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The urgency of the Black climate agenda

Black advocates are taking the climate movement into their own hands.

Protesters carrying a banner that reads, “Climate justice = racial justice.”
The Rise and Resist activist group marches to demand climate and racial justice in New York, NY, on September 20, 2020.
Steve Sanchez/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

For a long time, the face of the climate movement was white. But with growing public awareness of climate change came the recognition that its impacts are disproportionately experienced by Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color.

The problem, according to many Black climate advocates, is that awareness is not enough.

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin is one of the best-known advocates for what she calls the “Black climate agenda”: a movement that seeks to correct the failures of the climate movement to include Black people and that wants to see racial justice at the center of climate policy conversations.

A lifelong environmental activist, Toles O’Laughlin is the former director of the North American region of, an international environmental organization founded in 2007 that uses a grassroots approach to build support for ending fossil fuels.

The Black climate agenda is about more than just representation. It’s about equity and righting the wrongs that have been done in the past to make a just future possible. In her vision, the agenda should include policies like climate reparations that address the disproportionate impact climate change has had on Black communities, as well as Indigenous people and other communities of color.

There are some initial signs that the righting of wrongs is already starting to happen, at least in the US.

Through the American Rescue Plan, the Biden-Harris administration allocated $5 billion to help Black farmers who have long suffered from racially discriminatory agricultural policies. Biden’s American Jobs Plan, meanwhile, aims to address “longstanding and persistent racial injustice,” including by allocating 40 percent of the benefits from investments in climate and clean energy infrastructure to “disadvantaged communities.”

But while many Black climate advocates agree that these sorts of measures are a big step in the right direction, they are also historically conscious of the need to keep up the pressure.

“I’m excited about implementation and deployment and about taking steps to make sure that all this fantastic language becomes fantastic programming, incredible regulation, enforcement, accountability, and transparency [from] the Biden-Harris administration as it ages,” O’Laughlin told me.

I spoke with O’Laughlin to find about more about the Black climate agenda, what its goals are, and how it plans to go about achieving them.

Our discussion, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Jariel Arvin

What exactly is the Black climate agenda?

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin

Like all movements, the Black climate agenda isn’t just one thing. I’m not the only person working on it, nor am I the only person who will help to perfect it. The Black climate agenda is everything that we must do at this moment to make sure that there are Black people in the future and that we’re not just surviving, we are thriving.

The individual elements are coming together and lots of communities are coming to the same conclusion: The world of climate and environment has not included the lives, expertise, or experiences of Black people. And given that that is the case, it is up to us to work to support our lives, our sanctity, and the safety and future of the next generation.

We are more likely to become refugees when the impacts of climate change become too much to bear, given that the system has failed to serve us. If we do not carve out a Black climate agenda, there’s no reason to believe anybody else will.

Jariel Arvin

Wow. That’s tough.

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin

It’s tough because it can sound like we’re erasing the efforts of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color to work together. But Black people have always been the litmus test for change in this country. Black people are always left in the margins by systems of policy working together to diminish us, leaving us chronically underserved from generation to generation — even in our mother’s wombs.

So, when the hate is that deep, we have to come up with our schedule and agenda for survival.

Jariel Arvin

When you say “we,” who exactly do you mean?

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin

I mean Dorceta Taylor, Bob Bullard, Peggy Shepard. Vernice Miller Travis, Michel Gelobter, Michael Dorsey — these are the kinds of people who make those who know them nervous, because they have never been anything other than unapologetically Black, whether they worked at the Ford Foundation or they worked outside the doors demanding change in philanthropy or they wrote the stories of people who were fighting for change and just to not be poisoned.

One of my favorite friends, leaders, and colleagues on this is Colette Pichon Battle — partly because she’s talking about Louisiana and the Gulf South, which is rapidly losing land as fast as we can count it. The movement in the South includes Chandra Farley, who’s working on energy justice in the South at the Partnership for Southern Equity, and Kristal Hansley, who’s lifting the business itself by having started the first Black solar company in Baltimore City in the 2000s.

We are all people who have come to this conclusion, surfacing at the same time. We just haven’t been spoken to as though we are the strategists and architects that we are. We might be asked to move into the camera — we are asked to explain our pain because it’s entertaining to people — but conversations around strategy are too often had without us. And then that absence shows up in politics. It shows up in the policy. And it shows up as a failing— which leads us to have lost all this time in the climate crisis.

Jariel Arvin

So given all the past failures, how’s the Biden administration doing on fulfilling the Black climate agenda?

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin

The Biden administration has a better listening ear than any other presidential administration to date. Not just because the last one sucked — which would be very easy to say — but because in the entire history of American presidents, we have always had [slavery and its legacy], the birth problem of the American experiment, the suppression of women and children, and Black bodies, intellectual power, and capacity. But we’ve never had a president who admitted that the system was in on it.

The $2 trillion infrastructure plan — what Biden thinks it will take to rebuild America, includes a clear admission that Black people have been restricted by racially restrictive covenants, which in places including Baltimore lasted until 1985.

So when we start to talk about intergenerational wealth and a transfer of power, it isn’t just about the failure of the GI Bill to fully reach Black and brown people, or every single law that’s ever been passed having exclusions to keep us Black people oppressed, but the idea that we could not own a home where we want legally in this land that we built until this generation presents a multigenerational problem that has to be reckoned with.

And so, while there are many things to be said about whether the Biden-Harris administration will meet all of our goals, needs, and desires without us advocating for them, I do think some admissions are coming from the executive branch that have never come before, which is that we are not just “historically disadvantaged” — we have been harmed, excised, and intentionally not supported at every level.

One of the most striking early pieces of the American Jobs Plan that I saw that I was excited about was the truth that racial injustice and discrimination equals less innovation because it suppresses potential. What president has ever said that?

Jariel Arvin

Could Obama have said that? I’ve been wondering how much of the Biden-Harris administration’s success on climate can be attributed to their policies and the people that have pushed Biden to adopt this progressive climate agenda versus it just being a natural progression of where we have to be at this point as a society. It’s 2021 right? We can’t continue to pretend like this stuff doesn’t exist.

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin

I can’t speak to what it’s like to be Barack Obama, but I can speak as someone who’s been first, only, and different my entire life trying to do this work. Up to even my last role where I was the first African American in the history of this work to lead a white-lead climate organization, I can tell you that it takes a certain amount of life force to have the momentum to break through a glass ceiling, which makes it pretty difficult to move in the other direction, to go back and clean up the glass.

I think having to choose which battles you want to fight is a problem of false scarcity, and Obama was as much victim to that as any other Black person who’s ever stood up to lead anything and been the first.

Jariel Arvin

According to Biden’s Jobs Plan, 40 percent of federal investments are going to go to communities of color. What does that look like? How does the money trickle down — I hate to use that word, but how does the money get to where it needs to go?

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin

I wish he had used the words that you used. As candidate Biden became President Biden, somehow that language around the 40 percent to Environmental Justice became 40 percent of the benefits of clean energy investments. And what gets lost when we turn the phrase into “benefits”? A benefit could be that it’s sunny outside. It’s too ambiguous a term. And it may need to be legally defined.

Jariel Arvin

Wait — so it’s now the benefits, not the total investment?

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin

And this is a strategically different word, which means we’re going to have to litigate. We’re going to have to push for policy. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectionality teaches us that there are multiple forms of harm happening at any given point to a person or in a place — so “disadvantaged communities”? Disadvantaged by whom? And relative to what?

If it’s coming out of the Environmental Protection Agency, we’ll have to hold Administrator Michael Regan accountable. If we are talking about the Council for Environmental Quality, Brenda Mallory is the person who’s ultimately responsible for that.

I think the intentions are good. I am excited about the winds of change. But for them to blow into my community, we’re gonna have to get specific because the benefits of investments are not the same as investments.

Jariel Arvin

Do you think that there’s any potential to see climate reparations for Black folks?

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin

Climate reparations are the future, because there’s no chance that we can get all the people who need to be supported the help they need to survive climate change if we don’t figure out how to move money and people and opportunities in the direction of people who have been harmed. So, given that we have a president and a Cabinet that’s for accountability, one measure of their success is how quickly we can move loss and damage into a global framework and climate reparations into a domestic framework.

We won’t live to experience all of it, even if we live 100 years. The problems will go on, and so the reinvestment will have to happen over generations. And only a climate reparations regime as a part of a Black climate agenda can ensure that that happens because the work of reparations has always been the work of care and repair, and the work of climate reparations is the work of care and repair for people and planet.

Jariel Arvin

Is there enough awareness among the everyday Black population about the Black climate agenda? If not, how do you think the movement can be spread to everyday Black people who are feeling climate impacts — like how long summers last and how hot they’re getting — but who are not yet plugged into the strategy that you’re talking about?

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin

I do think that our communities are aware of it in the same way that fishermen and folks who spend time on the water are aware of it — we see that the things we count on to tell us that time is passing are changing. We live in urban environments, which have the urban heat island effect, which can make some places feels like August from May to December.

These are things that we can not only tell, but we also feel in our bodies. We have asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and all too often heart attacks at higher rates due to proximity to fossil fuel generation and pollution.

I think what we fail to do is use our concepts, understanding, and language when we talk to our communities. It’s why one of the ways I describe myself is as a “jargon destroyer.” Because I think the key to helping folks to see themselves in the vision of the future and to put some furniture in it is to get them to be really clear that this is happening to them and that they are also part of the solution.

Some of it is about who the messengers are. If LeBron James decides he cares about something, a whole lot of other people do too. Regina Hall has had a project on Wednesdays, called Woman Crush Wednesday, through the Solutions Project, where she has highlighted a Black woman activist every Wednesday for the last few years. We need more of that.

The Uproot Project — which is this project for journalists of color who cover the environment — gives me a lot of hope because I feel like we could start to tell these stories in our language, which will invite more people into caring about it.

I’ll tell you, as we are on the precipice of Earth Day, my awakening wasn’t just being given an opportunity to do this work, but recognizing that there was an entry point that didn’t mean I had to become someone else. Even if I couldn’t find people like me in the early Earth Day celebrations, it was exciting to me to know that other people cared about what I cared about.

Jariel Arvin

That has me thinking about not only Black people in America but also Black people worldwide. Do you think there’s potential for a global movement around the Black climate agenda that includes Black people in the Caribbean, in Africa, in Europe, and elsewhere?

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin

You can’t see it, but I’m smiling from ear to ear. I have said it everywhere that there is no national climate policy — it is all a global one, because we messed up so badly that there’s no chance any one of us can fix it.

But also because Black people have been the stewards of the earth everywhere we’ve ever been. What is it Jay-Z says, “Put me anywhere on God’s green earth I’ll triple my worth,” right?

One of my favorite people to talk to on Twitter is Oladosu Adenike, an ecofeminist for Lake Chad. There are also folks in the Pacific, there are activists across Africa like Rukiya Khamis fighting coal and in Asia and the Philippines and Tokyo and Hong Kong who have been doing this work with folks with very little power.

In every part of the world where there are Black people, there are stories about our stewardship. And I think that those will either become stories of climate survival or of us becoming climate refugees. If we’re not telling the story of Haiti, of Africa and the Caribbean diaspora, and the African diaspora writ large, we are failing to tell the story. So it is incredibly important to me that a Black climate agenda includes a global perspective.

Jariel Arvin

Final thoughts?

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin

There are no scenarios where we win on the climate where we don’t deal with issues of racial injustice or environmental racism. And that starts with harm to Black and brown people, and it ends with the end of harm to Black people.

The strategy of movements and the movement of movements is really about recognizing that there isn’t just one person who’s doing it — we are all part of an elaborate network holding up the arch to justice. It’s heavy, and we need each other.

That’s the gorgeous thing about this movement. It’s the reason why we can have a Black climate agenda and I don’t have to care at all about what my white friends feel about it because they know that it’s true too.

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