Why We Need Antiracist, Feminist Leadership on Climate and Energy

December 9, 2020 | 4:02 pm
Jennie C. Stephens
Director, Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs

Trained in environmental science and engineering, I have been working on climate and energy for over 25 years. My professional experiences as a woman in this technical field have taught me that the inadequacy of our efforts to respond to the climate crisis—our inability to end fossil fuel reliance and transition to a renewable-based society—is not due to a lack of technological innovation or scientific expertise. Rather, our ineffectiveness results from a lack of investment and attention to social innovation and social justice. To fix that, we need an inclusive and integrative approach to climate and energy policy.

Rather than continue to perpetuate the inadequate, narrow, exclusive, male-dominated technocratic approach that I call “climate isolationism,” it is time for a new kind of leadership that embraces antiracist and feminist principles and prioritizes transformation toward an equitable and just future that strives for inclusive prosperity for all.

At this critical time of interconnected crises of health, climate, housing, growing economic inequities, racial disparities, and structural racism, I believe we will not be effective until social justice, racial justice, and economic justice are at the core of all climate and energy policies. This realization led me to write my new book—Diversifying Power: Why We Need Antiracist, Feminist Leadership on Climate and Energy (Island Press, 2020)

Beyond climate isolationism

To date, climate action has too often been constrained within a limited technocratic perspective. I coined the term “climate isolationism” to characterize this common but unproductive framing of climate change as a narrow, isolated, discrete, scientific problem in need of technological solutions. Decision-makers working within a lens of climate isolationism often focus quantitatively on carbon reductions, greenhouse gas inventories, carbon pricing, and global average temperature while inadvertently dismissing the human dimensions associated with these quantitative measures. This technocratic focus limits public engagement and excludes people because the language and approach only resonates with a small subgroup of society. Given the stark inequities in access to science education and the structural racism and sexism that pervades science and engineering, this technocratic focus does not resonate with most people.

In addition to being exclusive, this technocratic lens is dangerous because it obfuscates and diminishes the potential for transformative social change and social innovation and therefore dismisses and ignores social justice. This has resulted in climate action and energy policies that exacerbate racial disparities and economic inequities by further privileging those Americans who already have wealth and power. Rather than recognizing that responding to the climate crisis is an opportunity for societal transformation, climate isolationism often projects the need for sacrifice and hardship which further diminishes the effectiveness of climate action.

A new kind of leadership

Despite our nation’s ideals of freedom and equality, the political culture in the United States continues to embrace patriarchal leadership (based on domination, exclusion and control) and reinforce white supremacy (systemic and historical privileges for white Americans). This means that wealth and power are concentrated among white Americans, mostly men. The culture of science and scientists is part of this exclusive culture, and those advocating for technocratic climate and energy policies are all too often white men. Until power is redistributed, and until we have more diverse leadership on climate and energy, we can expect to continue the legacy of narrow, ineffective climate policies.

When women, people of color and indigenous leaders join leadership spaces where they have been historically excluded, they bring different life experiences, different priorities, different perceptions of risk and a different capacity to center social justice. Research on risk perceptions shows that white American men see all kinds of threats—from climate change to automobile accidents to cancer—as less risky than non-white American men and women. Diversifying leadership is essential to effectively balance risk perceptions and center social justice in our policies.

The Squad

The four junior Congresswomen known as The Squad bring inspiration and hope for a new kind of leadership. Since coming on the national stage just over two years ago, they have transformed the national discourse on climate and energy policy by explicitly linking the climate crisis with economic justice and jobs, health and wellbeing, the criminal justice system, and the need for public investments in housing. By centering climate action on the need for public investments in people and communities, the Squad has demonstrated how to build multiracial and multigenerational coalitions in climate and energy policy.

Concern about John Kerry

As John Kerry prepares to take on the new role as Climate Envoy for the United States, it is critically important that he listen and learn from younger, more diverse climate leaders. In that way, he can broaden his perspective beyond the limited and ineffective technocratic approaches he has championed in the past. I do not know Kerry well, but I am concerned about his climate isolationist perspective. Last July I was shocked to hear Kerry, in a webinar on the climate crisis, state that the solution to climate change is technology. And just last week Kerry wrote an op-ed about carbon pricing and relying on the market and the private sector to “solve” the climate crisis. Given the depths of the crisis, it is time for leaders like John Kerry to realize that neither the market nor technology can advance climate and energy justice. Neither the market nor technology will redistribute power in the ways that are necessary. We need massive public investments in people and communities. We need to push leaders like Kerry—who seems to be calling for the same things he was calling for 20 years ago—to refresh their ideas and consider investing in social innovations beyond carbon pricing.

Distributing power to the people

Antiracist, feminist leadership is focused on resisting and restructuring so that power is distributed rather than concentrated. This kind of leadership requires constant resistance to practices, processes and policies that perpetuate economic inequities and racial disparities. We need leaders who acknowledge who currently has power, and who understand the priorities of those who want to concentrate their own wealth and power. Importantly, we need leaders who understand who has been—and continues to be—excluded from positions of power.

As the power and influence of the polluter elite continues to grow even during the pandemic, we need more leaders, including scientific leaders, who can stand up for structural and transformative change. We need scientists to recognize the constraints of “climate isolationism” and expand their advocacy to integrate all the opportunities for advancing social justice while transforming to a renewable-based society. I am optimistic for this shift in leadership, mostly because of the power of youth—I have two daughters who are 20 and 21. Through them I see both the passionate concern about the future, and also their deeper understanding of the problematic power dynamics and the interconnectedness of the world’s biggest problems. Young leaders, including those involved in Sunrise and the Movement for Black Lives, offer us all inspiration and hope.

Jennie C. Stephens is Director of Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs, Dean’s Professor of Sustainability Science & Policy, and the author of the new book Diversifying Power: Why We Need Antiracist, Feminist Leadership on Climate and Energy (Island Press, 2020). Trained at Harvard and Caltech, she is an internationally-recognized expert on renewable transformation, energy democracy, climate justice, and gender in energy innovation. Learn more about her work at www.jenniecstephens.com or on Twitter @jenniecstephens.

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