Residents from the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, demonstrated in December 2020 to disrupt construction of the Metropolitan Reliability Project, commonly called the North Brooklyn Pipeline. (Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

USA - How the Country’s Largest Climate Bill Threatens to Leave Black Communities Behind

A clean energy transition that doesn't prioritize Black life cannot sustain itself long term, says climate policy expert Rhiana Gunn-Wright.

One year after the signing of the Inflation Reduction Act — the largest bill in U.S. history aimed at mitigating climate change — examples of the bill’s key policies harming Black communities continue to surface. Capital B has reported on several, including:

Experts like Rhiana Gunn-Wright, climate policy director at the Roosevelt Institute, contend that policy leaders have largely ignored these harms in the name of the greater good.

However, in a recent essay in Hammer & Hope, a Black politics and culture magazine, she pinpoints the underlying truth behind this harm: The greater good in the U.S. has always come at the expense of Black people.

“The pattern that we’re seeing of Black people harmed by the decisions, investments, and build-out of clean energy is heartbreaking, but it’s nothing we should be surprised by. There is historical precedent,” said Gunn-Wright, who helped craft the country’s most progressive federal climate policy proposal — the Green New Deal — with Democratic U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. It has yet to pass.

The harm imposed on Black people, Gunn-Wright says, is born out of “racist compromises” facilitated by the bill’s implementation that “threaten to keep Black people at the bottom of a new green economy.”


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Capitol B, September 7, 2023


To get the bill passed, Democrats made several concessions, many of which were pushed for by Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Those compromises included opening the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas drilling leases and approving a 300-mile gas pipeline through poor, rural Appalachian communities. While these concessions don’t cause immediate harm to Black neighborhoods, they guarantee that oil and gas will continue to be refined and processed in Black communities across the country.

Read More: Biden’s EPA Has Resolved Only One Civil Rights Complaint Brought Since 2021

The new green economy is slowly taking shape. The country is beginning to see drastic decreases in pollution, the creation of hundreds of thousands of new jobs, and the much-needed construction of bridges, roads, and solar and wind energy facilities. But as Gunn-Wright says, “When we trade away Black people, we trade away everything that makes a green transition compelling and urgent.”

A transition that doesn’t prioritize Black life, she says, cannot sustain itself long term.

At the mark of the first anniversary of the historic bill’s passing, Capital B sat down with Gunn-Wright to learn more about the ways federal climate policy is shortchanging Black communities and how the U.S. can implement climate policy that prioritizes Black life.

This conversation was lightly edited for clarity.

Capital B: A lot of the media coverage of the IRA has been very positive. Why do you think it is so important to acknowledge the negatives as well in a space that has been slow to recognize them?

Rhiana Gunn-Wright: I’ve been thinking about many of these things for a while, for a lot of the past year, but I hung back because I didn’t know if what I was seeing or perceiving was just me. And I think the other thing was, if I’m being completely honest, I was scared.

After the IRA passed, discussions about the role of race in the IRA rollout and within the climate movement felt much more closed off than they had been in 2020, for example. I saw people of color bringing up critiques of the IRA [being] sort of shrugged off, not listened to.

So do you think that the general climate movement sees the environmental injustices facilitated by the IRA and chooses not to address them, or is it that people aren’t even seeing the issues in the first place?

It’s a mix of both. For many people who have been working on climate for years, it was very exciting to see a lot of the good stuff in the IRA, and they just wanted to focus on what they felt was good about the bill, especially with an election coming up.

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