President's Perspective

Reflections on 2015

Denise Fairchild

Twenty-fifteen (2015) was a monumental year on a number of fronts and troubling on others.   On the one hand, climate change took the world stage to good effect as the world struggled anew with human rights – immigration – issues. U.S. federal decisions proactively assert a climate change agenda in the face of ongoing legislative battles. Equity issues are more prominent in the United States and worldwide; yet communities of color remain under-resourced and meagerly engaged in its fulfillment.  

The year closes with a global giddiness over the climate accord reached during the Paris COP21 deliberations this month. For the first time, the United States assumed a leadership role in galvanizing 196 countries to adopt the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) Accord. It asserts, among a number of things: 1) that climate change is real; 2) that each country must contribute its fair share of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 2 degrees Celsius/3.6 degrees Fahrenheit – with an aspirational goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius/2.7 degrees Fahrenheit – below pre-industrial levels; 3) the responsibility of industrialized countries to help pay the $100 billion/year climate costs of developing nations; 4) accountability for results through ongoing reporting and review (every five years).  

Perhaps most telling is the market signal that the climate talks generated. The private sector’s confidence in the economics of climate change generated commitments of $1 trillion dollars in capitalization of clean-energy development and deployment. 

While deemed historic and ambitious agreements, these were modest agreements, and most climate advocates are moderately enthused. The pledges aren’t enough to keep warming below the 2-degree target needed to stem global warming. The financial commitments are underwhelming. And the targets are aspirational and not really enforceable.

But it still represents a turning point on climate change, taking 40 years of research, advocacy and convenings to get here. As Bill McKibben, founder of, states, “This [agreement] didn't save the planet, but it may have saved the chance of saving the planet.”

And of course, we have Pope Francis. He stormed the global scene, addressing not only climate change, but its inextricable link to poverty and inequality. With God on his side, not a peep was heard around the world – not even in our halls of Congress – as he single-handedly shook the consciousness of the developed world to right its ways on all fronts of the environment, economy and equity. As for the private sector, he admonished focusing less on profits and more on job creation. Makes me want to be a Catholic again!! 

The global human rights issues, however, conflict with the climate change aura of a common humanity with a shared destiny. This fall, during my mini-sabbatical at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio, Italy, I watched the heartbreaking drama of 980,000 migrants – from land and sea – and Europe’s tortured response to families seeking asylum from wars and poverty conditions. Closing borders, limiting asylums, blaming and off-putting tactics squared against families’ search for security and stability.

Our own response to immigration is as troubling as Europe’s. At the beginning of the year, the country anguished over whether to admit Central American children crossing U.S. borders. The current 2016 campaign rhetoric seeks to fuel anti-immigration sentiments. Political candidates are floating proposals to solve the immigration problem that are affronts not only to human and civil rights, but also to our ideals about democracy. These ideas range from walls around our borders to denying political asylum for Syrians and banning U.S. visas for all Muslims.

Progress in climate adaptation must be commensurate with our efforts at climate mitigation.  And, in that context, we need to find a solution to human migration. Human migration from climate change is expected to dwarf all others due to food, water and work scarcity – and the resultant political instability. Yet we have not found a solution to manage it. In fact, climate migration is not even covered in the UN Human Rights to Asylum.

Against this global backdrop, we remain heartened but forever vigilant in building a sustainable, just and democratic U.S. economy. The Clean Power Plan, requiring state-level carbon reduction plans, is in place. Most states are working to figure this out. The good news is that, as result of community advocacy, states are now required to work with carbon-impacted communities to do so. 

EPA’s demonstrated commitment towards climate justice and equity is being advanced in the street movements and among foundations. This is good news. There is also, among the youth, a clear and encouraging convergence of movements – climate justice, criminal justice, economic justice, human rights, etc.  Equity should be everyone’s business, but not if it is in name only. This year I have become increasingly concerned and cynical about the rise of “equity-washing”: equity in name only and lacking the deep and authentic engagement of low-income communities of color. 

Within this dynamic environment, Emerald Cities remains fully engaged in what has become a robust national and global movement for climate, environmental, economic and social justice.   Let me share just a few of this year’s highlights.

Climate Policy

A more aggressive policy agenda to raise the visibility and voices of communities of color in the climate movement, including:

  • Taking the message to Congress: sponsored a successful Congressional briefing with our climate partners to counter the “race-baiting” by the utility sector, seeking to pit communities of color against the white middle class movement for clean energy.
  • Taking the message to the streets:  hosting a climate justice conversation at the Earth Day event on the National Mall.
  • Taking it to the war room:  Sponsoring the second Equity Caucus of 20 organizations at UC Berkeley and taking a deep dive into understanding the possibilities, challenges and strategies needed for successfully implementing the Clean Power Plan.

Climate Mitigation

  • Launch of our RENEW affordable housing program to increase energy and water efficiencies in Seattle, Washington, with replication planned in California and Rhode Island.
  • Expansion of a faith-based green building initiative with the Bronx NW Interministerial Alliance and the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative.

Climate Adaptation

  • Testing innovative Anchor Institution (MUSH) strategies for building community-climate resilience in East Bay, California; Bronx, New York; and Miami, Florida.
  • Feasibility study of community-owned micro-grids.

Economic and Equity Inclusion

  • Developed high-road infrastructure in partnership with the City of New Orleans, including the establishment of HIRENOLA and BuildNOLA, and a workforce and business monitoring and compliance system.
  • E-Contractor Academy graduates (DBE/WBE/VBE) in Los Angeles County were awarded over $17 million in green building contracts.

I appreciate the commitment and passion of our funders, board, staff and partners around the country for moving the needle on this important work. That means you. Thank you for a very good year.




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