Planning For Environmental Justice in the Age of Climate Disasters: Energy Justice
By: Summer Sandoval
The following piece is part of Progressive City's Planning for Environmental Justice series. Contributions reflect on this theme through a variety of lenses, such as environmental justice, combatting green gentrification, and exploring radical approaches to climate change. Read more about this series here.
“关灯!” (guan deng) was a phrase I often heard yelled from my first generation Chinese mother growing up. This Mandarin phrase translates directly into “close the lights.” This was my first lesson in energy conservation. My mother was not an outspoken or self-proclaimed “environmentalist,” as her teachings were rooted in daily financial concerns, which played a major role in shaping my view of energy. Since I was five years old, or tall enough to reach the lightswitch, I saw energy as something precious, expensive, and in many cases, as a luxury. I never imagined that these early parenting lessons on turning off the lights and opening windows to avoid costly air conditioning bills would ultimately plant the seed for my passion for energy justice—to make clean energy accessible, affordable, and community-owned especially for people of color and low-income communities, the same communities that have suffered the largest burden from fossil fuel extraction, pollution, and energy cost burden for generations.
Climate change is the biggest threat of this era. The climate crisis is not an impending fear, but a present crisis—and we are not ready. The root causes of climate change and racial injustice are roots of the same poisonous tree. They stem from a long history of colonialization, white supremacy, slavery, and patriarchy. These systems of oppression created the foundation of environmental and climate injustices and no amount of turning off the lights or changing light bulbs will fix this crisis—we need deep systemic change. For generations, Black, Brown, Indigenous, and low-income communities have borne the brunt of not only pollution but also redlining, gerrymandering, disinvestment, and other legal efforts to disempower communities from building long-term wealth. We’re stuck in a system of working our whole lives away just to realize how much we can’t afford—holding ourselves over with novel joys like band-aids that keep us from a true diagnosis.
Like many people of color struggling to raise a family and make ends meet in the U.S. under the illusion of a “middle class” fantasy, growing up, my family often chose to be in physical discomfort if that meant saving money on our monthly energy bills. In the hotter months, my mother would open all of our windows, turn on the fans, and pour us iced tap water to keep cool. While in the colder months, we had to layer our clothes and do our schoolwork with cold hands as we looked forward to snuggling under our discounted electric blankets at night. As a woman of color of Asian, African, Indigenous, and Hispanic descent, I am deeply committed to racial justice in my life and in my work in energy. It is my life’s pursuit to support all my people—past, present, and future—through energy justice, an integral part of realizing a true Just Transition. What is a Just Transition if not a world where people don’t have to choose between comfort and cost?
Energy is as necessary as food, water, and air to sustaining life and human wellbeing, and the collaborative work of PEAK Coalition—a comprehensive effort of environmental justice organizations and partners to replace polluting peaker power plants in NYC’s most overburdened communities with clean energy and energy storage solutions—is an example of a successful model to dismantle generations of energy injustice and local pollution. The inequitable siting of peaker power plants predominantly in communities of color is an example of inequities in our energy system. Peaker power plants are the oldest, most inefficient, costliest, and most polluting fossil fuel burning plants on the energy grid. They turn on when energy demand in the city is high, which makes poor air quality conditions even worse for the frontline communities where these polluting plants are located.
We must ensure the clean energy transition away from fossil fuels is a Just Transition, and that environmental justice and frontline communities who have suffered a legacy of health disparities are prioritized, meaningfully engaged, and part of decision-making in clean energy development like solar, offshore wind, and battery storage. It won’t be easy and it won’t happen overnight. It will take innovative partnerships and real collaborations like PEAK Coalition to remediate generations of systemic inequities and barriers for impacted communities to have access and ownership over their own clean energy infrastructure. Energy justice is no small feat. The issues are as complicated as they are confusing and there’s no “one size fits all” answer. But it’s time—time for us to forget “Business As Usual”, reject False Solutions, and be problem oriented.
Being “problem oriented” means recognizing the root causes of problems in order to have a clear understanding of how to address them. Lived experience is arguably the most valuable expertise as it provides a granular and holistic understanding of issues that can never be taught in a classroom, found in a syllabus, or come with letters of prestige after a name. Communities most impacted by these issues are the experts in creating the solutions, and must be treated as such.
In New York City, longstanding environmental justice leadership has been passing legislation, facilitating community-based planning, and creating innovative climate justice solutions for decades. Community-based organizations like UPROSE in Sunset Park, Brooklyn and fellow member organizations of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance are at the forefront of community-led and cooperatively owned solar projects in communities with multiple peaker power plants. These are examples of how impacted communities are centering equity and building new models of clean energy technology like solar to create long-term community wealth by sharing economic savings and creating local employment opportunities. We must support frontline communities and environmental and climate justice leadership to create new systems grounded in redressing generations of harm.
The processes that caused the injustices we reckon with today cannot be the same path we walk down to find real solutions. The way energy infrastructure gets sited, paid for, and overseen must all significantly change to incorporate the voices, concerns, and leadership of impacted communities. We have all the tools and resources to create equitable solutions, but we don’t have the time to wait for the political will to do so. We don’t need saviors, we need allies—allies who will help the environmental and climate justice movement build a Just Transition by creating new decision-making and development processes that center equity, because environmental and climate justice is racial justice. This can start with simply asking, “what do you need?”.
Summer Sandoval is a multi-racial woman of color who works on energy justice issues in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn and is passionate about working with others to center equity in clean energy efforts. Summer believes meaningful change must come from building trust and being accountable. Summer enjoys spending her free time in New York City parks, creating games, and cooking for her friends. Summer went to New York University for her undergraduate degree and the Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment at Pratt Institute for her graduate degree.