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“Climate isolation” is a term coined by Jennie Stephens, Ph.D., Director of Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs, and Dean’s Professor of Sustainability Science & Policy. Traditionally, climate change is discussed as distinct from other crises, and potential solutions are focused on technology options. But Dr. Stephens argues that this technocratic focus and its associated language has reduced public engagement. In her new book, Diversifying Power: Why We Need Antiracist, Feminist Leadership on Climate and Energy, Dr. Stephens argues that transformation to a just, sustainable renewable-based society requires leaders who connect social justice to climate and energy. Recently, I was able to ask Dr. Stephens about her new book.
Kevin Kruse: In your book, you make the case that we need more diverse leadership to effectively act on climate and energy. Why does diversity matter on this topic?
Jennie Stephens, Ph.D.: Diversity matters in climate and energy policy because for too long, concerns of vulnerable communities have been minimized and dismissed while white-male-dominated-fossil-fuel interests have profited from exploiting marginalized people. Without diverse leadership, the United States has invested in concentrating wealth and power by supporting the “polluter elite” rather than investing in the basic needs of people and communities. Research shows us that when women, people of color, and indigenous folks show up in leadership spaces where they have been historically excluded, they bring with them different lived experiences and different perceptions of risk that lead to more socially just outcomes. Research also shows that more diverse teams, more diverse organizations, and more diverse sectors are more innovative. For the transformative changes that are needed to effectively respond to the climate crisis and equitable transition to a renewable-based future, diverse leadership is essential.
Kruse: What does antiracist and feminist leadership look like for climate and energy?
Dr. Stephens: Antiracist, feminist leadership involves constantly acknowledging and resisting the problematic power dynamics associated with conventional patriarchal systems, practices and policies that privilege men and whiteness. Antiracist, feminist leadership focuses on collaborative and inclusive approaches to distributing wealth and power and prioritizing investments in communities, workers’ rights, and public health. Anyone – including people of any racial or gender identity, any sexual orientation and any cultural and religious backgrounds – can practice antiracist, feminist leadership. Climate and energy leaders who embrace antiracist and feminist principles are actively resisting the concentration of wealth and power and fossil fuel interests that have been strategically working for decades to prevent a transition to a renewable-based society. Antiracist, feminist leadership involves connecting climate and energy investments to jobs and economic justice, health and food, housing justice, transit equity and education.
Kruse: How have your own professional experiences informed your views on this issue?
Dr. Stephens: I have been working on climate and energy issues for the past 25 years. My professional experiences as a woman in a male-dominated 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. A narrow technical focus on climate and energy, a male-dominated dangerous belief that technology will somehow save us, has resulted in so many missed opportunities to invest in people and communities. Instead, I believe we need an inclusive approach to climate and energy policy with antiracist, feminist leadership that prioritizes the needs of all people. We need diverse leadership to advocate for social innovations that center climate action and the renewable energy transformation on social justice, racial justice and economic justice.
Kruse: Some people anchor their hopes for a climate change solution to technological fixes. You don’t believe such “climate isolationism” is the answer, preferring instead energy democracy. How do these two differ?
Dr. Stephens: All too often the climate crisis is framed as an isolated scientific problem that requires a technological fix. With this framing, social justice, social change, and institutional innovation are usually ignored – and then the challenge seems distant to most people. 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.
Energy democracy is an alternative way to frame our response to the climate crisis as an opportunity for investing in communities and redistributing power literally and figuratively. The social changes resulting from investments in a new distributed renewable economy have huge potential to be politically and economically transformative. Investing in a future powered by renewables including wind (both onshore and offshore), solar power (utility-scale and household scale and community solar), as well as geothermal and maybe micro-hydro, wave and tidal – allows more people, communities, and organizations to benefit and be involved – and could bring widespread benefits by allowing for local and community-owned energy.
Kruse: Do you believe the Biden/Harris Administration will have an antiracist, feminist leadership approach to climate and energy issues?
Dr. Stephens: I am optimistic about the Biden/Harris Administration’s commitment to a “whole-of-government” approach to transformative change on climate and energy. The appointment of Gina McCarthy, a feminist leader who has been advocating for decades to link climate and energy policy with investments in public health, as the first White House National Climate Advisor, demonstrates an innovative approach that centers on social justice.
I am also inspired by the appointment of other antiracist, feminist leaders like my friend and colleague, Shalanda Baker, who is now serving in the newly created position of Deputy Director for Energy Justice within the Department of Energy where she is designing and implementing policies and practices that ensure that at least 40% of all climate and energy investments benefit frontline and marginalized communities.
At the same time, I am a bit concerned about some senior members of the Biden/Harris administration who are supporting public investment in dangerous technological approaches to climate including solar geoengineering research. Advancing the idea of injecting aerosols into the atmosphere to reduce global warming by blocking incoming solar radiation further concentrates wealth and power exacerbating existing injustices and creating additional risks in climate governance.
Kruse: Why did you title chapter one of your book “Growing the Squad”?
Dr. Stephens: I am so inspired by the four junior Congresswomen known as The Squad who demonstrate hope through a new kind of leadership. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Talib of Michigan have transformed the national discourse on climate and energy since coming on the national stage just two and a half years ago. 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, these four leaders demonstrate the power of centering social justice and linking our responses to the interconnected crises that we face. 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.
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