!
The system is simply not set up to provide for genuine public engagement. You have a person or community burdened by a history of discrimination and bias, on one side, up against the armies of lobbyists and policy experts that represent polluters, on the other. Add to this the political influence exerted via campaign donations to legislators, gerrymandering, redlining, voter suppression, and other forms of disenfranchisement, and one starts to see why injustice persists and why studies continue to show a correlation between pollution impacts and race. As Dr. Robert Bullard says, “America is still segregated, and so is pollution.” This is why the work of environmental justice advocates is so critical, and why the victories that environmental justice activists have secured are so important—they show that public participation works.
JIA: In the past, you’ve spoken about how important it is to make people feel as though they belong in the movement. What should leaders within the environmental movement do to make everyone feel as though they belong, particularly with respect to people who have been historically excluded?
AQ: It starts by changing the profile of what it means to be an environmentalist. When one says “environmentalist,” we tend to imagine someone decked out in a fleece vest and hiking boots. And yes, that’s one possibility, but we have to paint a picture that shows this is a movement for everybody because caring for the environment should be part of all of our lives. We do this by changing the voices of the movement to reflect and tell everyone’s story, especially the stories of those who are most impacted, and highlight their leadership. Over the past few years we’ve seen increased attention to organizations led by young people and people of color, and they’re inspiring a whole new generation of leaders. That shift is critical!
It’s also critical that we diversify our educational institutions and the faculty who teach environmental, conservation, and science courses. Of course, our traditional large environmental organizations and foundations must also follow suit: diversifying their staff, their boards, their programs, and their communications. Our movement must reflect our changing demographics.
We also need to invest in young people. It’s their future. If we continue to act like we hold all the answers, we will lose an incredible opportunity to build a better movement with new, daring, and innovative ideas. We need to show that there is room for everyone, that you don’t need a degree to care about climate, that not everyone needs to be an expert to call for climate action, and remind people that we all have a say in the future of our planet and our environment, and our voices are needed.
JIA: In your TEDx talk, you say, “For most of us in the Latino community, we are one or two degrees of separation from a loved one who is enduring the impacts of climate change right now.” How does this affect your thinking on climate action? How do you think it affects the thinking of the United States Latino population?
AQ: It affects my thinking because, when I think of climate impacts, I don’t think of something that I saw on the news. Like so many Latinx, I think of my friends in Puerto Rico who were displaced by Hurricane Maria and lost their home, I think about my parents who live in Miami and can’t afford the higher flood insurance rates due to sea-level rise, I worry about kids I love who are suffering health impacts as a result of climate change.
For those of us who have family outside the United States, it’s doubly urgent since we know the safety nets we rely on here in the United States are not always available elsewhere. If disaster strikes, everything they’ve built is lost. Even short of a full disaster, the impacts of our changing climate on communities at the global level is very stark. I think this perspective, where our family goes beyond the four or five people sitting around the dinner table, elevates the urgency to act for many in the Latinx community.
JIA: Some of the worst effects of climate change are occurring in developing countries. What is the United States’ responsibility to people enduring the effects of climate change in other countries? What do you think the United States can and should do to fulfill this responsibility?
AQ: In December 2015, nations worldwide entered into the Paris Agreement, which embodies commitments from all major countries to set and meet ambitious climate goals. It also calls for a Climate Finance Framework designed to increase developing countries’ access to funding, and for the creation of a $100 billion Green Climate Fund designed to help these countries deal with climate change. Currently, the United States is the only country not in the Paris Agreement.
Because the U.S. has been the biggest emitter of climate changing emissions and continues to have the highest emissions per capita, we absolutely must be held accountable. Not only must we take bold steps to cut carbon emissions, we must also support these countries taking action.
JIA: What does equitable climate policy look like? How can policymakers address the disproportionate impacts of climate change?
AQ: Historic disenfranchisement and discrimination have forced communities of color and low-income communities to bear the disproportionate impacts of pollution for generations. Therefore, developing equitable climate policy requires that we first listen to the needs of those communities and commit to working collaboratively to develop policies that are truly equitable. We must also ensure that these same communities benefit from the solutions, which are affordable clean energy, clean energy transportation systems, energy-efficient housing, as well as the economic opportunities these bring. This approach is at the core of the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform, launched last year to bring together leading local environmental justice and national climate advocates to jointly develop and infuse new and equitable climate and energy ideas into the national policy conversation. This is an important step towards effective collaboration.
Climate change is a clear and present threat to our livelihood, and a daily reality to our most vulnerable communities. We have already experienced hundreds of billions of dollars in losses from climate disasters, not to mention the human loses which are immeasurable. These impacts—including the economic costs—will be felt most by low-income communities and communities of color. The Fourth National Climate Assessment, published in November 2018, underscored the fact that low-income communities in both urban and rural areas will be disproportionately impacted by climate change and will need support to prepare for, and recover from, climate disasters like storms, wildfires, drought, and flooding. These events threaten health, crops, and water supplies, and can destroy homes, businesses, and livelihoods. Policymakers must act now to reduce emissions and provide equitable solutions that provide an immediate safety net for those most at risk, while also building resilient communities that have equitable access to food and services. This starts by listening to communities and crafting solutions that work for them.