Washington was the first state in the United States to be struck by COVID-19 and forced to respond to the global pandemic. If we strategically and comprehensively take action, we can be the first to demonstrate pathways to a just recovery and a Just Transition, not just from the pandemic but toward our vision of a just, sustainable, and resilient society. (Scroll down for more about our new report, Accelerating a Just Transition in Washington State: Climate Justice Strategies from the Frontlines.)
COVID-19 can be understood through lens of climate and environmental injustice
The measure of health impacts and available remedies during the COVID-19 crisis follow a similar pattern to climate and environmental injustices. How you’re impacted is a factor of both 1) exposure, whether to the virus or the economic fallout, and 2) pre-exisitng vulnerablitilies like healthcare access, existing health conditions, race and language discrimination, and lack of employment or savings. These vulnerabilities are the result of historic and persistent institutional racism and systemic inequity.
Figure 1: Risk Framework from Front and Centered’s Unfair Share Report with the University of Washington illustrates that whoever is impacted is both a factor of who is exposed and who is most vulnerable.
COVID-19 has made these disproportionate impacts – a day-to-day reality for Indigenous communities and people of color – much more visible and stark to many more Americans. The data (and lack of data) around who is testing positive and who is dying from the virus by race and health status, is just one example. We now see how people are disproportionately impacted by their lack of ability to work in an industry less affected by the crisis. To choose a home and to stay home. To use savings to cover loss of income.
The likely duration of COVID-19 and the duration of the necessary economic shutdown are laying bare the fragility of our systems of governance; of place-based resiliency; of an economy requiring growth, exploitation, and enclosure of wealth; and in an energy and production system built to dig, dump, and burn natural resources as described by Movement Generation in the Just Transition Framework.
There’s no going back, so let’s push forward toward our vision of climate and environmental justice.
We will not be going back. These systems are not sustainable nor just as evidenced by the impact of police, militarization, brutality, and mass incarceration on people of color, inequitable access to COVID-19 testing and health care generally, and wildfires and smoke that threaten health and safety. Whether it’s COVID-19 and the response that proves to be the tipping point, compounding climate disasters, or an economic crisis or a combination of events, business as usual cannot last.
But business as usual was not treating communities of color very well anyways. Together we have an opportunity to decide whether we proceed through these crises by disaster, or by design. Our movements are wise, we know this transition is inevitable, it is our job to make sure it’s just.
Our principles in responding to this threat remain salient
Front and Centered has been organizing for this moment. Our Principles for Environmental and Climate Justice provide guideposts for how we do our work. Racial and economic analysis, such as the Washington Environmental Health Disparities Map, should drive decisions. We follow the leadership, knowledge, and expertise of communities disproportionately impacted. We pursue targeted strategies for Black, communities of color, and Indigenous people that create net environmental and economic outcomes for everyone. And we have our eyes set not just on piecemeal change, but a truly Just Transition.
Our work for climate and environmental justice
The community and public policy response to COVID-19 has made it clear that we can choose to turn-down the spigot of pollution and climate change. It’s revealed that for too many, the options we have to meet our needs are deeply harmful, whether its transportation, housing, energy, food, etc. Restricting our ability to move has unintentionally restricted our ability to produce and consume these harms, resulting in the most significant drops in pollution locally and globally in decades. One lesson is that doing less harm is step one. But it is not enough. This is not climate justice. Our vision requires first building a foundation for structural, procedural, and distributional equity so when we chose to set limits that apply to everyone, as COVID-19 has done, the costs aren’t borne disproportionately by those most impacted, and at the same time we’re building better alternatives.
We operationalize this work by building community capacity, organizing, developing policy, and advancing solutions if four essential areas, listed in compounding importance:
1. Center Those Disproportionately Impacted in Governance
Those closest to an issue are best able to identify effective and equitable solutions. In COVID-19 we have seen direct attacks on both basic elements of democracy – such as the right to vote in states such as Wisconsin and Florida – and more insidious and historic inequities; like the failure of most COVID-19 relief to reach undocumented residents or to be communicated in languages and channels that reach everyone.
Core to Front and Centered’s vision is democratic, localized, participatory system of resource management and self-governance that protects and upholds the rights of our most vulnerable communities. In the COVID-19 disruption and transition we must develop practices and structures that enable equitable governance and enhance grassroots, participatory democracy.
The Front and Centered community of organizations has been on the frontlines taking action. The Asian Pacific Islander Coalition is advocating for appropriate access and OneAmerica for unemployment assistance to residents who lack documents.
2. Restore Community Connections to Place
In Washington state, where you live has always been a critical determinant of how healthy you are and how long you live. COVID-19 is putting new importance on place and access. Stay home, stay healthy means something very different if your home and neighborhood are not healthy, if you don’t have access to green space, if you must take transit to get to your destination or the resources you need, and if you can’t afford to move or live elsewhere.
At the heart of a Just Transition are place-based communities that can practice self-determination, care for their social and economic well-being, and honor ecological stewardship and sustainability. Place-based strategies include increased green space, strengthened food systems, public transportation, sustainable land-use planning, and affordable housing all together.
Got Green, CIELO, El Centro Centro De La Raza, Washington CAN, and The Noble Foundation in Southwest Washington are community-based organization calling for freeze or support for rents and mortgages. They’re also advocating to make fare-free transit permanent. To expand and make broadband accessible to everyone so living in place is a practical option.
In the midst of this, polluters are on offense pressing for relaxing controls on local pollutants and the EPA is listening with an onslaught of moves to deregulate. The Duwamish River Clean Up Coalition is calling on the EPA and State officials to protect our basic rights from pollutants in the neighborhoods on the fence line.
3. Create Livelihoods within a Healthy Environment
Washington’s economy is deeply embedded in the global economic systems that demand growth and enclosure of wealth through commodification of culture and the commons, extraction of labor and resources, and exclusion based on race and gender. The weaknesses of this system to respond to real human needs have never been more apparent than during COVID-19 with shortages of key lifesaving systems and access to care. They also show up in COVID-19 policy responses, with mass layoffs, housing and food insecurity, hoarding of consumer goods, and uncertainty about how to make a livelihood.
A regenerative economy is one that is structured to prioritize sustainable living and work within ecological limits, eradicate inequality, ensure all basic needs are met, and foster individual and community well-being and health.
Groups like Community to Community Development are advocating to extend workplace protections for farm workers and many others to ensure income, housing, and other assistance reaches the most vulnerable households.
4. Transition to Renewable Resources and Energy
Energy suppliers have been completely disrupted by the dual forces of a huge drop in demand due to COVID-19 stay-at-home orders and a flood of supply from dueling global oil powers. The resulting drop in price of oil makes U.S. production untenable but also undermines the transition to renewable resources.
It’s clear from this picture that we cannot rely on the ups and downs of prices and the market to drive the transition off fossil fuels. At the same time, the transition has never been more urgent: air pollution from burning fossil fuels has proven to be a force multiplier of COVID-19.
Ensuring a transition to renewable, equitable energy generation and use can and must be a part of a response to COVID-19 and can be a cornerstone to powering the new regenerative economy we envision. This includes ‘stopping the bad’ strategies through the slowing of energy emissions and energy demand to ‘building the new’ approaches that deploy renewables and electrifying end uses in ways that advance equity.
There can be no transition without ensuring access to energy as a basic right. Puget Sound Sage is calling for stoppage of all disconnections and a reconnection of all utility customers to the basic good of home energy.
Our new report, Accelerating a Just Transition in Washington State: Climate Justice Strategies from the Frontlines, is a response to the question, “Where to go from here?”
Climate and environmental justice is the foundation of which all recovery efforts must be rooted. Too often our leaders and the settler colonial mindset too prevalent in the U.S. ignore the plain and simple physics that everything we do as people in society in our economy is rooted in our ecology. By grounding the recovery in climate and environmental justice we can realize healthier and more equitable communities in Washington and provide the footing we need to thrive as people, self-governing, meeting our needs rooted in place.
This report, Accelerating a Just Transition in Washington State: Climate Justice Strategies from the Frontlines, serves as a framework and library for Front and Centered policy development and to support our members as they strategize and implement effective solutions toward a Just Transition. We will also continue advocating for specific policy priorities — including policies necessary to respond to the social, health, and economic impacts of the pandemic — in our regular legislative and administrative policy agendas. Join our email list to learn more about our policy priorities, our membership, our capacity building strategies, and how we can all work together to achieve a truly Just Transition to a regenerative economy.