WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
We didn’t save the world in 2022, but there were notable wins in the climate and environmental justice space. The Frontline takes time to celebrate these and remind us why we fight at all.
How would you characterize 2022? Was it a year of transformation? A year of struggle?
I always reach the end of the year wishing more had happened to move the needle toward climate justice. I’d love to see the bad guys be held accountable for their pollution and apathy. Instead, 2022 saw the launch of a new war waged by Russia against Ukraine—a war that invigorated the fossil fuel sector despite desperate pleas from scientists that we use the conflict as an opportunity to shift toward clean energy.
The war in Ukraine felt like a defining moment. The world’s ability to turn away from the COVID-19 pandemic was another. We still live in a world run by fossil fuels, consumerism, and individualism, but that doesn’t mean our culture isn’t shifting. Every day, I see glimmers of a world that’s on its way—a world that prioritizes reciprocity and stewardship. A world where less is more and reparations are real.
In 2022, the environmental and climate movement sent ripples across our society that can turn into waves. These wins and steps forward remind me that the most powerful and effective change happens locally on a small scale. If we get enough of those ripples, perhaps we’ll be hit by the wave of change necessary to prevent the climate crisis from becoming the worst it can be.
So, let’s celebrate the wins—and savor them before the battles to come in 2023.
Land Back Everywhere
In 2022, land back was more than a slogan; it was a movement that saw real lands returned to their stewards. From Indigenous peoples in the U.S. to Kenya, territories wrongly taken from them centuries ago are now back in their hands.
The year kicked off with the reclamation of ancestral lands in California. There, a nonprofit conservation organization returned some 500 acres of redwood forest to a group of 10 tribes, including the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians. Now, the land’s protection rests with its original caretakers. In July, we saw a similar transfer of land in New York state. A thousand acres are back with the Onondaga Nation thanks to an agreement with the state government. Creeks, wetlands, and forests are now under their rightful guardianship. The Rappahannock Tribe of Virginia is now co-managing 465 acres of sacred lands with the federal government. In Kenya, the Indigenous Ogiek people won a court battle in June that they hope will allow them finally to live peacefully on their lands.
The Land Back movement isn’t here to play games. Across the globe, swaths of land were stolen from the First Peoples. The return of their lands is only the beginning.
Beating Toxic Refineries
Saving the planet will involve a lot more than simply reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. It’ll also involve protecting our airways and waterways. Saving the planet requires communities to have a voice and a say over what comes to their backyards.
In Louisiana, leaders in St. James Parish, which sits in America’s Cancer Alley, organized to stop two petrochemical plants from coming to their community. One facility was slated to produce methanol while the other hoped to produce more of the plastic waste currently choking our oceans and landfills. These court victories don’t mean that the projects are over forever as petrochemical companies can be persistent when they want something done. Still, the community’s ability to fight back underscores the power of people when they come together.
Meanwhile, in St. Croix on the U.S. Virgin Islands, another toxic refinery already in operation was kept closed after causing toxic rain. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency decided in November that the facility must obtain a new permit to ensure it doesn’t open back up without the protections in place to prevent this sort of disaster from happening again.
I await the day when all toxic refineries are a thing of the past.
NYC’s Offshore Wind Future
Look, I’m pretty jaded at this point about New York City politics. Leaders like to talk a big game, and it doesn’t always result in action. The city’s plan to build an offshore wind farm, though? That got me excited.
In March, Mayor Eric Adams (an objectively awful dude) announced plans for an offshore wind farm in the working-class neighborhood Sunset Park in Brooklyn. I’d argue that this is the climate justice hub of New York—home to the offices of UPROSE and the New York Environmental Justice Alliance, as well as thousands of Black and Brown New Yorkers who want to see their neighborhood thrive.
This was a community that nearly lost a battle against gentrification when a real estate developer attempted to transform Sunset Park from a manufacturing hub into a shopping and office center. Locals won that battle. As a result, the plan for offshore wind—which is meant to help make New York City 100% renewable by 2040—was possible. Some 13,000 local jobs will come out of the project, too.
That’s victory, baby.
No More Fossil Fuel Neighbors
The first time I learned that California elementary school students are allowed to go to school next door to fossil fuel infrastructure, my heart broke. In many low-income communities, children grow up with the sort of air pollution that can give them cancer before they get to puberty. They play on playgrounds as the claws of fracking infrastructure bob up and down behind them. This always felt so clearly wrong to me, and yet the state’s past efforts to pass regulation have failed.
In 2022, that finally changed. The state passed Senate Bill 1137 in September, which bans new oil and gas wells from being built within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, or hospitals. It’s wild this law didn’t already exist, but at least Californians have it now. Though the law fails to remove those pieces of harmful infrastructure that already exist near people’s residences or education centers, it sets a new precedent. Currently, over 2.7 million people live inside this buffer zone. Seventy percent of them are Black, Indigenous, or other people of color.
That’s unacceptable. Finally, state leaders are prioritizing their lives over the profits of the fossil fuel industry. For too long, California legislators have turned a blind eye to the negative health impacts communities have suffered as a result. Not anymore.
RIP Dirty Cars
Cars, or at least those run by gas, really will become a thing of the past. This year saw a number of laws passed codifying a transition away from fossil fuel-dependent cars. First, came California, and, then, Washington state quite literally followed. Who will be next?
When California announced in August that it would ban the sale of dirty cars in 2035, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee decided he would do the same. California wants to see electric vehicles being produced by 2026, which will be three years away soon enough. Though these policies aren’t always the most popular, they are necessary given that transportation makes up the largest chunk of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions: 27%. Plus, gas-powered vehicles also emit air pollution that contributes to poor health outcomes in communities that are surrounded by highways or nonstop traffic.
So, not only is this beneficial for the planet. It’s also beneficial for local residents. Electric vehicles won’t solve the climate crisis, though. We need adequate investment in mass transit, too. We also need a culture that emphasizes the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians. What California and Washington have done is just the first step.
A New Office of Environmental Justice
In May, the Department of Justice created a new office: one dedicated solely to environmental justice. The newly formed Office of Environmental Justice allows the department to dedicate a staff toward enforcing environmental laws and protections focusing on the most vulnerable people in the U.S.
This office exists to ensure the appropriate investigation and action happen after someone complains. What makes this office unique is that it will look both at environmental and civil rights laws because that’s what environmental justice is about. All 93 U.S. attorneys across the country are now required to designate coordinators that will focus on Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color that may face unjust environmental harm.
This office is part of President Joe Biden’s promise to center environmental justice. Let’s hope that this office leads to change in the places that have carried the burden of pollution. I’d love to see some polluters be held accountable. They’ve gone without punishment long enough.
Bright Spots in Latin America
What’s happening in Latin America is nothing short of inspirational. Where do I even begin?
In February, Colombia’s highest court moved to decriminalize abortion. Voters there also elected the country’s first leftist government, including the first Black woman vice president. These are great strides for both justice and planetary well-being. The people in power should be a direct reflection of their populace. The laws that change should reflect the needs of the people.
Meanwhile, in Brazil, voters ousted President Jair Bolsonaro, whose devastating environmental policies have resulted in mass deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest. Indigenous peoples have also come under attack during his presidency. Incoming President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has promised to reverse the damage from Bolsonaro. What happens in Brazil doesn’t only affect the people there—it affects us all. The Earth’s climate systems depend on a healthy rainforest to function as they should.
Up north in Central America, however, Honduras moved in February to stop permitting open-pit mining projects. The country will also shut down those that are in operation now. This decision not only protects the environment but also protects remote and Indigenous communities that are put at risk by these projects, which can pollute their drinking water or invite violence into their communities.
More of all this, please!
Our First-Ever Plastics Treaty
If the world were to end tomorrow, humanity’s lasting legacy would be plastic. Every minute, one million plastic bottles are purchased globally. Few are recycled. This waste ends up in our ocean and our landfills. More and more research is finding that microplastics—the tiny pieces of plastic they break down into—are landing in some of Earth’s most remote ecosystems.
That’s scary because we still don’t fully understand what the health impacts are of consuming this junk. What we do know doesn’t look too good. After all, if it’s in the rain or in the ocean, animals are eating it and plants are absorbing it—animals and plants we eventually eat, too.
In 2022, world leaders decided to finally do something about it. After all, consumers can only avoid so much plastic. Stopping this flow of waste requires systemic action and regulation. In March, 175 countries agreed to work on a plastic treaty. The agreement would look at the lifecycle of plastic items and aim to find solutions from its production to its disposal.
It’ll likely be a few years (at least) until we see change resulting from the treaty, but it’s a start.
Loss and Damage at COP27
After 27 years of climate negotiations, world leaders came together this year to find a path on how to provide financial support for low-income countries that are already and will continue to face impacts from climate change despite doing little to contribute to the crisis. This is what we mean when we talk about loss and damage, folks.
At COP27, negotiators established a loss and damage fund. This is the first step of a long process to move dollars into the fund and, then, into the countries most in need. Countries like the U.S. had long been hesitant to agree to such a fund out of concern for what this could make them legally liable for. The agreement, however, includes language to prevent them from being legally liable for payments. With that, it’s unclear how much money will actually flow into the fund, but Denmark became the first country in September (before COP27) to pledge $13 million.
We don’t live in a fair world, but it seems that world leaders of the Global North are beginning to recognize that they can’t run away from what they owe everyone else. Climate change is creating historic storms and heat waves. People are dying, infrastructure is crumbling, and the most vulnerable need help.
Promises mean nothing without action.
I love Rihanna. I love her music. I love her acting. I love her lingerie line. And I love her makeup and skincare line. Fittingly, she loves climate justice! In another lifetime, perhaps we were best friends.
Anyway, the extremely talented Robyn Rihanna Fenty pledged $15 million toward climate justice through her Clarel Lionel Foundation in January. That’s one way to kick off 2022. The donation went toward 18 organizations, including many that we cover here on Atmos like the Indigenous Environmental Network and the Climate Justice Alliance.
The rich won’t save us from climate calamity, but cultural icons can help sound the alarm. As we see pop stars make more efforts to discuss and support climate justice, they also make the movement more accessible and inviting to those who may not be familiar. Rihanna’s decision to support organizations focused on Black, Indigenous, and other people of color—versus more general climate advocacy groups—shows that climate justice prevails, always.
Moves like these help amplify the movement and take it into the mainstream. Rihanna gets it. It’s time for everyone else to catch up in 2023.