Flipping the Script on Climate Injustice
By: Jody Chan and Anthony Karefa Rogers-Wright
Imagine this: you set a house on fire. You pretend, for a while, that you don’t know what you’re doing. You pretend even while standing upwind of the inferno with an empty kerosene can and a lighter in your hands. Much later, after the people living in the house have fled, or died, you realize your own home is in danger of catching fire, so you put it out.
For doing this, you are praised as a hero, as if it’s not your fault the house burned down in the first place. The government pays you subsidies for your humanitarian work, as if they didn’t look the other way when you threw the match. As if they’re not going to build a bigger, fancier house for their corporate friends amid the rubble. Starting and putting out fires, as it turns out, is a profitable business for both you and the government, so you keep going around, starting more fires. Imagine the injustice.
This is not a fairy tale. This is a familiar reality for poor and working-class communities of color in Puerto Rico and all across Turtle Island. This is what climate injustice looks like: corporations and governments who drive climate change through emissions and deregulation, profiting in the aftermath of climate-exacerbated shock events like hurricanes.
And here’s the thing: governments and actors on all sides of the political spectrum are in on all of this. They act in denial of the realities of climate change while lining the pockets of their powerful polluter friends, who then in turn reward them with unlimited political donations. Shakespeare himself couldn’t have written this tragic cycle any better.
Act 1: La Junta appoints another Junta in Puerto Rico
“How oft the sight of means to do ill deeds makes ill deeds done!” – King John
There is no right-wing monopoly on climate injustice. Indeed, many of the conditions that made Puerto Rico more vulnerable to the impacts of climate exacerbated storms were put in place by “liberal” U.S. administrations.
In 2016, under the guise of helping to manage the island’s debt crisis, Obama signed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) into law. Through PROMESA, Puerto Rico’s finances were handed over to seven unelected officials making up the Financial Oversight and Management Board (“the Board”). Locally, the Board is referred to as “La Junta”. PROMESA’s tyranny was in play well before Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the island. Just this summer, the Board rejected a budget proposed by the Puerto Rican legislature because it did not go far enough in austerity-driven cuts to social services .
And then, less than a week ago, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) signed a $300 million contract with a little known two-employee company named Whitefish Energy — from Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s hometown — to restore Puerto Rico’s power grid.
This blatantly corrupt move allowed the financial oversight Board to appoint Noel Zamot as emergency manager to oversee Puerto Rico’s power utility. Since then, rising outrage from across the country, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and members of Congress, led to the cancellation of the Whitefish contract by Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosello .
This was an excellent example of people powered outcomes. As PREPA’s chief executive reluctantly conceded, “negative publicity and politics on the mainland made the situation untenable.” But this victory may be short lived, as the door remains open for the U.S. government to privatize Puerto Rico’s entire electricity grid, with no input from the people who will be directly affected . Should this occur, it would be taking a page right out of the Disaster Capitalism manual.
Act 2: The 13th Amendment’s Trial By Fire
“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.” – The Tempest
Meanwhile, in Sonoma County, prisoners are on the frontlines of historic wildfires, made worse by drought and record-breaking summer temperatures. For $2 a day, or $1 an hour, prisoners make up 35 to 40 percent of the state’s total firefighting power, sometimes working up to 72 hour shifts in fire season. The other 60 to 65 percent of California’s firefighters make at least $17.70 an hour .
Using prison labor — slave labor, as some prisoners have said — has saved the state huge amounts of money. So much so that, in 2014, California’s Deputy Attorney General opposed a Supreme Court Order to reduce prison overcrowding . Releasing too many prisoners, they said, would reduce the number of prisoner firefighters available and produce a, “dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.”
The combination of the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — which allows forced servitude as the result of a criminal conviction — with using prisoners to fight historic wildfires on starvation wages is an example of climate injustice in its most incendiary form.
Act 3: Just Transition vs. Just-A-Transition
“But Oh, how bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes” – As You Like It
Too often, in the wake of massive disasters or shock events, the rich and powerful show up to shepherd the wretched from their plight, fueled on by adulation in the mainstream media. From Bill Gates to Richard Branson, Elon Musk is only the latest in a parade of white billionaire men to be idolized in this way. But for every Gates, Branson or Musk, there are hundreds of people like Berta Cáceres, true climate heroes doing real work on the ground, that we don’t hear about.
When it was reported that Musk and Tesla were in contact with Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosello about rebuilding the island’s electric grid , many in the climate community breathed a sigh of relief. And then, almost at the same time, United Auto Workers filed a complaint against Tesla for firing as many as 400 workers who were trying to unionize — its second unfair labor practice complaint against Tesla in six months .
Climate justice means more than replacing the fossil fuel empire with a renewable energy empire. Switching to renewables isn’t enough if the powerful white men currently in charge are simply swapped out for other powerful white men, and the same people are left behind. We need a just transition, not just a transition. This means we must embrace the reality that the best solutions to local problems will be developed, designed and administered by local people, and will honour the wisdom contained in Indigenous knowledge and practices.
In his book No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality, Jordan Flaherty writes, “Today’s saviors are kindler and gentler than the era of the Crusades. They are no longer launching mass genocide and calling it a gift. But they still hold on to that inherited tradition by believing in their own superiority and refusing to listen to those they say they want to serve.”
When we talk about disaster capitalism, we have to tell the whole story. We have to talk about the way the companies owned by billionaires like Bill Gates and Elon Musk exploit their workers and contribute to economic injustice, even as we wait for them to swoop in and save the day after climate disasters. We have to talk about the way non-profits can also be part of the problem, when they parachute into disaster areas with their own agendas, without listening to the people who are directly affected.
We need a new script. In this story, the “Yes” looks like Puerto Ricans on the island and in the diaspora fighting together for a Just Recovery  . In this story, we look to people in frontline communities to lead the way, as they have always done.
It is only by flipping the script on disaster capitalism and white saviorism that we can achieve climate justice. As Flaherty reminds us, “the savior mentality is not about individual failings. It is the logical result of a racist, colonialist, capitalist hetero-patriarchal system setting us against each other.”
True climate justice brings us together by supporting local versions of reconstruction and economic democracy, releasing the hold of corporations over our communities, and putting all of those constituencies first in line for good, unionized jobs in renewable energy. Because climate justice ends not just in dismantling inequality and oppression, but also in a process of healing, for both the earth and each other.
Top photo, depicting a crew of prisoner firefighters in Sonoma County, California, by Brian L. Frank/The Marshall Project.
 Danica Coto (June 27, 2017). “Board rejects Puerto Rico budget because of overspending.” Fox Business.
 Frances Robles and Deborah Acosta (Oct. 29, 2017). “Puerto Rico cancels Whitefish contract to rebuild power lines.” The New York Times.
 Kate Aronoff (Oct. 26, 2017). “Disaster capitalists take big step toward privatizing Puerto Rico’s electric grid.” The Intercept.
 Kate Briquelet (Oct. 14, 2017). “Inmates are fighting California’s deadliest fires.” Daily Beast.
 Daniele Selby (Oct. 12, 2017). “California is on fire — these inmates are putting out flames for just $1 an hour.” Global Citizen.
 Cynthia Shahan (Oct. 6, 2017). “Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello Tweets to Elon Musk for help, Elon sends troops (#ElonTweets).” Clean Technica.
 Danielle Muoio (Oct. 26, 2017). “The United Auto Workers has filed a federal complaint claiming Tesla fired workers for trying to unionize.” Business Insider.
 A National Call to Action: Our Power Puerto Rico launch.
 Elizabeth Yeampierre and Naomi Klein (Oct. 20, 2017). “Imagine a Puerto Rico recovery designed by Puerto Ricans.” The Intercept.