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Stateside Chat: Working Toward an Equitable and Just Climate Future

How Community Advocates and Policymakers Are Confronting Injustice and Achieving Climate Success

Add to Calendar 3/18/21 12:00 pm 3/18/21 1:00 pm America/New York Stateside Chat: Working Toward an Equitable and Just Climate Future Join the conversation on Twitter using #StatesideChat. In its first month, the Biden administration has taken several steps to help secure the United States’ climate future and undo the harms initiated or worsened by the previous administration. State and local governments, climate advocates, and environmental justice leaders have been at the forefront of achieving climate success and confronting systemic racism and inequality and will continue to champion progress during the current administration and beyond. Monumental strides have occurred across the country, including state legislation developed with environmental justice advocates to protect environmentally overburdened communities; community-based conservation programs and campaigns; and new state and local commitments to renewable energy. Continued progress will grow even faster with federal partnership and coordination. Please join the Center for American Progress and the League of Conservation Voters for a discussion on climate progress taking place across the country and how these best practices can be used as models for the federal government. This event is the first in a new series of events titled Stateside Chat, highlighting recent state and local successes and outlining a blueprint for continued progress on a number of issues. Please continue to check back at americanprogress.org/events for more information on upcoming events. We would love to hear your questions. Please submit any questions for our distinguished panel via email at CAPeventquestions@americanprogress.org or on Twitter using #StatesideChat. Live captioning will be available on Zoom and on the YouTube livestream.

Join the conversation on Twitter using #StatesideChat.

In its first month, the Biden administration has taken several steps to help secure the United States’ climate future and undo the harms initiated or worsened by the previous administration. State and local governments, climate advocates, and environmental justice leaders have been at the forefront of achieving climate success and confronting systemic racism and inequality and will continue to champion progress during the current administration and beyond. Monumental strides have occurred across the country, including state legislation developed with environmental justice advocates to protect environmentally overburdened communities; community-based conservation programs and campaigns; and new state and local commitments to renewable energy. Continued progress will grow even faster with federal partnership and coordination.

Please join the Center for American Progress and the League of Conservation Voters for a discussion on climate progress taking place across the country and how these best practices can be used as models for the federal government.

This event is the first in a new series of events titled Stateside Chat, highlighting recent state and local successes and outlining a blueprint for continued progress on a number of issues. Please continue to check back at americanprogress.org/events for more information on upcoming events.

We would love to hear your questions. Please submit any questions for our distinguished panel via email at CAPeventquestions@americanprogress.org or on Twitter using #StatesideChat. Live captioning will be available on Zoom and on the YouTube livestream.

In conversation:
Letitia James, New York State Attorney General
John Podesta, Founder & Chair of the Board of Directors, Center for American Progress

Distinguished panelists:
Yoca Arditi-Rocha, Executive Director, The CLEO Institute
Richard Moore, Coordinator, Los Jardines Institute; Co-Founder, Environmental Justice Health Alliance

Moderator:
Sara Chieffo, Vice President, Government Affairs, League of Conservation Voters

Transcript

John Podesta:

Good afternoon, everyone. I’m John Podesta and on behalf of the Center for American Progress, welcome to today’s event. Before we get started, let me do a quick piece of housekeeping business to say that live captioning is available if you click on the closed caption button at the bottom of your screen. Today’s event is the first in a series CAP will be hosting to highlight the remarkable work state and local leaders are doing around the country. Over the next year, CAP plans to host elected officials and community advocates who are fighting for incredible progressive change all around our country. And you can let us know who you would like to hear from and what policies matter to you by using the #Statesidechat.

Now, I’m excited to host a conversation with a great leader when it comes to justice and environmental justice: New York Attorney General Tish James (D). But first, I’m going to say a few things at the outset about today’s topic before I turn it to the attorney general and ask her the first question. Right now, Americans are experiencing, of course, more hurricanes, more winter storms, more severe droughts. Last year, almost 10 million acres of land burned in the American West, over twice the amount that burned in 2019. The Gulf Coast and the Southeast of the United States were battered by the most named winter storms and hurricanes on record this year. We’ve seen the extreme weather in Texas with unprecedented storms, power outages, and subzero temperatures. People, including my daughter, in Colorado are still digging out of their driveways thanks to record snowfall just a few days ago.

Climate change is happening. It’s destroying lives. It’s stressing our lands and our oceans. And without urgent action, the damage is only going to get worse. After four years of neglect by the Trump administration, we now have a president who is taking climate change seriously. President Biden recommitted the United States to international climate leadership by rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement. He’ll host world leaders on Earth Day, April 22nd. He’s called for a 100 percent clean energy economy by 2050, a 100 percent power sector by 2030. And he’s created the governmentwide Justice 40 initiative to focus 40 percent of investments to change our economy from one built on dirty fossil fuels to one on clean energy, 40 percent of that to be invested in disadvantaged communities.

CAP has been calling for actions like this for a long time. In 2018, we helped co-author the Equitable and Just National Climate platform—a historic agreement that outlines a shared vision for action on racial, economic ,and environmental justice. And in 2019, we released our 100 Percent Clean Future report, which outlined critical targets and benchmarks that have been incorporated into some of Biden’s climate agenda. While there have been a major shift at the federal level, when it comes to climate change on the state and local level, many officials have been leading the way for quite some time and kept us in even as Donald Trump tried to take us out of the game with respect to protecting climate. A lot of that work has been done in courthouses around the country through filing lawsuits, holding polluting corporations to account in court—and that’s thanks to state officials like Attorney General Tish James. A former public defender and city council member, Attorney General James was the first Black woman elected to be the public advocate in the city of New York, and in 2019 she became New York’s attorney general. In doing so, she became the first Black woman elected to a statewide office in New York. Since then, she’s been an incredible advocate and champion for environmental justice between 2017 and 2019. No other state attorney general filed more legal actions against the federal government related to the environment.

Attorney General James, thank you for joining us today. It’s wonderful to have you with us. I want to jump in on the topic; I want to get a little bit more of your story. But given the events in our country, I want to start in a somewhat different place and reflect on the fact that we’ve seen such a big spike in violence against Asian Americans across the country, and of course, we mourn the loss of victims in Atlanta right now. And I wonder if we could just take a moment and ask you to reflect on what’s going on in the state of New York? How are you dealing with this, and how are you thinking about the fact that amongst all of the spike and hate across the country, there seems to be such a specific focus and direction of violence directed at the Asian American community?

Attorney General Letitia James:

So first, John, thank you for having me here today. And thank you for focusing on the crimes that have been committed against the Asian community, and most specifically and most recently in Atlanta. The deaths of victims—particularly Asian women—in the Atlanta area that were committed by a gentleman who unfortunately dismissed their humanity. And the comments yesterday of the police officer who indicated that the individual was having a bad day were pretty offensive. The reality is that we can all attribute this to the previous administration, who basically led the way in terms of his language, which was racist in nature, and targeted the community and has made them vulnerable.

And so, I and others in New York, we have a Hate Crimes Task Force. We have a dedicated hotline where individuals can report crimes and can report hate crimes against the Asian Pacific Islander community as well as other communities all throughout the state of New York. And my message is clear that hate will not be tolerated in New York. There is no place for hate in New York state, and that I stand with the Pacific Islander community and with all communities that are experiencing hate. Anti-semitic hate, hate against the African American community, against immigrants, against all communities. There is no space between us, and I stand shoulder to shoulder with any—with all vulnerable communities and marginalized communities. And we will, again, use the full force of this office and law enforcement to go after any individual or any organized group that seeks to target any particular group in New York state. It must stop, it will not be tolerated, and I look forward to joining my friends in the API community at a rally shortly. I’ve stood with them before ,and I will stand with them again as we mourn these unfortunate deaths in Atlanta.

John Podesta:

Thank you so much, general. And thank you for your leadership on that question. Let’s turn, let’s talk about environmental justice. I want to start with the personal, and maybe I think the audience would be interested to hear a little more about your story and your motivations. What led you down the path of becoming a leading voice for justice and using the law to build a more just society to tackle the legacy of environmental justice in our community?

Attorney General Letitia James:

So, I was born and raised and still live in my beloved Brooklyn. And as a former city council member, I represented residents of public housing. And I can recall my concern about the air quality in downtown Brooklyn in and around public housing and the high rates of asthma amongst children. And we lost two children when I was a City Council member who died from asthma attacks in public housing, and I carry their pictures with me to this day. And as a result of that, I have vowed to address the issue of climate change and air quality and environmental justice—particularly in low-income communities. You know, there’s this thought that this issue is an issue of concern only for the rich, for the privileged. And it’s important that individuals understand that environmental justice is inextricably tied to racial justice, and it’s important that all individuals focus on this issue because the brunt of climate change is having a disproportionate impact on low-income communities and communities of color.

So we must do all that we can do to address the issue of climate change, check climate change, and as a member of the City Council, I was one of the first to pass recycling bills in the City Council in the city of New York. Recycling as it affects residents of public housing, recycling for residents all throughout the city of New York, and I am proud of that, and lead the way, as a public advocate of the city of New York, to divest from fossil fuels as a member of the largest pension fund in the city of New York. And now, as I sit in this prestigious office with a team of professionals dedicated to climate change, I am so happy to report that we led the way amongst attorneys general, filing over 300 lawsuits against the previous administration. We led over 250 of them in our efforts to reverse the regressive policies of the previous administration, and they unfortunately denied science and denied climate change, and they thought it was a hoax. And it was offensive to me, and it was offensive to all of my Democratic colleagues who are attorneys general and all of the individuals in my environmental bureau who lead the way each and every day.

John Podesta:

Well, I’ve noted in the past, from day one, the Trump administration was on a rampage to tear down protections built on a bipartisan basis over decades to protect the health and safety, the safe drinking water, et cetera. And of course, the cumulative impact of that pollution has more heavy effects on communities of color, and we’ll talk about that. But now we’ve got a new administration in place. Some view that as a fresh start for state-federal coordination. President Biden has argued that we need to—after we begin to get our arms around and deal with the COVID crisis through the relief that comes from the COVID relief bill—we need to build back better, we need a more just and equitable clean energy future. We need to make those big investments—$2 trillion that he called for in the campaign. And your record, obviously, these lawsuits you’ve filed demonstrate that that’s a priority for you as well. One thing I’m curious about is how do you plan to engage and coordinate with the new Biden-Harris administration going forward to achieve common goals? Where do you see the points—from a policy perspective, there’s certainly a lot of alignment—but how do you work in harness to move things forward?

Attorney General Letitia James:

So, focus on clean water, clean energy, clean air. The past two years as the attorney general, we’ve been at odds with the previous administration, and we’ve had to use the power of the law—both as a sword and as a shield—protecting the health and safety of individuals in our fight to protect our environment. And now, we’re spending a lot of time with the Biden administration reversing all of that litigation and their previous policy and regulation as it relates to attacks on air, the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, and the energy that all of us share. As well as we’ve been focusing with the Biden administration on the decommissioning of power plants. There’s a number of power plants that are being decommissioned in the state of New York, and it’s important that we work hand-in-hand with the Biden-Harris administration and that they understand—and I know that they understand the critical need to address climate change. And I’m so glad that that we are now part of the Paris Accord Agreement once again, and I thank them for that.

And so we want to work again on strengthening our laws in those particular areas. We want to work with the administration again on reversing all of the regressive policies of the previous administration. We have provided the Biden administration with a list of environmental issues and other issues that need to be addressed as soon as possible. And we will use the law both to support the Biden administration in support of their regulations and their laws that they put forth. But most importantly, it’s really enforcement. The power of enforcement is so critically important since, unfortunately, EPA failed. They were asleep at the switch, and unfortunately, they did not honor their mission. We need to target enforcement efforts, which is really critically important to address harms of environmental justice in environmental justice communities that they are experiencing these days. It’s important that we focus on exposure to unhealthy levels of pollution, that we focus on dumping—which is a major problem, particularly on Long Island and in parts of upstate New York.

But enforcement really will be our focus going forward with the Biden administration. We have worked with them and will continue to work with them to develop solutions to create—to protect our environment. And to, again, as I mentioned, what’s important for me is reversing all of the policies of the previous administration. And it includes, and I have my list right here, vehicle emissions, methane emissions, particulate matter, cold leasing, Endangered Species Act, DFAS cleanups, supplemental environmental projects, power plants, science transparency rules, wildlife refuge oil, Migratory Bird Treaty Act regulations, national monument rescissions—and the list goes on and on and on. It’s a three-page list. I only highlighted a few, but that’s what we are committed to doing. And it’s a new day in our country, and we’ve got to do all that we can do to protect this planet and protect future generations, but also protect those vulnerable communities that are being disproportionately impacted by the climate change.

John Podesta:

Yeah. Have you already seen a little bit of a change of attitude in the litigations you’re currently in in terms of the way Justice Department lawyers and people who defend the actions of—who it was their job to defend the actions of the Trump administration? I’ve worked in what is now the Environment Division of the Justice Department, so I know that sometimes you get handed something you really don’t want to do, but you have to do it. But have things changed a little bit, even in the first early months?

Attorney General Letitia James:

It’s been a breath of fresh air in every agency. But, you know, the EPA they gutted out, and DOJ is just ramping up. And I would hope the DOJ creates an environmental justice bureau, but clearly, the attitude and the relationship has changed. And so, we’ve pulled back on our litigation efforts. And it’s more collaboration and coordination with the Biden administration going forward. But it’s important that, again, to reverse a lot of the policies, we’re going to have to go through the rule-making process. But on day one, we know that the administration rolled back some previous policies from the former administration. And so, it’s just been, again, a joy to work with the Biden administration, and it gives me an opportunity now to focus on enforcement efforts in the state of New York. And that’s what’s critically important.

John Podesta:

That’s great.

Attorney General Letitia James:

That the laws that we pass are being enforced, and that we can go after corporate polluters, and that we can identify areas all throughout the state of New York, which are being affected by climate change. And as we prepare to work with the Biden administration, as they prepare to pass an infrastructure bill, that we talked about resiliency, and that when we talk about rebuilding our infrastructure, that we build it consistent with a focus on reducing greenhouse emissions, and that it’s more energy-efficient.

John Podesta:

Well, as I noted, I think that this pledge also to focus those investments—which we anticipate are coming forward now that the COVID relief bill is done—will really focus on disadvantaged communities and communities that have really been burdened by being at the edge of industrial pollution, power plant pollution, et cetera, so—

Attorney General Letitia James:

And it’s so interesting, because there was an article yesterday in The New York Times with respect to China—talked about China’s efforts, again, to embrace climate change and to embrace reductions in greenhouse admissions. But at the same time, there was a concern about coal and trying to—and how coal was related to their economy. And I think what they really need to be educated on is this or they need to embrace more of a green economy going forward. And we need to do more of that, particularly in communities of color and recognize that it is not a loss in terms of our economy, but in fact, it is a gain if we embrace the green economy going forward. And obviously, it will reduce savings and create a more healthy population in the United States as well as in China.

John Podesta:

And put a lot of people back to work if we …

Attorney General Letitia James:

That’s right.

John Podesta:

… try to do the work that needs to get done.

Attorney General Letitia James:

That’s right. And move away from coal. We’ve got to move away from coal and fossil fuels.

John Podesta:

One of the goals at this event is to showcase what states and local communities are doing to build a more just, equitable, and clean economy. In 2019, New York state passed the transformative Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. That came about after strong advocacy from a broad coalition of environmental and equity stakeholders. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of that law? What can federal lawmakers and other state lawmakers learn from its passage and how it’s being implemented.

Attorney General Letitia James:

So again, now that we can focus on initiatives and actions and legislation in the state of New York, it’s important that we work with state agencies, but it’s also important that individuals understand, I guess, the three particular aspects of this legislation. And the first is that it basically requires 100 percent zero-emission electricity by 2040; two, that it will mandate economywide greenhouse gas emission reductions of 40 percent by 2030 and 85 percent by 2050; third, that it integrates environmentalist, environmental justice groups through advisory and working groups that include members from environmental justice communities, all across the state of New York, that are empowered to ensure that the needs of these communities are particularly met. And because it’s really critically important, again, as we talk about disadvantage in low-income communities, that all of the savings that we realize that they are targeted toward these communities. And that means that we must invest and direct a significant portion of its resources in a way that benefits communities that have been disproportionately affected by climate change through spending on clean energy, energy efficiency programs, workforce development, investments in areas like housing and transportation, and economic development going forward. Particularly, as we anticipate and infrastructure bill being passed in Washington, D.C., this law is set to standard across the country and provides a good model for how we need to both rebuild our economy and how we should be really inclusive of all stakeholders, and all individuals should be at the table.

New York has been the model. New York will continue to be a model, but clearly, it’s a model across and shall hopefully—it will be a model across the country as we transition to a clean, carbon-neutral economy going forward. And I hope that others will lead as I know that they will. We’ve had several discussions amongst Democratic attorneys general in an effort, again, to talk about clean energy, to talk about ways to improve air quality, and to talk about by an investment in the green economy going forward. We saw what happened with Texas, we know what happened with Texas. We do not want that to happen again. It was a disinvestment in the infrastructure in Texas. It had a disproportionate impact on low-income communities and communities of color. They are still trying to recover. We know—I’m particularly concerned about what’s happening in Mississippi, in the Delta. There’s an effort right now to build a gigantic plastic manufacturing firm. We should oppose that. I look forward to working with the Biden administration to oppose that plastics firm going forward, and I look forward to working with the Biden administration as we, again, decommission power plants in the state of New York.

John Podesta:

You know, I really mean it when I say you are at the front lines, kind of holding the line against all these rollbacks. Now that the federal government is there, and as you noted, maybe they take up a little bit of that slack, but it’s interesting to hear you talk about attorneys general working together to move the policy forward. And I wonder both how much people do look to New York as a leader. I mean, a lot of times we think of looking to California because of their leadership, particularly under the Clean Air Act because of the waiver that they have to go further and faster. But how much do people look to New York as just as being a leading voice for protecting particularly disadvantaged communities, and what’s the regional makeup? Do you work a lot with the attorneys general in Connecticut and New Jersey to come up with regional solutions?

Attorney General Letitia James:

So, there are 25 Democratic attorneys general and we were all of like mind when it came to the environment. And I’m glad that you gave California a shout out. And first, I want to congratulate in advance my colleague. I mean, he might be my former colleague at this moment, Attorney General Becerra (D). I want to congratulate him in advance and it’s such a loss because we were the bookends, both New York and California, and we closely became very close. We became a bookend in environmental issues on a wide range of issues going forward. So, Attorney General Becerra, congratulations. I’m certainly going to miss you, but you’re going to make a great HHS secretary.

So, 25 state attorneys general. We’ve got an association. We talk on a daily basis. We have weekly conferences, and we took over 300 actions, again, to defend and to advance laws and policies related to the air quality, toxics, clean energy, and other environmental issues. And we’ve again, we’ve led, we’ve joined a number of multistate coalitions, but New York led 240 of those actions going forward. And each of these actions was in response to the previous administration in their efforts to reverse all of the progress that we made. They were reckless. They were an attack on our fundamental health and environmental protections, protecting the health and safety of our citizens. And I don’t want to pick a single action, but point to the fact that we have basically created a national coalition of state attorneys general committed to defending and advancing the health and environment and advancing the environmental concerns. And I believe that we have really had the greatest impact over the last four years. And I would argue over the last two years since I’ve been the attorney general, this broad coalition really is a reflection of our strong, broad support and our commitment to, again, in advancing environmental policies that, again, address climate change and confront the environmental changes, challenges that we are experiencing right now. You know, you talked about Colorado. You and I both talked about Texas. We can talk about Mississippi. There’s a number of cancer alleys. There’s a cancer alley on Long Island. We’ve got common goals, and it’s critically important that we work together both individually, collectively, and in support of the Biden administration.

John Podesta:

Thank you, general. We’re basically out of time. But I want to ask you one last question …

Attorney General Letitia James:

Sure.

John Podesta:

… or give you the opportunity. You’re talking to a lot of environmental advocates, a lot of concerned environmental citizens, people who care about the future and particularly care about the fact, as we’ve been talking about, the effects on environmental justice, on Black and brown communities and communities of color across the country. Give us our charge. What can we do to help you get progress that needs to be made? Is it to focus on the federal level? Could we help you in keeping the pressure on at the state and local level as well? What should we all be doing?

Attorney General Letitia James:

So, obviously, I support the Biden administration and look forward to working with them, which does not mean I’m not going to keep my eye off of them, so that’s important. So, we must continue to keep our eye on the prize, keep our eye on the Biden administration and ensure that they do not lift the pedal off from addressing these environmental challenges. Superfund site vulnerability is a major issue that we must continue to focus on. It’s a serious environmental issue. Superfund sites are reported to be within close proximity to federally subsidized housing, which means low-income communities and communities of color. And so, it’s really critically important that we focus on, again, on cleaning up superfund sites and getting resources to address that as well. Sustainability, resiliency is a major issue going forward.

And lastly, I’m really particularly interested in this infrastructure bill that the Biden administration is committed to passing to ensuring that that meets the environmental changes and that incorporates a clean and green economy going forward. With respect to CAP, I just thank you for all that you are doing. I look forward to working with you on all of these issues and more. Again, I look forward to using the power of the law and all the tools of this office to protect vulnerable and marginalized communities, but most important, addressing the environmental challenges that face all of us, and continue to educate low-income communities and communities of color that this is not just an issue for the privileged, but this is an issue that affects all of us, and that all of us should be at the table, and that all of our voices should be heard. Thank you for continuing to organize, thank you for continuing to advocate, and thank you for all that you are doing. I really appreciate it. And for all the policies that you’re doing up and down the coast and all across the [inaudible 00:30:25].

John Podesta:

Fantastic. General James, thank you so much for being here and for your leadership and for your commitment. We’re going to turn here now with a panel with some local environmental justice leaders. But we just want to applaud all that you have done to make your state a better place and to make our country a better place. And we stand ready to lock arms and make sure that bill back better agenda gets introduced into Congress, passed through Congress, and that those commitments—particularly those investments in disadvantaged communities—become real and take place. So, thank you General James for being with us.

Attorney General Letitia James:

Thank you. I appreciate you. Thank you all.

John Podesta:

All right. Now it’s my pleasure to turn to a panel of environmental justice leaders who have been playing a key role in their respective communities. I’m going to turn the emcee role over to my friend, Sara Chieffo, who will be moderating our next session. Sara is the vice president of Government Affairs at the League of Conservation Voters. She’s been with LCV since 2009. She’s worked hard to advance Global Climate and Energy Policy at the federal level. And she’s joined by Richard Moore, who I’ve gotten to know really well in the last couple of years and really appreciate him, and Yoca Arditi-Rocha. And so, I’ll let you give formal introduction, Sara, but thanks for doing this, thanks for being with us, and Richard and Yoca, thanks for joining us.

Sara Chieffo:

Thank you so much, John. And thank you to CAP for creating this space and hosting this event. What powerful remarks and what a great example Attorney General James is setting and fighting for justice across this country, so thank you again. As John said, I am Sarah Chieffo, vice president of Government Affairs at the League of Conservation Voters. I’m honored to be the emcee for this panel. Before we dive in, I want to reiterate the two housekeeping points that John made up front of the top of the event. As a reminder, closed captioning is available. You can use the captioning tab at the bottom of the screen. We’d also love to hear your questions for our esteemed panelists, and you can submit those by using the questions tab at the bottom of your screen. So today, we are joined by two truly incredible environmental justice leaders, as John said. They have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share with you all about truly centering equity and the most impacted communities as we tackle the climate crisis.

We have Yoca Arditi-Rocha, the executive director of the CLEO Institute, a Florida-based nonprofit focused on working with front-line communities to build climate literacy and to mobilize climate action for a resilient future. Thank you, Yoca. Yoca comes to CLEO with a wide range of experiences and expertise that I couldn’t summarize here. But I’d love to pull out that she’s a biologist by training, has advised many organizations on sustainability efforts, and even participate in U.N. climate negotiations to name a few. We’re so lucky to have you with us today, Yoca.

And Richard Moore is coordinator of the Los Jardines or the Gardens Institute based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Their mission is to build and foster healthy and sustainable communities and workplaces. Richard is also co-founder of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, a national alliance of environmental justice grassroots organizations working to reform the chemical and energy industry so that they no longer are a source of harm. He has decades of experience in the environmental justice movement, and we are so lucky to be joined by him today. I also had the good fortune, like John has, of building a friendship and relationship with Richard over the last few years, and I’m forever more grateful for that. So, we’re going to learn from Yoca and Richard a little bit more about some of the best practices, some of the historic barriers, and some of the top lessons, especially from state and local level progress about how to ensure national climate policy truly builds a more equitable and just future. These lessons couldn’t be more timely as we now have a pro-climate action, pro-environmental justice Biden administration. And as they work with Congress to turn from well, the long-overdue pandemic relief to truly a bold economic recovery package that centers environmental justice as we build back better. It’s essential that policymakers and national climate advocates really understand that systemic racism and injustice are exposing Black, Indigenous, and communities of color and low-income communities to the highest levels of toxic pollution in this country. These same forces are the ones that are making these communities most vulnerable to climate change’s impacts. We must tackle climate change with truly intersectional policymaking approach that center’s justice and equity. If we don’t, we run the risk of the new economy replacing the ills of the carbon-based economy.

So, before we jump in and learn from Yoca and Richard, you wanted me to center five top-line lessons to keep front and center as we jump into this conversation. The first is that we must address the legacy of toxic pollution and its cumulative impacts that is disproportionately harming front-line communities. Second, we must prioritize investments and environmental justice communities with strong community input and oversight of those funds. Third is that we have to ensure that the most impacted communities are involved at every stage of policymaking. This goes from identifying the problems to be solved, understanding how they impact real people, to policy design, to program limitation and evaluation. Fourth, we have to support capacity-building for community-based organizations and technical support. And then fifth, we must ensure that we have equitable access to high-quality family-sustaining jobs, affordable inclusion, free energy, transportation and housing options, while increasing community resilience and closing the racial wealth gap through community wealth-building strategies. We are so incredibly lucky to have Richard and Yoca to learn from today. And so with that, let me turn it over with our first question, which if we could have you start briefly by sharing your organization’s mission, what communities you serve, and what motivates you to do this work? Let’s please start with Yoca and then turn to Richard.

Yoca Arditi-Rocha:

Thank you, Sara. Thank you so much for this invitation. This has been a great discussion already, and thank you to CAP. CAP has been a long friend and ally to the CLEO Institute, and I’m so very grateful to be here. Well, the CLEO Institute for the last 12 years had been, their sole purpose and mission has been to educate and empower communities to demand climate action, ensuring a safe, just, and healthy environment for all. We work with a top-bottom, bottom-top approach, working with elected officials at the local, state, and in some cases, federal level. But we also work with front-line communities which are at the forefront of the global health, economy, environmental justice, and climate crisis. CLEO works with climate scientists and scores of governmental science and local governments to really engage diverse audiences and understanding the urgency of the crisis and to embrace scalable solutions, particularly those that are and will be impacted the most. We approach climate literacy and advocacy in that interdisciplinary holistic manner that addresses both adaptation and mitigation with equal intensity. Florida is the canary in the coal mine, as many of you know. And given our current exposure to so many climate-related events, the Florida region can serve as a climate think tank for ingenuity solutions, problem-solving, and narrowing the partisan gap that has halted climate action for so long. So, we’re super excited to be here and hopefully get into a more robust conversation in some of the local initiatives and efforts that we have been leading the way.

Sara Chieffo:

Thank you, Yoca. Richard.

Richard Moore:

Yes, good morning to everyone. I’d like to begin this brief comment by thanking the League of Conservation Voters and the Center for American Progress and the work that we’ve been able to not only accomplish, but the work that we’ve been able to have many successes in, in this short period of time. Los Jardines Institute, as Sara has mentioned, is based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the South Valley of Albuquerque and is an intergenerational grassroots environmental and economic justice organization. I’ve had actually the honor, through my elders and my mentors, and give all the respect and credit to our ancestors. And those elders that have been a mentor us for many of us for many, many years. Los Jardines, as some know, several of the projects that we’re working on. One, I should note, that our leadership and much of our membership in Los Jardines has a long history in the environmental and economic justice movement, the civil rights movement, the social justice movement, and many of the other interconnectedness between the issues that we’re working on now and the issues that we’ll continue to work on. One, I just will flag that we run a farm here. We are farmers as I’m on this Zoom today, looking out the window and seeing many, many of our youth, although we’ve had to cut our numbers back that are working in the fields as we speak here. Los Jardines is one of the founders here of our farmers’ cooperative. We have over 37 farms that are members of our cooperative. And we’ve been able to make many gains in terms of bringing together urban communities and rural communities as we continue to build the significance of the environmental justice—the environmental and economic justice movement.

So, at the end of the day, what I will say, one, that I’ve been involved—this year will be 54 years that I’ve been involved as a community organizer, as a community activist, not only here in New Mexico, but throughout the country, and additionally, throughout the world as we bring the world—our sisters and brothers from throughout the world—to the table to continue to make the necessary decisions. As we say and as our elders reminded us, one, and this is the way we operate under Los Jardines Institute, as our elders reminded us coming back many, many years ago from the poor people’s campaign, when Dr. King called for the national mobilization to Washington, D.C., and our elders convened a meeting here in the mountains of Northern New Mexico and brought many of us together as young people. And they left us with three things in mind after this three days of dialogue, crying, celebrating, laughing, hearing the history, and so on. The elders left us with three things. One, they said, “Never forget where you come from.” Number two, they said, “Always remember whose shoulders you’re standing on.” And number three, “Always give back to others what’s been given to you.” So, that’s been the legacy, as far as we’re concerned, of the environmental and economic justice movement, as we redefine environmentalism and conservationism as where we work, where we live, where we play, where we pray, and where we go to school or where we learn. So, that’s kind of in a concise situation. We run a children’s programs here, we run youth programs here, and always continuing to make the intersections between climate change as climate change impacts rural communities and urban communities, and bringing those connections together to make sure that all of our sisters and brothers have always been about and will continue about building our communities from a health perspective, from a safety perspective, and also making those interconnections. So, thank you, Sara, for asking those questions.

Sara Chieffo:

Of course. Thank you both for those powerful opening remarks. Richard, let me stick with you for a second. Can you tell us a little bit more about why addressing the cumulative impacts of toxic pollution is so critical to the environmental justice movement? And what policies are federal, we should be advancing at the federal level to deliver on those needs?

Richard Moore:

Well, again and again, thank you, Sara. I think one of the things to identify, one is the Equitable and Just National Climate platform, and I need to bring that to the table because of all the work that we’ve been doing here with some of the national green groups and environmental justice leaders from throughout the country. So, we’ve always talked about—we’ve won. We’ve always talked about climate change and climate justice. And so, climate change is not a side issue to us as we talk about environmental justice, environmental and economic justice. Climate justice is environmental justice and environmental justice is climate justice—and those impacts. And as we sit here, and we just know here in Albuquerque a couple of days ago, and I say that because we’ve heard consistently, “there’s no such thing as climate change, there’s no such thing as global warming.” But when we look at our sisters and brothers, not only throughout this country, but in Puerto Rico and Alaska, and other locations, we very clearly are experiencing the impact of not only cumulative impact, but climate injustice, environmental racism, and environmental genocide, as we said. So, we just need to make sure that that’s lifted up. Any particular facility that does damage to our communities, whether it be in California, whether it be in Moscow or Louisiana, whether it be in Delaware, in New Mexico, wherever it may be—if that company packs up and does the same thing to the communities that’s been impacted in this country and relocates those communities, relocates those facilities on the Mexico-U.S. border or otherwise in the country of Mexico, then that is very truly environmental genocide.

Cumulative impact as we look at that as issues that we’ve constantly, constantly been touching on, and I will lift a high note in saying this. Today, I think, matter of fact, as we’re speaking today, the Environmental Justice for All Act, I think, was announced or should be being announced by Representative McEachin and Representative Grijalva, re-putting the Environmental Justice for All Act on the table. My last combination of comments is that national policy is crucial in terms of moving the issues that we’re talking about forward, but those connections to local policy we have to be able to get better at. How we as environmental justice movement activists and as representatives of the green groups and others, how does that local policy and the communications that we need to be having with each other about the developing of local policy so those impacts how do they impact on the most highly vulnerable communities? So, we’ve got some work to do. We’ve come a long way together on this through the Equitable and Just National Climate forum. And now our continued challenge to be, how do we help the ground that from the bottom up? Local policy has to have the inclusion at the table of local impacted communities. National policy has to have the same representation and so on in the developing of national policy. And so, how do we bring those intersections together to make sure that it continues to happen from the bottom up and that all that are being impacted by the issues, whether it’s the land, whether it’s the air, whether it’s the water, whether it’s our health impacts, or so on, how do we pull those pieces together? We’re working on it, we’ve got a commitment to work together on it, and we will always maintain our level of responsibility and accountability to make sure that the right people are at the right tables at all times.

Sara Chieffo:

Thank you, Richard. I’m really happy you brought up that dynamic interplay between centering communities most impacted in policymaking at both the federal and the local level. That brings me to Yoca to my next question for you, which is, really, if you could tell us more about the truly groundbreaking Florida Future Fund and how it can be a model for this community driven bottom-up rural climate investments that we’ve heard so much from Richard and Attorney General James already about?

Yoca Arditi-Rocha:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we couldn’t have released this report at a better time in Florida on the same day, Governor DeSantis (R) announced he wanted to invest about a billion dollars more on resilience using the funds from the American Rescue Plan—not only told us that we can use the pandemic relief efforts, what we’ve known for so long to address there’s so many interrelated crises we’re facing. But also that at the state level, we have the political climate that is ripe for bringing the much-needed relief to local governments, dealing with the chronic flooding, rising seas and temperatures, among others. But as the climate crisis worsens and continues to accelerate their socioeconomic disparities, it is definitely imperative that the state establishes a reliable source of funding without really leaving anybody behind. And so, considering the severe inequities of climate impacts and having access to clean energy, clean renewable energy, and transportation in Florida is key.

And so, CAP and CLEO have been developing the Florida Future Fund for some time, recommending that at least 60 percent of the investments go directly to the state’s low-income communities; communities of colors on the front lines are the ones that are really bearing the brunt of all these crises. And through public and private investments, the fund will provide municipal county and regional funding opportunities for flood protections, building resilience, and clean energy and transportation and infrastructure. And this fund will not only save lives and help Florida avoid the worst impacts of extreme weather events, but it will support a clean energy economy, adding more jobs. Just a billion dollars would create around 4,000 jobs in the state, which is great.

And knowing that for every dollar invested in building resilience in communities and infrastructure, $6 will be saved, by really letting local and state governments know that it makes business sense. And so, at CAP and CLEO, we wanted to make sure, again, that these critical funding goes to the communities that need it the most that are already being impacted. And so, I think this comes at a great time not only in our nation, but a great time in our state and in our local communities. And, you know, I echo everything that Richard said. We need to have those communities have a seat at the table, making sure they’re part of the decision-making policy process. And CLEO has been working with several communities and several cities across the state to make sure that those voices are represented and are being heard.

Sara Chieffo:

Thank you so much, Yoca. Richard, expanding on that point of sort of community engagement and folks speaking for themselves, I would love for you—especially as an elder in the environmental justice community and one of the authors of the 1996 Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing—if you could talk a little bit more about the history of those principles, their import, their need, and how national policymakers and national organizations like CAP and LCV can help live up to these principles and center them in equitable climate policy?

Richard Moore:

And thank you for that. You know that there’s many things in this short period of time that we’ll attempt to cover. The question from Richard’s standpoint is whether he’s giving justice to justice. And so, our people have been being impacted as everyone is well aware for over 500 years, 500 or more years. So, when we look at systemic racism, when we look at environmental racism, then it’s about digging deep into these issues that we’re talking about, and that’s going to be a challenge for all of us, both grassroots communities and others as also, as my belief within the green groups. It’s not really about putting Band-Aids on systemic racism; we need to dig deep, and we need to make sure, as we say, that it’s engaged. One of those is the Jemez Principles that you’re making reference to. Primarily, the reason they’re called the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing is because the convening that took place among some green group representatives and environmental justice leaders took place in the Jemez Mountains of Northern New Mexico. And so, that’s why they’re called the Jemez Principles. The Jemez Principles was actually pulled together around NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and it was the bringing together of some of the workers, but then also some of the others of us and the impacts on NAFTA and exactly what was pointed out that the right people were not at the right tables at the time of the development of the NAFTA. So, that’s very, very, very important.

The other thing that I would flag in this is putting the justice on the 40 percent, and so, that’s crucial to this discussion. We’re touching on it, we were touching on it earlier based on our previous panel discussions, and so on. But it’s really about equity. We understand that, but it’s about justice. What we’re calling for is justice in the equity. And so, that 40 percent justice, then when it looks to from urban communities and rural communities, as was said was infrastructural stuff. I just came back from Northern New Mexico, and sisters and brothers in many of those villages, the infrastructure is basically to some extent not there at all. And many of the water pipes, and on and on and on, need to be rebuilt. And so, that justice foreign money has to go back not only to urban communities, but rural communities.

The other thing is dismantling, as I say, dismantling for us. Coming from a grassroots perspective, one of the challenges has always been for grassroots groups is running a proactive and a reactive agenda at the same time, and this was touched on before. It was a resource question. Resources need to be put back in the hands of those most highly impacted to continue to do the work that we’ve been doing and that many of our communities have been doing for many, many years. So, resources is very, very crucial to that.

And I just have to say in this last comment, we have to be extremely cautious that many of our communities of color, native Indigenous communities, and other communities that are most highly impacted, that we need to be cautious about unintentionally building an invisible population. So, what I mean by that is we need to pull together. We need to pull together as Chicano, Mejicano, Latino communities, native Indigenous communities. We very clearly understand the sovereignty of native Indigenous nations, as Asian Pacific Islanders that was touched on earlier, and our African American communities and our African American sisters and brothers. Let’s not, unintentionally, build what we continue to see as an invisible population. All of those entities need to be brought to the table, and they decide and we decide who our leadership is that come to those tables and represent us. So, I want to leave it there, Sara. I want to turn it over to Yoca. But again, I just want to say as we move it forward, the appreciation that I have, that we have for not only the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform, but the relationships that we build in the process of developing the Equitable and Just Platform. The Equitable and Just Platform is a people’s platform. It came from the ground up. Our sisters and brothers were engaged in that, and that’s how come we got so much support on the ground around the Equitable and National Climate Platform.

Sara Chieffo:

Thank you, Richard and I couldn’t agree more. That platform has fundamentally reset the bar for what climate justice looks like at the national level and has hugely influenced both the agenda on Capitol Hill and with the Biden administration. So thank you, Richard. Yoca, we’ve talked a lot about racial justice today, and I would love to hear a little bit more from you about how the overlapping systems of injustice and oppression in our country work together, especially on the lines of race and gender. So, could you elaborate a little bit more on those dynamics as you see it in your work and how policymakers can really be thoughtful about addressing these multiple and overlapping forms of oppression?

Yoca Arditi-Rocha:

Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for that question. I mean, we all know that race is, well, race is one reason for inequality and gender, another; they’re not a mutually exclusive form of discrimination. Ethnic or race-based violence against women is considered the most recognizable example of intersectional discrimination like we just recently saw in the very tragic events these last few days in Georgia this week. The injustice suffered by victims of racial discrimination and related intolerance are well-known. Limiting employment opportunities, segregation, endemic poverty are only a few among these, but the disadvantages faced by women in society and societies around the world are also very familiar.

Lower pay of work of equal value, high illiteracy rates, and poor access to health care. The literacy rate of women worldwide is 71 percent versus 83 percent for men. And education lays the foundation for vibrant communities for girls and women, their families. They’re more effective towards food, soil, trees, and water conservation, and it is also one of the most powerful solutions available for avoiding emissions by curbing population growth, and women with more years of education have fewer children. So, education also shows resilience and equip girls and women to face the impacts of our changing climate and increasing their capacity to cope with shocks from extreme weather events, as they consistently are impacted more than men. But women are also proven to be leading the way for a more equitable and sustainable world. Across sectors, women’s innovation, nurturing spirit, community-building nature, and expertise have transformed lives and livelihoods and increased resilience and overall well-being.

So, those as we are getting ready to build back better a more just and sustainable and equitable and healthier world, we should be putting more efforts and putting more women at the table and decision- and policymaking processes, invest more in their education, and focus on closing the gender gap. Because when we educate, empower, and uplift women, communities thrive and climate-warming emissions drop. So, to us at the CLEO Institute, this is at a core in many of our programming. We are a women-led organization for the past 12 years, and we have programming specifically to empower women and making them more resilient. So, I hope we take those into consideration as we try to build a more just and equitable world.

Sara Chieffo:

Thank you, Yoca and Richard. We are at the end of our time here. We could talk for hours to continue to glean lessons from your incredible leadership and wisdom. I want to say thank you to you both for making our first fireside, sorry, first Stateside Chat event—a mouthful there—a great success. And I am even more grateful to be working with you both and learning from your incredible leadership in New Mexico and in Florida. And again, thank you to all of our audience members and our participants for participating today. This event is being recorded, and the recording and a transcript will be available at americanprogress.org/events. And Richard and Yoca, if you want to say any closing remarks before we sign off, I want to welcome it. Sorry, Richard then Yoca.

Yoca Arditi-Rocha:

Go for it, Richard.

Richard Moore:

I want to fully agree with what my sister Yoca said, in terms of women leadership. I do want to state that for many of us that come from grassroots communities, it’s always been the women primarily that have been in the leadership of our local, not only the local work, but the movement that we’re a part of and continue to be a part of building. One, I just wanted to close by saying thank you very much. Yoca, I’m looking forward to meeting you one day. You’re always welcome to come to New Mexico and for us to have those discussions. My comment is, is that this year is the 30th anniversary of the First People of Color Summit that was held in Washington, D.C., where we speak for ourselves, where actually the environmental justice platform was established, and many other things. So, I want us to watch out. People watch out for events that are taking place around the 30th anniversary. And we encourage you all as well to continue on the discussion to help us celebrate the 30th anniversary of the First National People of Color Leadership forum that took place on environmental justice in Washington, D.C. Thank you very much, Sara. Ms. Yoca?

Yoca Arditi-Rocha:

Thank you, Richard. I will take your offer and we’ll meet one day. You are welcome here in Miami anytime. I am honored to share this virtual platform with you, with you, Sara, with John and everybody at CAP. Thank you so much CAP and LCV for this wonderful discussion. Let’s continue the discussion. There’s so much to do, but we have so much opportunity moving forward. This is the chance. Let’s continue working hard and here in Florida, everybody who has an eyelid, just let us know. We’re happy to help. Thank you again, Sara, for a great discussion.

Sara Chieffo:

Thank you, both. Looking forward to our continued work together. Thank you all. This concludes the event.