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Climate Leadership Series: Wanjiku Gatheru and Rhiana Gunn-Wright

Climate Leadership Series: Wanjiku Gatheru and Rhiana Gunn-Wright

This is a podcast transcript from the Climate Leadership Series featuring Wanjiku Gatheru and Rhiana Gunn-Wright. You can listen to the podcast on Apple or Spotify.

 

Wanjiku Gatheru:

Hello, and welcome to the Rhodes Climate Leadership series, with current Rhodes Scholars interviewing Rhodes alumni about their work in the climate space. My name is Wanjiku Gatheru, friends call me Wawa, and I am a 2020 Rhodes Scholar from the United States, studying an MSc in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance.

Wanjiku Gatheru:

I am super, super excited to be joined by fellow Rhodes Scholar Rhiana Gunn-Wright, Illinois and St. John's 2013. Rhiana is the current Director of Climate Policy at the Roosevelt Institute. She has previously worked with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as an author of the Green New Deal, was a policy director for New Consensus, and policy director for Abdul El-Sayed's 2018 Michigan gubernatorial campaign. A 2013 Rhodes Scholar, Rhiana has also worked as the policy analyst for the Detroit Health Department, was a Mariam K. Chamberlain fellow of Women and Public Policy at the Institute for Women's Policy Research, and served on the policy team for former first lady, Michelle Obama. Thank you so much for joining us, Rhiana, and I'm super, super excited to be in virtual community with you.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

Yeah, no problem. It's really lovely to meet you, finally.

Wanjiku Gatheru:

I know. I feel as I've been perpetually just inspired by the great work that you're doing. And I have to just put it out there that you're one of the reasons that I applied for the Rhodes Scholarship, and actually am part of St. John's College.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

That's so nice. I'm glad I could do that. Because I remember being like, "Oh, if I could just find one person that seemed remotely like me, this would be a lot less terrifying."

Wanjiku Gatheru:

Well, I would love to jumpstart into some of these questions that I'm really, really excited to hear your insight on. So maybe it'd be a bit helpful for our audience here today to learn a little bit more about you. So who is Rhiana, and what led you to the climate space?

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

Who is Rhiana? No-one's asked me that question. My first answer is like Rhiana is a clown. Like I am always goofing off, and making jokes. But yeah, I think in more concrete terms, I'm a Chicagoan. I'm from Chicago, recently moved back to Chicago, because I am also a mother-to-be. I'm pregnant at the moment, and tired (laughs).

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

And I'm also a policy ... I don't want to say like a policy expert, but I'm a public policy professional. That is what I do in my life. I've been working or studying policy for about the last 10 years.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

Started in social policy. Did some health policy, now work on the Green New Deal, which is sort of an intersection between social policy, environmental policy and economic policy.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

That's who I am. I'm ultimately a person that just desperately wants things to be better, and feels really responsible to being as good of an ancestor as I can be. And to having a decent time while doing it.

Wanjiku Gatheru:

Well, I know how influential the Green New Deal has been on a domestic, but also international scale. So I'd love for you to let the audience know a little bit more about the Green New Deal, where it came about, what it stands to accomplish, and where it's at right now.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

So the Green New Deal is an idea that has come up in a lot of it iterations over time. I want to say it was first talked about in the nineties. The economist Friedman once wrote about a Green New Deal. The Green party has put out a version of a Green New Deal. And it's an interesting ... it's an idea that's come up, but it's taken different flavors, depending on who introduced it and what the timeframe, what the context was around it.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

So the Green New Deal that we were most inspired by was actually one that was proposed by a British think tank right after the financial crisis. And that Green New Deal was really focused on financialization, like the roles that banks and financial policy was playing in exacerbating climate change. And the ways that turning away from that sort of financialization could help rebuild what people call the real economy, which is essentially the economy that's based on building things, making things. Anything in the economy that's not based on making money out of money, right? Like that's not based on what folks in finance often are doing.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

And so that was something that we were really inspired by. And so the Green New Deal that I've worked on, and that's really taking hold in the US, is essentially a proposal for an economic mobilization on the scale of the mobilization in World War II, to tackle climate change. To address climate change, and to do so in a way that creates millions of good paying jobs, that redresses historic inequities, and that rapidly decarbonizes, in line with the targets set out by various scientists, including like the IPCC report.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

And we talk about it often as being at the intersection of jobs, justice and climate. And it's really sort of the Green New Deal in the public imagination in the States really kicked off with the sit-in in Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi's office, where representative Ocasio-Cortez showed up, and that was led by Sunrise.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

And since then it's become ... It's interesting it started out as a proposal, and now it is like a proposal. It is a movement. There's a movement for a Green New Deal, and it's become like a lot of things. It's become a set of principles that lead climate policy development. And it's also increasingly become sort of like an economic recovery, like a blueprint for an economic recovery plan, that say like the Biden/Harris administration is pulling off of.

Wanjiku Gatheru:

Something that I hear often about the Green New Deal and the climate justice movement in general, a major critique that I hear, is that oftentimes people say that the principles and frameworks that we're trying to work upon are just too broad to really make climate progress in the way that we need right now. But you argue that an intersectional approach is really, really important, and is a strength to help build broader coalitions that include people from all different walks of life.

Wanjiku Gatheru:

So I'd love for us to talk a little bit more about how dimensions of intersectionality, from decolonization to racial justice, are crucial to the climate movement, and to the objectives of the Green New Deal, and everything that these frameworks work upon.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

Yeah, totally. So I'll be honest, like I knew about the climate crisis for probably at least since I've been in college, maybe earlier in high school. And I had friends who were involved in like divestment campaigns in college, or invested in environmental policy. But I was never particularly interested or drawn to it, because it seemed quite honestly like a very elite, very white cause to me.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

I was focused on social policy, and like my early ... especially then, I was really focused on welfare policy, on policies related to poverty. And, you know, even at as time went on, that's still sort of the lens that a lot of my policy work was happening through.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

And so I was like, I'm talking about women being able to afford childcare, so that they can take care of their families. I'm talking about how do we reform welfare policy, so that women are not penalized for going to college? These are the things that I'm talking about. I don't know what a solar panel is going to do. It was those sorts of things. It just seemed very remote.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

And I think the Green New Deal was one of the first times where I understood both how close it was, and how it linked to so many of the things that I had seen in my life. Like exponential rates of asthma, right, in communities that I worked in, or in my own community. Figuring out that one of the reasons I likely had asthma as a child was because of environmental pollution. And the fact that polluting facilities are disproportionately sited in Black and Latinx and Indigenous areas, right?

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

Figuring out that it's not even enough to say ... class can't protect you. Middle class Black people are exposed to more pollution than poor white people, right, at least in the US. And so all of those things actually made me want to be engaged. And it also made me realize that it would also likely make other people want to be engaged. As in my lifetime, when I was growing up, there wasn't a lot of political will around it.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

And still that will is growing, but you're up against some of the richest and most powerful corporations on earth, who make money, right, because of fossil fuels. Who make money essentially by making the climate crisis worse.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

And so to overcome that, especially in a country where there's so much ... money has such a hold on politics, you need people, you need large movements. And as long as there is not ... the climate crisis is not painted in ways that include environmental justice, is not painted in ways where we're actually talking about immigration policy, and what that means when we have climate refugees, as long as we're not talking about how it's connected to policing, right, and the ways that now there's all of these new laws where they're trying to make it illegal to protest at fossil fuel sites.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

And thinking about the ways that police can be deployed, and the criminal justice system can be used in these instances, you won't actually be able to gather enough power until intersectionality is incredibly important, both in making sure that you actually have the people power to get things done, but also in telling the full truth about the climate crisis.

Wanjiku Gatheru:

The other thing that I want to talk about, which I kind of hear you moving into, is the importance of building broader coalitions with existing movements. I feel as though a lot of the language that is being talked about with the Green New Deal, with a just climate future, it really does resemble an abolitionist framework, And unfortunately haven't really heard those connections being made in a really mainstream context. And I wanted to know if you had any thoughts as to why that is, and even thoughts as to what the power of this movement could be, if we linked arms with abolitionists, and folks that have for so long understood what it means to conceptualize a truly just future, absent of a carceral landscape.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

Yeah. A hundred percent. I actually did an interview about that, I don't remember how long ago, at least a few months ago. And I do a lot of interviews. And I did it, and it was one of the only ones that got traction because it got mocked. Like, it got mocked by Yglesias, and some right wing folks. Because people are like, "See, this is a bridge too far. They're just saying the Green New Deal includes everything," because I had said that there are clear connections between sort of a Green New Deal world view and framework, and proposal and abolition, right?

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

Because like you said, it's just like you said, these are both rooted in the idea of how do we imagine a just future, even if we don't know exactly how to get there right now, right? The ways that we know that the carceral state guards property, and works for folks who really own capital, and own property, and is used to delineate who goes where, right? That has very clear connections to climate, and especially too, when you think about what can happen in a world where resources are getting more and more scarce, what has the role of the police become, right?

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

And also the carceral state as it relates to immigration, right? The ways that we've seen immigrants treated by ICE, and put in camps, and separated from their families, right? Some of those, a lot of those immigrants are already climate refugees, right? So what happens when there are more climate refugees? What does that system do?

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

And I think a lot of the hesitancy to have those conversations comes back to that fear of being accused of going too far. And I think that that is really ... that is a real thing that keeps a whole lot of things from being said, not just related to the Green New Deal, but in general.

Wanjiku Gatheru:

For sure. And I don't know if this is too much of a jumping point into the realm of what could potentially happen, but let's work on something first. Let's talk about climate reparations. So for me, when I think about what is necessary for a just climate future, there is a need for accountability and wealth distribution. And I believe that climate reparations is absolutely a part of that solution.

Wanjiku Gatheru:

However, again, the same way that intersectionality is questioned about its place in the climate space, I think climate reparations, even though it's not, as you know, it's not a new term, it still is looked at as a far off possibility, at best. So what are your thoughts about climate reparations? Is it something that's necessary for the justice that we're looking for?

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

So honestly, I've never even heard that term before. I certainly have talked about and learned about just carbon accounting, or just carbon budgeting. That means that countries have to be responsible for their share of carbon. And there's an impetus, say for the States to clean up faster, and decarbonize faster, than the rest of the world in order to free up the carbon budget for, in particular, developing countries who need more time, or who still have more growth to do.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

And so I've heard about that, but I've never heard about climate reparations. And I'll say that fair carbon accounting is still, in the DC context, still seen as wild. People are like, "That's a nice thought." And you're like, "Actually, it's not really a nice thought." Because what we're saying is that we are borrowing other people's time. For the time that we delay, if we decided we don't have to do anything till 2050, other people in other countries are going to die, for us to take that time. So it's actually not just a nice to have. There is a cost to us not moving faster that is very real.

Wanjiku Gatheru:

I think we have reached near the end of the conversation. But I did want to change up near the end of the conversation, because I find myself on a lot of panels or interviews, where the last question, or last couple of questions center on hope. And I've always really struggled with that, because I think that hope in general isn't necessarily the most important. I wouldn't say the most important, but the most influential driver for action.

Wanjiku Gatheru:

I think hope is something that's often earned after doing action. But more often I'm usually angry about a lot of things. And that's what gets me up in the morning, and what keeps me in the climate movement. Which is a movement that isn't a lot of fun work a lot of the times. It's really heartbreaking work. And I'd love to know about some of the emotions that drive you to remain in this space, other than hope.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

The things that are wrong will continue to be wrong, whether or not I decide to work on them. If I decide tomorrow this is too hard, I don't want to do this anymore, it will still continue. And so I have a choice to either have it continue and not do anything, and be frustrated, or be frustrated and work on it. What has to be done has to be done, whether or not you're winning, whether or not you're losing. The work still has to be done. I'm going to have an uncomfortable feeling about it either way.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

I've never been the kind of person that can see something like that and not have it bother me. I have often wished to be that kind of person. I have often wished that things outside of my own little bubble didn't bother me so much, but they do. And since I know this about myself, I'm really playing myself if I think that if I just turn my back, those emotions will be shut off, because that's not how it's going to work. So to me it's like, "Well, you might as well." That is really a lot of what drives it. "Might as well."

Wanjiku Gatheru:

Hopefully, this conversation has provided some insight to everyone that's watched. I've definitely learned so much from your insights, and how open and honest and authentic that you are as a person, and a leader, but also in this conversation. So I really appreciate the time that you've given to me and the audience. And I'd lastly like to ask you, is there anything that I missed, or anything that we didn't discuss, that you think is important to leave us all with?

Rhiana Gunn-Wright:

No. I mean, I think we've discussed a lot. I just want to leave everyone with good luck, Wawa. I think you'll probably be in your second year. Good luck, and thank you for all that you do.

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