An Avalanche of Inequity and Injustice to the Frontlines Does Nothing to Curb Climate Change, while Real Solutions Remain Unfunded
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Now is the time for undeniably powerful grassroots leadership. If we’ve learned anything this year from the brilliant, brave, bold, and beautiful Black, Brown, Indigenous and other frontline communities and workers fighting inequitable impacts of pandemics, pollution, poverty, climate disaster and emboldened racism, it’s that real change happens at the grassroots.
Yet, in a year when frontline leadership is clearly critical, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (through his newly launched Earth Fund) has doubled down on philanthropy’s inequitable modus operandi by funneling hundreds of millions into outdated, ineffective, top-down strategies that attempt to erase the frontlines. This thoughtless, status-quo, self-serving strategy undermines the real systemic change we have been cultivating for decades in this most monumental fight against climate change, and for the protection of Mother Earth as we know her.
“Big green” environmental groups with majority-white leadership and top-down structures – World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, World Resources Institute, Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy – received the lion’s share of the initial Earth Fund grants despite already having a combined annual budget in the billions. Added together, upwards of $600 million in grants will go to the world’s wealthiest conservation and environmental organizations. Less than a quarter of the first-round grants will go to intermediary funds that support thousands of grassroots communities cultivating solutions on the frontlines of the climate emergency. The inequities couldn’t be more striking.
Once again, corporate executives and the capitalist system they defend are pitting our grassroots struggles against an elite cadre of international policy groups wielding outdated, market-based strategies that fail to confront the root causes of climate change, and continue to profit off of sacrifice zones. If these big green recipients truly care about slowing the worst effects of climate change, they must support systemic change solutions by following the frontlines, environmental and climate justice communities and movements, their alliances, and networks.
Perhaps Bezos thought the Earth Fund could absolve him and Amazon of the injustice they continuously uphold. But no amount of greenwashing will distract from the historical and current disenfranchisement of Amazon workers, other frontline communities, and Mother Earth herself. As demonstrated when this funding was first announced in the first quarter of 2020, CJA steadfastly stands with Amazon workers and impacted communities, as they fight to realize basic dignity and human rights in the workplace.
Equity & the Need for Redistribution of Funds
To forego any comprehensive consultation or advance notice and drop this announcement on environmental justice communities just prior to Thankstaking deepens wounds of colonialism, anti-Indigenism, racism, and Black slavery — wounds that have perpetuated the racialized disparities and historic systems of oppression that underpin our interconnected climate, racial, and economic crises. It also turns an insulting blind eye to the fact that many Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities are also fighting against a global pandemic, the rise of fascism, disproportionate exposures to toxic chemicals and climate-causing greenhouse gas emissions, other environmental contaminants, and the collapse of the global economy.
But Bezos is not the only one to blame. We are disheartened to see many of the big green Earth Fund recipients continue their regular fundraising campaigns despite having just received $100 million each! This is particularly heartbreaking considering the public outpouring of solidarity statements from these very groups quite recently, espousing commitments to equity, environmental justice, and racial justice when it was popular to do so.
Time is running out for them to save the integrity of their statements, as well as the agreements, protocols, and initiatives they have committed to over the past several decades, including The 17 Principles of Environmental Justice, the Jemez Principles of Democratic Organizing, and the Building Equity & Alignment for Impact Initiative. The world is burning — literally and metaphorically — and we cannot believe we have to take precious time away from the fight of our lives to explain, yet again, the racism, elitism and plain obtuseness of the environmental sector. Here is just a partial list of letters addressing power and funding disparities and the harm inflicted far too often by philanthropy and big green organizations that span many decades.
A Super-Sized Order of False Solutions for Climate & Communities
This sizable funding from the Earth Fund, supported in part by Amazon’s refusal to pay taxes and other despicable practices that abuse workers and the planet, purports to “preserve and protect the natural world” from the “biggest threat to our planet”. However, it fails to acknowledge its wealth has been built off the backs of the very communities that are leading the struggle to stop the root causes of climate change. Despite being chronically and severely underfunded, these communities are creating innovative climate solutions while protecting our lands, waters, air, and ways of life, and showing the world sustainable paths to successfully navigate the storms, floods, fires, and droughts headed our way.
Meanwhile, the environmental organizations receiving over 80% of this funding, along with other big greens, continue to collaborate with the very corporate leaders driving and benefiting from the fossil fuel economy and causing this existential crisis. (One recent example of this is the push for the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) in the Northeast, organized in close coordination with British Petroleum.) Through ineffective policy solutions like this that further subsidize polluting industries including fracked gas, nuclear power, biomass, waste incineration energy, and biofuels, they enable investment capital to continue profiteering from the pollution and other harms they cause in frontline communities. In fact, some of the first grants being doled out are going to support major investments in risky and dangerous geoengineering experiments and carbon market mechanisms, such as offsets and carbon pricing regimes, that will not stop climate change nor reduce emissions at source. Instead, they will put frontline communities and ecosystems on a fast track to becoming new sacrifice zones, rather than on a road to Just Transitions.
In fact, according to the REDD Monitor, Bezos is pouring millions into so-called “nature-based solutions” — a new name for the rebranding of REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation). Also known as “natural climate solutions,” nature-based solutions are false solutions to climate change in the form of carbon offsets with entire ecosystems. These so-called “solutions” do not reduce emissions, are slated for half the world’s land, may result in a planetary land grab within mechanisms of privatization, and could adversely impact a billion people. REDD Monitor reports that all five of the big green beneficiaries “mention natural climate solutions in their press releases about receiving money from Bezos.” In effect, these environmental and conservation groups, as well as myriad polluting corporations, create and participate in mechanisms that give way to the financialization of nature. These practices separate and quantify the earth’s cycles and functions – such as carbon, water, soils and biodiversity – by turning them into “units” to be sold in financial and speculative markets.
Our Values Must Guide Our Solutions
No one will save us but ourselves. Following the lead of the frontlines is paramount to our very survival. We know the ability to protect the earth’s living capacity now and in the future hinges on our ability to repair, renew, and right our relationships with her and each other. This involves centering the grassroots climate justice movement, which understands the need for humanity to protect the territorial integrity of Mother Earth and Father Sky, following the teachings of Indigenous sisters and brothers and land-based cultures. We can only undertake such global efforts to remediate and restore ecological balance if we redistribute the wealth accrued from stolen lands, stolen lives, and stolen labor to those from whom it was taken and who continue to be most impacted by pollution, poverty, racism, state violence, and pandemic around the world.
Across CJA’s members and allies, we have a multitude of Just Transition projects – real, scalable climate solutions that move us toward regenerative economies, such as: Black women-led food sovereignty projects in the MidAtlantic and on the West Coast; Latinx farmworker-led medicinal plant projects in the Southeast; BIPOC people-to-people mutual aid networks in the Gulf South; a community-owned solar project in the Northeast; Latinx-led feminist economy projects in the Southwest; emerging worker-owner cooperative models, such as a Black-owned natural building company in the MidAtlantic and an Indigenous-owned cooperative farm in the Pacific Northwest; Indigenous-led renewable energy companies; BIPOC-led non-extractive finance models; and a new project by the Reinvest In Our Power Campaign to move $100 million to local living economies that work in harmony with Mother Earth. This is just a glimpse of solutions already happening on the ground.
As revealed in 2010, later in 2012, and yet again in 2020, we know it is much more effective for philanthropy to fund the grassroots than the big greens, if they truly want to forge real change that actually tackles the climate crisis and the multitudinal impacts it has on us all.
At this moment in history, we must stand together as a movement to defend our right to speak for ourselves and our communities, and to self-govern. After all, this is not the first time our movement has had to stand up to racialized funding disparities. Over the last few decades, we have had to develop our own initiatives, organizing with allied funders and other national green groups, to have our voices heard. Since the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991 in Washington, D.C., our communities have been demanding equity from philanthropy and big greens, noting that funding disparities stem from existing cultures of white supremacy and elite privilege.
This moment can make or break our ability to stop the worst effects of climate change, and we will not stand in silence while those who are not amongst the first and most impacted try to define it — let alone those who just jumped into climate funding as a way to whitewash despicable labor practices. It is unacceptable that such enormous funds be redistributed and re-invested in ways that will not only divide our movements, but also dismantle progress greens and grassroots have made together, and set back our efforts to tackle accelerating impacts of the climate crisis and biodiversity loss.
We need to leave behind this era of racialized philanthropic practice and inequitable terms of engagement. We must foster meaningful pathways forward to confront the inextricably linked racial, economic, and climate crises by embracing and centering traditional Indigenous knowledge; investing in workers and the placed-based leadership of urban and rural frontline communities; and expanding democratic collaboration on Just Transition strategies to combat climate change and build sustaining and living economies.
Recommendations for Bezos, Big Greens and Allied Funders
At this pivotal moment in time, first, we call on Jeff Bezos to pay his fair share of corporate taxes, pay his workers a living wage, stop surveilling labor, social justice and environmental groups, and put money into the communities being impacted by industrial pollution and other harmful impacts caused by Amazon distribution centers.
Second, we call on all big green organizations receiving grants from the Earth Fund to follow and respect the leadership of the frontlines and their solutions, which meet both the challenge of climate change and the interconnected racist, anti-Indigenist, classist and undemocratic systems that created it, and move us toward regenerative economies. Immediately, these organizations can:
- Take leadership from the grassroots and redirect at least 10-25% or more of Earth Fund monies received to a pooled Fund for Frontline Power governed by and for the grassroots organizing sector. Grassroots leaders should decide how those funds are allocated to support the grassroots organizing sector, not greens.
- Don’t Choose for the grassroots. For those greens like Natural Resources Defense Council and Union of Concerned Scientists who have been engaged in the Building Equity and Alignment for Impact and other initiatives and platforms over decades to ensure more transparency and accountability in resourcing, this is the time to visibly demonstrate that you abide by the principles and protocols you have signed onto. As greens, it is not your role to convene the grassroots, speak for environmental justice groups, or set up your own mechanisms to fund us. Now is the time for you to engage in principled action that supports grassroots leadership and use these vehicles and the Jemez Principles to support the frontlines.
- Institute a moratorium on new fundraising while you are a grantee of the Earth Fund to do your part to balance the disproportionate inequity this funding contributes to with already only 1% going to grassroots in key areas like the Midwest and the Gulf South for example and overall.
Third, we call on the allied funding community and the larger climate/environment philanthropic community to:
- Institute a moratorium on grants to Earth Fund recipients who do not center and follow the lead of grassroots organizations in frontline communities—big greens and intermediary funds whose practices show that they have not prioritized funding grassroots, and direct those dollars instead to a pooled Fund for Frontline Power to help ensure equity in philanthropy.*
- Pressure big greens’ board members and staff to move money directly to the grassroots via a pooled grassroots-governed Fund for Frontline Power, as soon as possible using resources, communication campaigns, and direct conversations.
- Pressure your funder colleagues to move money directly to the grassroots through a pooled Fund for Frontline Power.
- Call for solidarity from all the grassroots intermediary fund recipients of Bezos funding by asking them to also contribute a percentage of the total grant they received to a pooled Fund for Frontline Power governed for and by the grassroots.
- Invite grassroots leaders to engage in a long-term evaluative process to integrate an equity lens into your grantmaking practices.
We stand firm and united to continue our grassroots struggles against the settler-colonial-capitalist system that has created the climate crisis and entrenches racism, corporate destruction of the earth, and market-based agendas that serve to ravage our bodies, our communities, and the planet.
As we usher in a new and transformative era, we call on Bezos, big green organizations, and funders alike to put their money where their mouth is, live their espoused values, and support the leadership of the frontlines with the words, deeds, and resources we need to lead us all through a beautiful multiplicity of Just Transitions. Taking swift action on the above clear steps is a solid way to start.
*Updated on 12/14/20 for clarity.