Tamara Toles O’Laughlin does not pull any punches when she talks about what is going wrong with climate policy. “People shouldn’t have to choose whether to pay their electricity bill, have a job, or die on the fiery gas ball that used to be our planet,” says the longtime environmental activist and strategist. From the crisis of biodiversity depleting our forests and oceans to the extreme heat and devastating wildfires across the Mediterranean rim and the Western United States, climate change is already catastrophic for many, and the system, she says, is not working for those most acutely affected. As a native New Yorker, she was dismayed as she watched the Big Apple’s streets and subways flood during Hurricane Ida. She knows that New York City has long had a solid policy plan to confront environmental challenges, but our fast-changing climate keeps catching us unprepared, and the poor, disenfranchised, and vulnerable often end up paying the ultimate price.
Toles O’Laughlin grew up with a mother who was a waterkeeper, an activist dedicated to safeguarding water resources, so her passion for protecting the planet runs deep. Her perspective is informed by a lifetime of work on environmental justice concerns as a lawyer and advocate—from toxic exposures in communities to campaigns for Indigenous land sovereignty across the United States. She’s worked for the Department of Environmental Protection in New York and served as the North America director of 350.org, an organization focused on advocating for an end to fossil fuel use around the globe. And in her current position as the CEO and President of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, a philanthropic network of ecologically-inclined organizations, she strives to help groups align their efforts and expedite an effective and equitable climate agenda.
In view of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which declared that some of the worst effects of climate change (melting ice sheets, coral bleaching, sea level rise) are now unavoidable, and the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, I spoke with Toles O’Laughlin about why many policies have failed, the role of reparations in climate justice, and the absolute need to “keep it in the ground.”
Jori Lewis: We’ve known about the risks of climate change for several decades, and we’re plainly seeing the catastrophic effects now. It’s hard to understand why our efforts and policies haven’t been able to shift the needle as much as they need to. Why haven’t we made more of an impact?
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: We’ve known about [the effects of global warming] since the 1800s. We’ve had the data on it for 50 years or so. And we had a target on our back for the last 30 years. What we’re seeing is gridlock from the US Congress. It is a design problem. Quite honestly, from the Waxman-Markey [climate bill] to the Green New Deal to the Red, Black and Green New Deal [a proposal that puts racial justice and Black liberation at the center of climate policy], we’re not in a place where we are confused about what needs to happen. We are in a place where our democracy is confused by dirty money that makes it impossible for Congress to act in the interest of the people. It is confused about who its bosses are.
I’ve never been in a room where fishermen don’t understand climate change, or coal miners don’t understand climate change, or folks who live in a community and have COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] and asthma don’t understand climate change. But I’ve been in plenty of rooms with politicians who are trying to figure out how to keep the status quo.
Jori Lewis: The most recent IPCC report articulated the climate crisis in the most stark terms yet, and for many people, heightened a sense of urgency. How do we create new policies that address that urgency, but don’t reinforce the frameworks that we already have, which don’t seem to be working anyway?
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: So, there are four words that can answer that: keep it in the ground. There are no policies that propose anything other than keep it in the ground that could possibly help us avoid the nasty trajectory that we’re on because of climate crisis degradation. The earth is making adjustments around our refusal to let go of coal, oil, gas and plastic at a rate that’s faster than we can keep up with it. So the question is: Are we going to respond to the system as it exists? Or are we going to keep playing around in our narrow political hallway trying to ignore what the planet is telling us? I do not think it’s that complicated. We have to stop production of coal, oil, and gas.
Jori Lewis: I live in Senegal, which used to have few natural resources, but a decade ago, they found a lot of oil offshore. And they’re trying to bring it into production. There are very few local environmental campaigners making a “keep it in the ground” argument, because the country needs revenue. It sounds simple, but it may be difficult to get folks on board.
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: I don’t agree with that. Because one, when the rest of the world is getting off of coal, oil and gas, because they’ve had their fill, “advanced their economies,” and created really unsustainable models of energy development, onboarding new localities and geographies with the worst ideas we’ve ever had is a mistake. That is true in communities inside the United States that do not have access to energy that isn’t really extractive and dirty. It’s also true for places like Senegal. We should not be exporting the very worst ideas. What’s happening in the Global South, I would say, are knock-on effects of wins in North America. We got rid of coal. And then what we did was watch it go to Africa and Asia, and acted as if that wasn’t somehow connected to moving those assets away from the US portfolio of these companies, where it’s unwanted.
But we can replace filthy stoves with solar stoves, just like we can replace gas because it also has nasty health impacts, and procure our energy through means that are not extractive. And that can happen anywhere where the sun shines and the wind is blowing. It’s not only possible—we have been at this for a while. Solar and wind are not new technologies. Geothermal and hydro are not new technologies. We’ve had all of them for at least 50 years. Madame C.J. Walker, one of the first African American millionaires in the United States, had an electric car in the 1910s. Onshore wind or offshore wind, or solar, in the appropriate places where we can get enough daylight and with battery capacity to store it during the downtime, is exactly as viable, and in fact, is cheaper than exploration wells and drilling and extraction that is pushing us to a point where emissions will literally kill people. It’s deeply disingenuous for any company to act as though working with a government to make plans to dig out coal, oil, and gas is anything other than reckless, dangerous, and irresponsible. That’s as true in the UAE as it is in any of the countries in Africa. We are not in a place where the planet cares about our geography—it cares about emissions. Forcing people to become climate refugees so that we can have five more minutes of a bad idea is a mistake in every zip code, and in every latitude and longitude.
Jori Lewis: What do you think of technological solutions aimed at combating climate change, or those involving carbon markets?
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: I’m a supporter of listening to communities when they speak explicitly, and even when they’re working out what they think. And communities across the globe have said straightforwardly that they’re not interested in false solutions. As people are trying to figure out how we get out of this mess, some will think that putting up mirror balloons in coastal cities will reflect the sun back so that we don’t heat up the globe. That is a false solution. Direct air capture, which basically extends the life of fossil fuel-producing facilities by cleaning up the thing they’re doing on the way out of the smokestack, is a false solution. Because what we need to do is stop running that facility. The idea that we can have CCUS [carbon capture, utilization and storage], which is literally just throwing some dust in the air and hoping that it absorbs enough of a bad thing so that we can suck it back into the earth and potentially turn it into jewelry or stones sequestered under the ground for some period of time, is a false solution. The idea that we can pay farmers across the globe—in Africa, where it’s happening now, and in the US south, where people are exploring this idea—to grow some cover crops that will create a market for carbon sequestration [storing carbon in a solid or dissolved form so that it’s not released to the atmosphere], when fossil fuel-fueled climate change means droughts and floods and fires will make it less likely that the cover crops they plant will stay there: a false solution. The market has no mechanism for understanding that the credit it built has just been burned up or overheated or flooded or is now unavailable. So all of these fall in the category of false solutions, because they prioritize how rich folks can stay rich, not about how we actually solve climate issues.
Jori Lewis: How do you see climate policy intersecting with other types of policies?
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: Well, I am known to say that climate is a leaf on the branch of the tree of social justice. And what I mean by that is that climate has emerged as the latest way that we talk about failing to meet people where they are, to give them solutions that mean that the government is a partner in the future, and not an oppositional force working against them to protect industry. You can’t get great education if the ground you live on isn’t safe because you’re worried about drought or fire. So the lessons of organizing that come from social justice work and civil rights and gender rights and human rights work are really the foundation for how to work past a system that is designed to be stagnant when we need it to act.
Jori Lewis: So, how can we design a better system?
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: As people who are alive right now, I think we should just look at our system and say, “Why are we treating these policies that have existed before as sacred texts, when they’re really just agreements made by people who are dead?” If we revisit them, some of these agreements might work for who we are right now. And some of them won’t, so we should probably redo them, review them, and figure out what is going to work.
So ultimately, we need new agreements, which in some cases means we need new governments, which in most cases means we need new elected officials who actually listen to the people who put them in those roles.
Jori Lewis: You’ve written and spoken extensively about climate reparations. What does that look like, nationally and internationally?
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: Climate reparations looks like examining the system and seeing that it’s not for people of color, examining the system and seeing that it’s not for the poor. It’s examining the system of laws, the ways we have designed debt and credit, and the ways that we establish that some people have validity to grow things and have industry and innovate. It’s looking at all of that and [recognizing] that the entire system has been tainted by folks who have a lot of money and can put their thumb on the scale. If coal, oil, and gas have a better say about what happens in your government than you, then it’s time for them to be forced into a de-growth strategy. The assets that they have attained, based on the loss of your past, present, and future health, should be divested from them and returned to the people, so that we can figure out what our next move is going to be. Our next moves should be paid for by the people that sponsored this catastrophe.
This can help us move toward a just transition, where we look at all of these harmful facilities, and figure out how quickly we take them offline in a way that allows people to change jobs, gives people opportunities and new energy that isn’t going to harm them. It would give people money for adaptation and mitigation, which really just means being able to leave with your life and maybe some of your stuff [in areas where relocation is necessary]. If we can move that money from people who have caused harm to people who need it, that’s restorative justice. That’s just putting people back in a position where they have the ability to imagine a world where they’re not being threatened by decisions other people made on their behalf.
Jori Lewis: In a world where governments don’t like to address liability, are you seeing this happen?
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: Yeah, I think in the US context it [the liability issue] has been circling for a while. Like the very first cases against ExxonMobil. Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp was about Indigenous communities who knew that their landmass was going to be unavailable for them to live on, and winning the first case saying, “Well, yeah. ExxonMobil definitely made money knowing it was going to do this thing that damaged our ability to live in our homelands. And we’re going to have to retreat.” 11 or 12 years later, the next case started coming around for climate liability. Now, individual cities and municipalities and states are joining together to sue coal, oil, and gas companies for the same thing, working out their theory of change. So yes, there are places: Baltimore, Louisiana, New York, Maryland, California. Annapolis just filed a similar lawsuit as a coastal city. We’re going to see more of this.
We also have individual counties, communities, parishes, and provisional districts experimenting with reparations to individual communities that have been harmed. We have Indigenous calls for land back in the Red Deal that are being experimented with as we start to return assets to Indigenous communities. If the role that Deb Haaland has, as the head of Department of Interior, were permanently held by an Indigenous person, that would be the beginning of a deeper conversation about what it means to return stewardship, ownership, and rights to people who have been pushed off their land.
Debt forgiveness is one of the things that a care and repair and reparations program calls for in the climate context and outside of it. Part of that requires calling back what structural adjustment has done to people globally, and what agricultural debt has done to folks domestically. We have to take people out of a debt cycle they didn’t start, which is really just a colonialist way to keep a tether on people who would otherwise innovate and develop themselves out of the problems that they’re in.
Jori Lewis: The path forward that you are painting is pretty exciting, but it represents a radical change and a radical vision. Is it viable?
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: I think it’s no more radical than asking people not to have their children die in situations that could have been avoided if industry were forced to clean up its own mess. Asking people who take rafts to avoid dying. Asking them to look for new places to live because fire, floods, and totally predictable extreme climate events happen. Those things are radical. People shouldn’t have to choose whether to pay their electricity bill, have a job, or die on the fiery gas ball that used to be our planet. I feel like asking people to take the hits that are coming to climate change is radical. Asking for us to treat people like they’re human beings, to create a community where we start to resolve some of these issues, and to have a forum where we can discuss them seems like the least radical thing we could do when you look at the future that’s coming for us.
And, yes, it’s hard to break inertia. It’s hard to break habits. It’s hard to make people feel like they have more power than they’ve been told they have. But the reality is that those feelings are not accurate. If the movement doesn’t get over imposter syndrome, we’ll lose everything.
Jori Lewis: So, looking forward to the upcoming COP, the United Nations annual global climate summit, being held in Glasgow this November, what do you want to see happen?
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: I would love for leaders to stop their regular agenda and have a conversation about colonialism. And then as a result of that conversation, reverse all the debt that is strangling every single geography, give those folks a chance to explore other ways of doing business without debt hanging over them. I also think it’d be really great if people talked about not their pledges, but their investments. I would love it if they take up a platform of fossil fuel nonproliferation, and openly agree to list all of their coal, oil, and gas assets, the impact and size of them, and start to make plans for ramping them down. That would be an incredible thing to think about. I would also love for all these calls that the IPCC has raised about our failure to do the work turned into policies to respond to climate change. If we turned all that data into risk analysis, politicians might realize that the risk to people is greater than we have ever thought it was. It’s time to be honest about that. It’d be really great to hear the various global leaders have a frank conversation about who’s going to be uncomfortable first, so that more people will live.
As a person who lives in North America, and is rooted in how our accountability will make space for Global South leadership, the rest of the world cannot lead if we don’t all show up as partners. The very same things that environmental justice communities are calling for, to be brought into the conversation before bad things happen, to be brought in to discuss innovation and solutions, not just optics—those things are also true amongst entire geographies on the planet. So if we treated people like we cared about them, worried about addressing their harms, and brought them in to solve problems, we would have a better chance of survival. In talking about this clear view of what’s going wrong in climate policy, it’ll give everyone an opportunity to look at what more they can do. I am surprisingly hopeful because we still have a chance. But if we’re having the same conversation in five or 10 years, that becomes less true.