Q&A with Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program

on March 25, 2021

Power Dynamics is an interview series highlighting the work, ideas, and voices of advocates working to build a clean energy future that is accessible, workable, and just for all.

Jacqueline Patterson came to climate and environmental justice through a long history of advocacy. She’s worked on women’s rights, violence against women, HIV and AIDS, racial justice, and economic justice. In her current role as the director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program (ECJP), she still gets to support all those fights.

“The systemic drivers of climate change are the same systemic drivers of all of the inequities that I’ve worked on,” she says. “All of them have, at [their] core, the challenge around a society that’s predicated on exploitation, extraction, domination as its modus operandi.”

For us, this really equates to the criminalization of poverty when someone is actually paying the price of poverty with their life.

For Patterson, working to change that means working in an intersectional way. “The only way to solve for climate change is to solve for these myriad injustices,” she explains. With the ECJP, she works with community leaders to reduce harmful emissions, advance clean energy and energy-efficiency, and strengthen community resilience and livability.

Patterson recently spoke with us about the ways climate change is intertwined with so many other injustices, the disproportionate ways that it affects communities of color, and how we can shift the narrative to advocate for the rapid changes we need to make.

Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Arcadia: We’ve talked in this series about how climate change disproportionately affects frontline communities. You’ve written about how it affects Black women specifically. Can you talk more about that?

Jacqueline Patterson: There are ways that climate disproportionately affects women, there are ways the climate disproportionately affects Black folks, and then there are ways that climate uniquely [and] disproportionately affects Black women. It's a triple kind of situation.

The most recent statistics show that, for a white American household, average wealth is $171,000; for an African-American household, the average wealth is $17,000; for a Black woman-headed household, the average wealth is $5. Wealth gets access to safe and affordable housing. Already, we're more likely to live in floodplains as Black folks; African-American women are then compounded in terms of that likelihood. Our housing insecurity means that we are less likely to be able to move from those places.

We know that 26% of African-American households are food-insecure. We can surmise that with those wealth differentials, the female African-American household is even more likely to be food-insecure. The shifts in agricultural yields resulting from climate change further exacerbate the circumstance of food insecurity.

We know that violence against women spikes in the aftermath of disasters; we've seen it happen with the BP oil drilling disaster, the earthquake in Gujarat, certainly Hurricane Katrina. African-American women are more likely to be displaced and therefore be in those insecure circumstances where violence against women spikes.

We also know that these same smokestacks that are emitting sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide, methane, are also emitting toxins that interfere with reproductive health. Black families [are] more likely to live next to these toxic facilities. Black women are more likely to have low-birth-weight babies, more likely to experience infant mortality.

Economics seems to be at the heart of so many of those inequities. How does energy policy play into those economic injustices?

We did this report called Lights Out in the Cold: Reforming Utility Shut-Off Policies as if Human Rights Matter, and one of the challenges that we see is that the communities that are more likely to host these toxic facilities are also the communities with the economic burden that makes them more vulnerable to not being able to pay their bill, and then having their electricity shut off for non-payment. And for us, this really equates to the criminalization of poverty when someone is actually paying the price of poverty with their life.

How are you seeing COVID exacerbate that?

A couple of things with that. One is that we have a situation where we have a lessening of the regulations on pollution. And so, as a result, we have communities that are less protected — even less than the inadequate protection that they had before — from the impacts of pollution.

And then we have the inconsistent enforcement of the moratorium on [utility] shut-offs. For us, it should never be that someone is having their utility shut off. We should have a system where energy is a public good in the commons versus something that only people who can afford it are able to have — only people who can afford it have relief from the increasing number of days above 90 degrees that we're experiencing due to climate change, that only people who can afford it have access to all the things that we should be able to take for granted, especially when we know the regenerative nature of energy from sun and wind.

Everybody doesn't have to do everything, but everybody needs to do something.

To your point about the regenerative nature of renewable energy, how does clean energy fit into the solution that you envision?

We know we waste 45% of the energy that we generate on average. We need to really start with that so we're not trying to think up solutions that replace, kilowatt per kilowatt, the amount of energy that's being generated now.

And then we need to be doing R&D to scale up truly clean energy sources in order to A) reduce the pollution burden that's advancing climate change; B) reduce the pollution burden that's harming the communities that are host to those facilities every day, all day; and C) develop a new energy economy that is really centering public ownership and operation of the grid. To the extent that there is private ownership, it's community-owned microgrids, or rooftop in terms of individuals, but it's not a situation where someone is making a profit off of turning someone's access to life off.

How do you see us getting there to that place?

As opposed to subsidizing fossil fuels, we need to subsidize clean air. We need to have public finance for the R&D that's necessary to get us to scale up energy efficiency, including re-thinking and redoing our buildings so that we have buildings that are energy-efficient and built on regenerative design. We need to really move towards centering local production. We need to put the policies in place that strictly regulate the amount of pollution from these facilities, and we need to put policies in place that shift funding priorities, so that we have public finance and public operation of our energy system.

These are the kinds of shifts that we need to really have an energy system that has its focus on providing energy versus providing a hefty profit to a wealthy few, which is the current reality of our energy system.

You’ve talked about the importance of narrative in shifting how we approach climate justice issues. Could you explain more about what you mean by that?

Narratives that we have, like job-killing regulations or these kinds of things, become people's perceptions of reality, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. We have to get on top of the narrative if we have any hope of helping people see the actual realities, and therefore see the level of solutions that we need. As long as we have people denying that there's COVID-19; denying that there's climate change; denying the notion that we can have clean air, clean water, uncontaminated land, and jobs for everyone, then that perception will continue to be the reality because people aren't opening themselves and supporting the types of measures that we need to make those shifts.

What have you found that works for shifting that narrative for people?

One is elevating who is telling the stories. Because it really is about getting a new vision and a radical imagination into the lexicon of society. That is done by what we do around political education, and just around having conversations that break down these false notions of scarcity and recognizing that there is abundance, and that it's up to us to pave the pathway to abundance.

There are ways, whether it's through making sure that new leaders have a platform to have a voice, really engaging around social media, [or] really making sure that there are new messengers and different messaging that then dominates the airwaves and therefore dominates cultural references and conversations at the dinner table.

As more folks realize what is happening and what needs to happen with climate justice, what would be most helpful for them to do?

So many things. We have a publication we put out called "20 Things We Can Do to Advance a Just and Sustainable Planet." Another adage that I think Naomi Klein coined is “To change everything, we need everyone.” Every last person can contribute in some way.

I started a garden on my balcony. If everybody did that and we didn't need to be shipping and trucking so much food around, that would make a difference. If everybody really adhered to recycling so we don't have so much going to landfills, and, eventually, we could move towards not having landfills or incinerators. If everybody really paid attention to who we're voting on in office, not just the presidential election races, or not just the Senate races, but down to the public service commissions and the zoning boards, really just do a little bit of homework to figure out who we're putting in office. If everybody engaged around civic engagement and made sure that other folks did as well, then we would, for example, have a shift toward an energy system that is centered in energy being a public good versus being a source of excessive profits for a wealthy few.

Everybody doesn't have to do everything, but everybody needs to do something.