Why Was Race a Central Theme At Wednesday's Climate March?

The environmental movement is widening its scope. Big time.

The hundreds who marched from City Hall to Occidental Park Wednesday evening, hoisting banners that read “No More False Solutions” and “100% Renewables,” some dressed as wind turbines, solar panels, or – as a nod to the capitalist system that created this mess – the white-whiskered Monopoly mascot, made it very clear that the environmental movement is not just about the planet anymore. It’s about people.

Specifically, it’s about the people most affected by climate change who are also, demonstrators argued, the people most affected by socioeconomic inequality.

Labor unions, immigrants’ rights groups, and environmental groups of all stripes blocked traffic, sang, cheered and chanted, joining about 200 other demonstrations like it across the country on the eve of the Paris climate talks. This was its rallying cry: Change the system first, and the health of the planet will follow.

“For me, it goes deep,” said GotGreen organizer Yirim Seck, who was among five speakers and two emcees who took the stage in Occidental Park. “A whole bunch of things fall under the umbrella of sustainability. People wanna talk about energy and climate change and global warming. That’s cool, but that’s common knowledge. Let’s talk about what you don’t know.”

And that, he argued – like many other demonstrators – is that environmental sustainability has everything to do with social and economic support for the underserved. “When you say climate change versus climate justice, there needs to be a distinct line drawn, in my opinion.”

Of course, any march like this will have its diverse crowds and diverse causes (Kshama Sawant supporters, yes; “United Methodists for Climate Justice” – who knew?), but overall, the sentiment and signage was about social change. Alongside homemade signs like “Climate Change: This Shit is Real,” or the decidedly Seattle-specific “My Other Sign is a Kayak,” there were the equally fervent “Climate Justice Means No Deportation” and “No Gentrification” signs. And there was the moment when local artist and activist Nikkita Oliver introduced speaker and organizer Sarra Tekola with a pointed jab: “If we are truly about the human family surviving, we will look at those intersections” between climate change and social change, she said. “And white people? Y’all won’t be afraid to deal with race.”

This is the climate movement in Seattle now: it’s about Latino farmworker communities in the Yakima Valley whose livelihoods suffered from this past winter’s drought -- the kind of weather pattern that may be more likely to happen in the future. “This year we probably had 15 to 20 percent less of an apple crop than last year,” said Ranfelix Gutierrez, a Yakima Valley organizer with the immigrant-rights group OneAmerica. “What does that mean? When there’s less crops, there’s less jobs for people. The Latino community ends up with less hours, less health benefits, less days of work.” That, demonstrators say, is what climate change looks like.

It’s about building a new economy: “People think we’re trying to eliminate jobs by saying SHELL NO!” said Yirim Seck. “No! We’re talking about job creation here. We’re talking about training in renewable energy sources versus one-time extraction.”

Also among the speakers was author and activist Naomi Klein, whose latest book was made into a movie and screened at SIFF Cinema Uptown following the march. (The title says it all: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate.) This movement is not just about cleaning up an environmental mess, she told the crowd. “This is about healing our society on so many different levels. Fighting climate change and protecting and reimagining and rebuilding the public sphere and defending the commons is the same fight.”

Activist Sarra Tekola, who’s planning to attend what promises to be the “largest civil disobedience ever” at the climate talks in Paris this December, was even more strident, and nearly named one of the key tensions in the green movement in Washington right now: Carbon Washington, or Initiative-732, doesn’t have the support of all greens because it’s revenue-neutral; it doesn’t create any funding for proactive programs that could help right society’s wrongs. “Indigenous people and people of color reject any carbon solutions that are revenue-neutral,” she said, with emphasis, “and don’t prioritize the most marginalized.”

“If we take climate change seriously, we have an opportunity to not only save ourselves from the biggest threat humanity has faced collectively,” she added. “But we also have the opportunity to right the wrongs of capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy.”

A tall order, perhaps? But that’s where the movement’s at, y’all.

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