Anthony Rodgers Wright is an activist and policy director for the national nonprofit Environmental Action. He has presented the case for climate justice, environmental justice, and climate change action at universities nation- and worldwide and written on the subjects for numerous publications. He is one of the creators of “The Leap,” a justice movement that calls for a fundamental shift in the way we care for each other and the earth. Rodgers Wright helped organize the Climate March for Jobs and Justice in Washington, D.C. on April 29. The event brought tens of thousands of people to the nation’s capital. He spoke with 1199 Magazine a day before the march. What follows is an edited version of that interview.
Why haven’t Black, indigenous, and poor white people been able to more clearly connect with Big Green? How can labor help?
I would switch the question around and ask why Big Green hasn’t connected with those communities. It comes with the process of engaging in ways that foster good communication and solidarity. That has been a systemic problem within the Big Green world. Not just with their organizations, but also how they approach other organizations—just throwing money at them and not bringing people to the table. I can say I was very involved with the corrections to the Merkley Sanders Climate bill that was introduced [in April]. You could see in the original iteration of that bill a disconnect. This bill advertised it was going to be good for communities of color, which of course includes our indigenous sisters and brothers—but when you read the bill it never specifically says indigenous communities. It never says communities of color, either. It only mentions low-income communities, which of course is very insulting because not all low-income communities are Black, Brown or Indigenous, and there are some of us who are not low-income. They forgot the qualitative elements that would characterize communities as environmental justice communities, including the history of segregation and situation of toxic facilities in their communities. Lest we forget that the African American family making $100,000 still is six to ten times more likely than a white family that is making $50,000 to suffer the effects of pollution. As union influence has gone down so have conditions in communities of color. We in the environmental community have to do a better job of engaging labor because labor has always done a great job of engaging in these communities. Labor is extremely important to look at as part of the just transition discussion.
What are the narratives the other side is promoting right now? How they are tuned to the working people’s concerns?
We have to take what they are saying seriously. My supervisor Naomi Klein said it best in her seminal work “This Changes Everything.” She says the right is right and what that means is these extractive energy jobs, whether they’re pipeline jobs or coal mining jobs, are good-paying jobs. They might lie about the number of jobs that are created by fossil fuel infrastructure, but they are not lying about the pay-scale. On our end what we talk about is renewable energy jobs vastly outpacing fossil fuel jobs; that’s the story that’s being told and what we espouse, but we don’t talk about the quality, because we cannot look our sisters and brothers from labor in the eye and tell them to take a renewable energy jobs that are paying $40,000 to $50,000 less than extractive industry jobs and then call that just transition. The other side knows this; we have to find a way to combat it. We have to find a way to support these brothers and sisters who find themselves displaced. We cannot ask them to take a $30,000 to $40,000 pay cut. They have families. They have food to put on the table. They have children to educate. That does speak to a kind of disconnect on our side. The number of jobs is amazing, but we have to be able to say that these jobs will allow workers to collectively bargain, that the worker standards will be better than extractive energy jobs and that the pay can be at pace with extractive energy jobs. We have to figure that out.
Many 1199ers, who live in the most polluted areas of our nation, are impacted daily by food deserts, asthma, allergies and obesity-related health conditions. Talk about the confluence of environmental justice and public health.
I would refer you to an amazing report to one of the preeminent scholars on environmental justice, Dr. Robert Bullard. He released a report about why historically Black communities must lead in the climate fight. In his amazing work he shows that regions most vulnerable to climate fueled storms are also where the most food deserts are. I say listen to the experts. If you look at the amazing work of coalitions like NY Renews, these are the experts. We have to hold our media accountable for not telling these stories. It seems whenever they reach out to get an opinion on the climate crisis, it’s usually from the same white men. Only when it’s an article on environmental justice will you get the opinion of [another community leader who is not white]. In truth, all of these community residents are experts on climate change because they have experienced it.
Tell us about the relationship between climate change denial and things which may seem unrelated, such as efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the campaign to end neutrality among Internet providers.
I don’t believe there is such a thing as a climate denier. They know what they’re talking about. In the 1970’s we now know that Exxon knew about this. What they deny is their willingness to adjust it because it cuts into their bottom line. That’s what’s really happening. This formed a new way of how to debate climate deniers. When you are denying the existence of physics, what you’re really denying is the need to address racial oppression, the need to address genocide, and slow genocide against indigenous sisters and brothers, the need to address economic injustice - you’re denying all of those things. All of that contributes to the oppression of climate change. The future that we want includes labor having its place in this country like they did during FDR. When you try to cut the ACA that’s denying climate change. When you break up unions you deny the need for labor to be leaders in the climate fight. When you deny the Dakota Access Pipeline was about rights for indigenous people, you are denying climate change. The idea of climate denial is really all about denying the processes to get us to the world that we want.
What are your hopes for the Climate March? What does this mean for our country?
What we will see is a reminder of our power and a reminder of what happens when we get together. We saw it with The March for Science; we saw it with the amazing outpouring around the world with women who came together and said, “This is not normal and we are not going to allow this to be seen as normal.” I’m hoping people take actionable items back home with them. Fired up and ready to go. The march is a reminder of our power. What we do after is a demonstration of our power. The work starts when you get home: a week after that, a month after and every day. I hope that message is marrow deep in people’s consciousness. We will see this march led by the most-impacted communities. We are going to lead, and I hope that sticks in people’s mind and increases their desire for inclusive engagement. The march is a good reminder, but we have to demonstrate all of this after the march.