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Q&A: Solutions Project CEO talks climate and racial justice

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 14 April 2021 15:09 GMT

Gloria Walton, President and CEO of The Solutions Project, in conversation at a grantee convening. Photo credit: The Solutions Project / Ethan Covey.

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Solutions Project CEO Gloria Walton says Black, indigenous and other minority communities can be at the frontline of climate solutions - if they get support

By Laurie Goering

LONDON, April 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Whether in flood-hit villages in Bangladesh or disadvantaged U.S. communities choking on refinery fumes, people most affected by environmental problems often have the clearest ideas on how to fix them, says environmental justice activist Gloria Walton.

But the limited cash available to plan and carry out the work still flows mainly to high-paid consultants and big green groups, with frontline communities getting only a tiny share.

Researchers at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, for example, found that less than 10% of international climate finance between 2003 and 2016 was directed to local action on climate change.

And when billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos last year promised to spend $10 billion fighting climate change, most of the first wave of grants, announced in November, went to big environmental groups.

But Walton's organization - the U.S.-based Solutions Project, which aims to support ground-up climate responses and clean energy in Black, indigenous, immigrant and other frontline communities - also won a $43-million share.

That, alongside U.S. President Joe Biden's pledge that 40% of billions in new clean energy investment will go to disadvantaged communities, hint at the start of a much-needed shift, Walton told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As she took part in the Skoll World Forum, which aims to accelerate action on global problems, The Solutions Project CEO - who calls herself a "climate solutionary" - talked about what must change to drive action on climate change and social justice.


This is a moment of big concern both about climate change and racial inequity. Does addressing them together make sense or is it too big a job?

For me, climate justice is racial justice, and racial justice is climate justice.    

We believe it's communities disproportionately affected (by climate change and inequity) who will understand the problems more holistically and know how to solve them.

I don’t know if it’s easier or harder to address them together - it’s just an imperative.

Renovus Solar community solar installation in upstate NY. The Solutions Project / Stephen Yang

You're making grants to support community efforts to bring in clean energy and other climate solutions. What's working?

In Buffalo, they're making sure there are solar panels on affordable housing and training people in the community to install those panels. They're thinking about community development, the housing crisis and jobs together.

A grantee in the Navajo nation in Arizona is empowering families to achieve energy independence. About 15,000 families don't have access to electricity - a major gap in infrastructure disproportionately affecting indigenous communities.

They're creating a training program and career ladder for people to install and maintain off-grid clean power.

And in South Carolina a church is installing "hydropanels" that use solar power to pull safe, clean drinking water from the air, in an area hit by storms that affect drinking water and electricity supplies.   

Why is it so important that communities come up with their own climate solutions?

Someone who’s never experienced homelessness shouldn’t be coming up with solutions for the homeless. Those who understand the problem intimately need to be the decision-makers.

We're in a moment where governments need to be learning from our communities. That model of outside agencies and consultants coming in needs to be disrupted.

We glorify those and undervalue the experts in communities - the on-the-ground experts who are living through things and therefore making the most innovative solutions. Undervaluing that makes no sense to me, but that’s what we do. 

How much of the money out there for climate action is flowing to these communities?

When you look where the money is going, it’s to white-led, large, well-funded institutions, the "big greens". There’s this tension between the big greens and environmental justice organizations, which are not funded at the same scale.

And we need to be making five- and 10-year investments because we know change doesn’t happen overnight. 

The coronavirus pandemic has helped make some of the world's inequities and economic weaknesses clearer. What needs to change now to address that?

Regardless of what issue you’re looking at, it’s Black, immigrant and similar communities that are most affected. We know that's who's at the frontlines of racism, poverty, COVID and the climate crisis.

Right now we have an extraordinarily extractive system that commodifies people and land and resources in ways that are creating our own demise.

That needs to be disrupted. People are saying enough already. We have to have a different way of relating to each other - a regenerative or reparative economy. 

Climate activism groups are often criticized as being too white and middle class. Where are Black communities in this push?

Environmental justice communities have been led by Black, indigenous and immigrant folks for decades. The communities have always been there but the story hasn't been told.   

What will success in this push for climate action and more equity look like for you?

A clean economy that doesn’t leave workers behind. A just transition where we’re being intentional about how we move communities from dirty industries to sustainable industries.

Affordable housing with solar panels... More green space in historically disinvested areas. Access to safe food and clean water. An energy sector that's democratized.

And solutions that are local, with communities defining what’s best in their own communities in cooperation with local government.   

Related stories:

How and why systemic racism harms the environment

'Can I afford it?' Workers fear squeeze from green energy transition

Better local climate adaptation means 'we all benefit' in connected world

UK 'green industrial revolution' should also curb inequality

(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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