GRID Voices: What is Environmental Justice?

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February 24, 2020
Marissa Leshnov smiles while on a GRID install in Pittsburg, California.

Marissa Leshnov, GRID’s Multimedia Communications Associate, shares her thoughts on environmental justice.

When I first learned about solar, I was drawn to the science behind turning sunlight into electricity. Fighting climate change honestly wasn’t a factor for me -- a benefit, sure, but not the main goal. After all, as a woman of color, I didn’t really see anyone who looked like me call themselves an “environmentalist.” It felt like the climate change movement revolved around saving polar bears -- something that felt removed from me having never stepped too far away from my New Jersey hometown. Instead, I was committed to developing better, more efficient solar panels that -- lucky us -- could also help support a successful transition to clean energy.

Shortly before graduating from college, however, I realized the bottleneck in the transition to clean energy was not due to technological shortcomings, but rather because of systemic barriers to access combined with a lack of political will. I realized that solar panels are expensive, and even if solar can provide families with long-term savings, it can be hard to justify the high upfront costs to a family that is making ends meet. 

I started to understand that there is a correlation between the communities that have not installed a lot of solar and communities with the most air pollution. These are the same communities that were denied housing, wealth, and opportunity through the racist practice of redlining. These same communities are bordered by highways, railroad tracks, and polluting industries. These communities were not made by accident, but by design. When I connected these dots, I realized what the broader narrative about climate change failed to address: environmental justice.

In order to understand environmental justice, one must first understand that climate change has radically disparate impacts depending on one’s race, gender, and wealth. To truly create a clean energy transition that includes and benefits everyone, we must first acknowledge and address the inequities that climate change exacerbates.  What good is it for the solar energy economy to grow if it isn't used as a tool to address the inequities of housing, climate disasters, clean air, or income?

Working towards environmental justice means distributing decision-making power, people power, financial power, and clean power to communities that are impacted first and worst by climate change. Our solutions must be as intentionally and explicitly anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-classist as the systems and policies that allow racism, sexism, and classism. Only then can we truly achieve our vision of a just clean energy transition.