One of the major initiatives put together as President Donald Trump began to withdraw the White House from climate leadership is the Global Climate Action Summit, which will take place in September. “This summit’s happening in San Francisco, California, but it’s something that was requested several years ago by the United Nations,” says Nick Nuttall, the summit’s spokesman. A collective of non-state actors organized the event, Nuttall says, with the goal of “bring[ing] together leaders from state and local governments, business, and citizens from around the world to demonstrate how the tide has turned in the race against climate change.” As Nuttall told me, the general idea is to recapture the energy that preceded the 2015 Paris climate agreement, in which most of the world’s countries agreed to pursue policies that would curb global temperature growth to well under 2 degrees Celsius.*
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However, the problem with many climate summits—and much of the mainstream climate movement, generally—is that many of them focus on a future target, planning for and attempting to avert doomsday scenarios that might play out over the course of decades or a century. The mainstream paradigm often views climate change as a collective risk, and pushes people to action by selling fears of future societal collapse and environmental ruin. Both can be averted if politicians and people work together and with urgency, the common argument goes; if we all pitch in, we can avoid the worst.
As the fallout from Harvey, Irma, and Maria shows, though, that argument is false. The suffering caused by a warming and more temperamental environment is already happening, and it isn’t distributed equally, nor will it be. From the poor people in Vieques, Puerto Rico, who still face uncertain medical care and unstable electricity after Maria, to black and Latino communities severed from dialysis services in Houston during Harvey, if there’s anything the current climate regime tells us, it’s that vulnerable populations are already in trouble.
But as the anniversaries of America’s most infamous climate disasters come around once again, there are real efforts by a loose network of veteran environmental-justice leaders and groups across the country to spread the gospel of climate justice in this moment of crisis. More than a dozen local environmental groups from coast to coast have organized the Freedom to Breathe Tour, where journalists, activists, and environmental-justice experts will present vulnerable communities with their case for swift and dramatic action on climate change. The 21-day tour, which begins August 25 and will traverse the entirety of the American South and Southwest, will illustrate the current climate realities for communities of color in the nation’s most marginalized places.