Imagine a future where Black and Brown children don’t have to breathe toxic air from steel smoke stacks spewing polluted particulates. Imagine a future without police—with less crime and more safety. A future where there are enough jobs and housing for all.
This is the kind of radical imagination at the heart of the abolitionist climate movement. The U.S. spends billions on our police forces—dollars that could go toward addressing the root causes of crime, such as poverty and mental health, and toward building sustainable infrastructure. We can build a better world by uprooting injustices at the source and by investing in what communities need to thrive. That’s what the Green New Deal proposes. Let’s create an economy that’s beneficial to the people and the planet.
Welcome to The Frontline, where you’ll be hearing from Green New Deal mastermind Rhiana Gunn-Wright. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. I chatted with Gunn-Wright, director of climate policy at the Roosevelt Institute. Last week was what some legislators deemed Green New Deal week as they introduced a number of bills to make this framework reality.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Before we dive into the legislation that’s been introduced this week, let’s talk a bit about the verdict on the Derek Chauvin trial—because police abolition is a climate justice issue, right? How are you feeling given the news?
I’m glad that Officer Chauvin was held accountable. That is far too rare in our judicial system. What was really striking was looking back at the initial official police report of what happened. It was completely fabricated. It took not only a Black girl taking a video of what happened and posting it—but, then, millions of people protesting for this to happen, which speaks so poorly of our criminal justice system.
I can’t say I felt joy or even relief. I was very glad that he was held accountable, particularly for the Floyd family. That is the least that they deserve. But that feeling didn’t even last for the whole night because Columbus police then killed a 16-year-old Black girl who called them for protection: Ma’Khia Bryant. It just reminded me that policing is not a system that can be reformed. We have to follow the lead of abolitionists and find a different way of creating and maintaining public safety because this isn’t working. This is far from over.
There’s been some discussion in the climate movement of how abolition goes hand in hand with building a Green New Deal and investing in all the elements that come with it—affordable housing, clean energy, robust public transit. How does this work to specifically defund the police as a critical move to helping fund something as ambitious as the Green New Deal?
Well, it starts off with recognizing that police brutality is an environmental justice issue. The way that policing happens is part of a person’s physical environment, particularly in Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities. Environmental justice is not just about air pollution. It’s not just about how close or far you are from a fossil fuel facility. It’s also about what makes up your physical environment, including policing, public safety, education, clean water. All of that is part of a person’s physical environment. And in almost every way, Black communities, in particular, are put in unjust environments—environments that actively take away from their health, safety, and happiness.
When I think about police abolition and the Green New Deal, what actually unites them is a willingness to recognize that the system we have doesn’t work. And acknowledging that we might not know everything we need to do right now, but we’ll figure it out on the way as long as we’re committed to the right principles. That comfort with uncertainty and risk—and the creativity to find different types of solutions—all of that is necessary for police abolition and the Green New Deal.
They’re also connected when you think about these anti-riot bills. A lot of those first anti-protest bills came out of lobbying from fossil fuel companies that wanted to prohibit protests around fossil fuel infrastructure. Thinking about the ways that police are employed to protect capital and to maintain certain people in certain places and in certain positions under the guise of, That’s what keeps people safe. That’s very connected to the climate crisis, especially as you think about resources becoming more scarce.
And when you’re talking about defunding police, when you start unraveling some of these systems and stop investing in their upkeep, you open up the use of those resources for other ways of solving those same problems. The nation, on a deeper level, is seeing that police aren’t what make us safe. The conditions that lead to safety start far before someone answers a call about a crime. Police respond to crime; they don’t prevent crime. You open up space for those resources to be used in ways that communities are asking for them to be used because of their understanding of what, in fact, keeps them safe; what, in fact, drives violence; what, in fact, drives crime.
And that’s a lot of what the Green New Deal is about, too. What happens when you stop investing in fossil fuels? What if you stop investing your energy and your money there? What becomes possible?
“Police brutality is an environmental justice issue.”
This week, we saw the re-introduction of the Green New Deal resolution. We saw the Green New Deal for Cities. We saw the Green New Deal for Public Housing. What stands out to you in any of the texts as a particularly important point to raise?
One thing that stands out to me is the Green New Deal for Cities. It funds Green New Deals in local communities and in a way that is almost automatic and relieves a lot of the administrative burden that often comes with receiving federal funding. That is important because it recognizes that the Green New Deal is not just something that can happen at the federal level. It has to be implemented at the local level and, at its core, be something that serves local communities. And that local community should be in control in terms of deciding where those investments go and what their Green New Deal looks like.
The way that federal funding works, it can be very difficult for localities to access because there’s a lot of paperwork. There’s a lot of evaluation. You have to know how to write the grants, and not every community has the capacity—the literal funding, people who can do that job—so I thought that was really important. They also have a set of stipulations around what the money can be invested in. They lay out how it can’t be invested in “false solutions” that environmental justice advocates have seen don’t work. You don’t often see that called out in federal legislation. It proves that leaders are listening and that the legislation is being shaped not by the standard set of interests or think tanks—but by people and people outside of D.C.
It’s awesome to see the Green New Deal for Public Housing re-introduced because housing is such a big part of climate justice. Access to affordable housing, access to housing that allows the use of distributed solar, housing that is safe, that is free from lead and other environmental toxins, that’s fully electrified. All that is so crucial. And often the folks who are last to get access to that type of housing—if they ever do—are folks in public housing.
And why now? Why is now the moment to make the Green New Deal possible again and hitting it from all these different angles? Especially given that President Biden has been vocal about his opposition to the framework.
President Biden has taken up a lot of the Green New Deal framework, and it’s very present in the American Jobs Plan, particularly around the role of public investment, the ways that clean energy can support our economy and push it to new levels of growth and productivity that can be translated into power and wealth for communities that have often been left out of that. All of that is present, but there’s still a ways to go. There’s still support for some of those false solutions that environmental justice advocates are calling out. There’s still a hesitancy on the scale of investment. And there are still ways in which that does not reflect the Green New Deal’s focus on changing the power relationships in our economy and society.
These bills are important because they continue to push on that window and make clear what kind of investments we do want to see. It’s really important because the infrastructure plan that the Biden-Harris administration put out is just a benchmark. The bill hasn’t been designed yet, so there’s this moment where that economic recovery package is still being shaped. So, it’s important for these bills to come out now to be part of shaping that package.
Also, it’s important because the president has made commitments on climate and environmental justice. These ideas need to be out there. We’re in the midst of figuring out how the government is going to invest millions of dollars, and a lot of that money will be on climate. If these bills are out there, then the conversation—and the will of the constituents these bills represent—they’re being heard at a time that’s really crucial.