Green New Deal architect Rhiana Gunn-Wright will make a virtual campus visit

She’ll share climate policy and environmental justice insights during a public virtual event hosted by the Institute for Social Transformation

Rhiana Gunn-Wright posing indoors
Rhiana Gunn-Wright previewed some of the insights she'll share during her February 10th event.

Climate change. Racism. Disparities in health and livelihoods. The biggest challenges of our modern era are not as separate as they might seem. Rhiana Gunn-Wright wants to help others see how environmental degradation and social injustices are deeply intertwined. Because understanding these connections is a powerful starting place for meaningful change. 

Gunn-Wright, lead developer of the Green New Deal and current climate policy director at the Roosevelt Institute, will share her insights at a free public virtual event hosted by the UC Santa Cruz Institute for Social Transformation, coming up on Wednesday, February 10th, from 5:30–7 p.m. She’ll also meet privately, earlier in the day, with a group of graduate students and students from the People of Color Sustainability Collective to provide mentorship and discuss shared research interests. 

Gunn-Wright hopes audience members at her evening event will come prepared to think about climate change and social justice issues in new ways that could offer shared solutions. 

“The ways that we've been thinking about climate change up until now—focusing on the technical aspects like temperature changes, parts-per-million in the atmosphere, and ice caps—have gotten us some wins, but they haven't gotten us as far as we need to go,” she said. “In a time when there are so many issues competing for attention, this talk might be a way to help knit together many of those things for folks so they can see how to be effective.” 

In particular, Gunn-Wright will discuss the importance of integrating climate policy into a post-COVID economic recovery, and she’ll detail opportunities for the Biden administration to tackle climate change in a way that centers environmental justice for frontline communities. 

Envisioning a path forward

Communities of color are disproportionately affected by health impacts, like asthma, from the burning of fossil fuels, and they’re also most vulnerable to climate change impacts, including extreme heat and flooding. These trends are the legacies of discriminatory policies, and Gunn-Wright says climate policy must seek to right these wrongs.  

“People have given up their bodies and their lives, often unwillingly, for us to be able to prosper off of fossil fuels,” Gunn-Wright explained. “And now, they need resources to weather what's coming.”

Gunn-Wright says climate policy also needs to transition society away from the use of fossil fuels rapidly enough to keep global warming below the critical threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius, beyond which the risk of catastrophic impacts increases greatly. It’s a monumental task that she describes as, “changing our source of energy from one that is poisoning us to one that is not.”   

With those goals in mind, several years ago, she developed a national climate action plan called the Green New Deal. That plan was then introduced as a congressional resolution in early 2019, and since that time, it has stimulated global discussion.

“As an architect of the Green New Deal, Rhiana has presented one of the most important policy initiatives to address, arguably, the most crucial issues in the world right now,” said Chris Benner, director of the Institute for Social Transformation.

Benner said he’s very excited that faculty, students, and community members will have a chance to learn from such a world-renowned leader. 

Building a movement

Gunn-Wright plans to share advocacy and organizing tips to help others become climate leaders, too. She says federal climate policy often takes direction from successful initiatives at the state and local level, so getting involved with local climate-related issues is a great way to start. And, ultimately, the most meaningful types of climate action come from joining together with others. 

“Figure out who your people are, and then move alongside them,” Gunn-Wright said. “Because one thing we've seen is that individual action isn't enough. It's great to do as much as you can as an individual to reduce your waste, to vote for climate policy, and to do other things in your individual sphere, but we're at a time when we need power. And power, particularly in the U.S., comes from numbers and pressure.”

For more of Gunn-Wright’s tips and insights, interested members of the public should be sure to register online for the upcoming event. Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, will provide opening remarks, then Gunn-Wright will dive into conversation with the event’s moderator, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Sikina Jinnah. Jinnah encourages both climate experts and newcomers to the issue to participate in this event.

“The type of work that Rhiana is doing to reframe climate politics along a justice lens is really the future of politics,” Jinnah said. “To have the opportunity to engage with someone who has been so incredibly effective at what she is fighting for is an inspiration for all of us.”