WORDS BY TAMARA TOLES O’LAUGHLIN
PHOTOGRAPH BY CAMPBELL ADDY
This Juneteenth, The Frontline examines how governments and polluting interests can repair the damage they’ve caused to Black communities. National climate strategist Tamara Toles O’Laughlin makes the case for climate reparations.
Juneteenth is here. After hundreds of years in whispers, we have a day that stands alone as a monument to the rotting legality of American slavery. Let’s honor the day as a symbol of our endurance with a strategy that could make it meaningful. Until we do, we have not won anything—yet.
Today, 47 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth. It holds sacred the actual independence of the original class of workers in America. Juneteenth shines a light on the delayed announcement of emancipation to legally enslaved Black people. It is a well-respected symbol of the enduring delay of liberation—in word and deed. So, while it is appropriate to ask when Juneteenth will become a national holiday, the better question is when will the word and the deeds actually be delivered?
At this very moment, the U.S. tragedy within the global pandemic is starting to wane, but it’s up against a backdrop of insurrection and the stunning return of a dysfunctional Congress. Too many elected officials are happy enough to slow progress with pomp and platitudes. Too many are still there to hold up legislation with racist, regressive procedure and effectively hold down and choke out the hard-won triumph of the people’s uprising. In the face of climate and compounding crises, we put our bodies on the line—in the streets and in the voting booth for Black lives, life, and livelihood. We got a justified conviction for George Floyd’s murder and a holiday. So, what? And what does the rightful celebration of Juneteenth demand? Among other things, climate reparations.
Climate reparations, a term coined by law profesor Dr. Maxine Burkett, is a framework that assesses the harm caused by the past emissions of major polluters and looks to improve the lives of the climate vulnerable through direct programs, policies, and/or mechanisms. It moves money and other resources to increase the likelihood that the climate vulnerable will survive the crises. It calls out the endless accumulation of wealth by fossil fuel majors and reroutes it to the people they hurt.
And why not? The extractive business model of dirty fuel directly corresponds to the displacement, death, harm, and debt cycles of communities whose lives have been suppressed to sustain the profits and pollution of coal, oil, and gas. From the point of extraction to the petrodollar, workers and communities of color have been forced to hold the shortsightedness of dirty industry in our bodies as collateral of longstanding ties to poisoned air, water, and politics.
Our communities have been calling for climate reparations through the Paris Agreement in the form of loss and damage, which demands resourced nations shoulder the proportional cost of climate catastrophe. Otherwise, under-resourced nations will be stuck in a no-win, we-all-lose colonialist cycle of global debt. Loss and damage offers a holistic response to this reality. In the U.S. South, those same calls ring out as officials ask local communities to accept managed retreat without a dollar or a dream when floods or fires take their toll. Adaptation to a deadly new normal after few attempts at government-led mitigation or tightened borders in the face of climate refugees are only glimpses of a future without a built-in care economy or climate reparations.
Juneteenth is a milestone in our collective reality, but that isn’t the same as having the space needed to build the strategy we will require to exist in the future. From the tragedy of Eleanor Bumpurs’ death in 1984 to the murder of Breonna Taylor in 2020, stories of police shootings and state violence echo from well before Floyd’s murder (and the hard-won conviction) to what should be the direct result: systems change. That change would look like a new order with relevant principles and new social agreements about how humans treat folks they rely on. We would be engaged in public rethinking that ushers in the next evolution of truth and reconciliation.
New agreements can’t emerge without a sober reckoning with our history. From the massacres in Rosewood and Greenwood, the hard-fought exoneration of 14-year-old George Stinney to recent revelations about Tulsa, the work of families fighting for survival is now embodied in movements. That movement is fighting race-based molestation, abduction, and casual violence against Black communities.
Violence and the grift that accompanies it has been a constant throughline of the American experiment. As a result, Black communities live in and through the open secrets of this history and endure erasure of crucial parts of our story of survival. All of it screams for a systems-wide inquiry into the past and present. It challenges us to consider whether the call for recognition is worthwhile if it doesn’t come with recompense.
Reparations and climate reparations are political frameworks that can respond to the ethical, financial, and civic necessity to wrestle with what the past has brought us.
As awful as it is to wade through the truth of history, our active duty today is to show up for tomorrow. The story of the African diaspora in America is full of examples of consciousness raised to demand more; from divestment as the driver of the end of South African apartheid to its use in today’s activism to end the age of fossil fuels, there are breaks in the harsh reality that we can build on.
If we are to have more than cycles of systemic dereliction, community heartache, NGO campaigning, and private sector pledges, we are going to need a broader vision for change. Reparations experiments are happening all over in the form of loan forgiveness for Black farmers (hotly contested by the status quo) and in a direct pay program to Black residents in Evanston, Illinois. In Seattle and Canada, our neighbors are experimenting with the return of the profits of unceded land to Indigenous peoples. Now is a good time to re-up the conversation on climate reparations.
This decade is actually our last best chance to act. Reparations and climate reparations are political frameworks that can respond to the ethical, financial, and civic necessity to wrestle with what the past has brought us. Now is the time to begin the work to heal souls. It is incumbent upon our communities and movements to do the work of care and repair because we have the data, the stories, and very little time to move lots of people and money. That is equity: moving people and money to address harm.
We have the collective ability to take bitter truth and use it to set the stage for more life and rebuilding as the climate crashes around us. If not, then the harm of supremacist terror—from the recent discoveries of desecrated remains of MOVE bombing victims in Philadelphia and the bodies of at least 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada—exist as continuing trauma that will remain as undigested harm through the generations.
Climate reparations isn’t just a concept, demand, or campaign. And it isn’t being left in the realm of thought. As global gatherings like the G7 convene, the agenda should include wrestling with the ongoing harm of colonialism, debt, and extraction. Climate will only continue to raise the stakes. Among others, sustainability scientist Dr. Sonja Klinsky has worked on solutions in this space for many years. Getting going on climate reparations has to start with this:
Acknowledgement of ongoing harm from the perpetrators to the victims. This is happening through lawsuits that target both oil and gas companies and national governments. From Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp. to Juliana v.United States and BP P.L.C. v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, the industry is going on trial.
Restitution should try to approximate what was lost to its proper owners. This means that both Indigenous lands should be returned and Black community equity coming from our labor and the country resting on it should be paid by the companies and governments that benefitted from all that unpaid labor and profit. Governments and industry will have to measure the loss of life and make efforts to put both communities on track for restoration.
Compensation in the form of money, equity as an offset in education, workforce opportunities, and trauma-informed services are a start. Debt forgiveness would make it real.
Rehabilitation for Black communities would mean taking stock of the harm in our bodies from wage theft, physical and emotional abuse, systems of toxic exposure, sacrifice zoning, and underinvestment. And then addressing that harm through cost-free training, therapy, decarceration, and support, which will mean spending more money on community investments rather than militarization through police, incarceration, and weapons.
Satisfaction is tricky because the definition belongs to the oppressed. It starts with a guarantee and an enforceable promise from polluting industries and our government to use the full force of law to stop the harm and keep slavery, Jim Crow, unequal access to social programs, and state-sanctioned violence from being used against our community ever again.
We have to start somewhere. Among other solutions, the work of care and repair could begin with national green banks rooted in community savings and loans that see our people as assets rather than liabilities and our unmitigated contributions as collateral. Our labor is America’s backbone; owning that shows spine. Conceptually, green banks are focused exclusively on moving public and private money to accelerate investments in renewable energy projects. There’s no reason that mission shouldn’t include benchmarks for setting up projects in our communities.
Just imagine Black communities being served by the institutions that currently exclude us or, worse, provide predatory loans at high rates. Imagine those same institutions converted to financing and capital access hubs to provide on-ramps to the community, monetized and recognizing the contributions we’ve already made—and continue to make. For too long, these institutions have blamed underserved Black communities for our financial circumstances without acknowledging that we have always been the unpaid drivers of the economy.
National green banks could eliminate the nickel and diming Black communities have long faced to the tune of trillions. Similarly, as progressive calls for fossil fuel nationalization become commonplace, the strategy for just transition should be the proving ground for land back, debt forgiveness, and investments that are administered by the government under Red, Green, Blue, and Red, Black, and Green New Deal proposals.
As many of us take a well-deserved day of rest for Juneteenth, I hope you take this food for thought with you to the table and gather your best people to plan for the evolution of the revolution. Until the Black community is made whole, the rest is rhetoric, politics, and empty gestures.