Why the Sierra Club Supports Reparations

A protestor at a Black Lives Matter rally holds up a sign that reads, “Black Lives Matter.”
Photo courtesy of Martín Witchger

Last week, the Sierra Club commemorated Juneteenth. It’s a day of celebration for some, but a painful reminder for many. A reminder that justice for Black people in this country is never guaranteed — it is an afterthought and sometimes, not a thought at all. This year marked the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, the anniversary of the 2020 Uprisings, and the 50th anniversary of the War on Drugs — all devastating reminders of how this country has perpetually failed the Black community. As an organization that has occupied a privileged position with endless resources to contribute to environmental progress, we must work to gain the trust of the communities we’ve historically failed in order to build a resilient environmental movement. Trust is built through consistency and actions — not just through words — and the time for white allies to meaningfully act in the name of racial justice is long overdue.

As the Sierra Club embarks on its equity journey, one truth that has been made abundantly clear is that transformative and powerful progress is only possible when we center those most impacted by environmental crises. Black people in the United States have been disproportionately devastated by COVID-19, live in communities with higher levels of toxic pollution, and face excessive extreme weather of powerful storms, floods, heat waves, wildfires, and droughts. While systematic discrimination and racism terrorize Black communities, the same systems also openly endorse extraction, degrade our humanity and create sacrifice zones in the name of profit and big business.

According to the Movement for Black Lives, reparations involve not only an apology and direct financial compensation for gross humanitarian violations, but also radical changes to systems, laws, and practices rooted in structural discrimination and white supremacy. The climate crisis is the product of a legacy of slavery, colonialism, and racist policies and structures. Therefore, reparations for Black communities who suffer some of the worst impacts of the climate crisis means much more than just a check. It means dismantling the systems, laws, and practices that deliberately create environmental inequities. Black liberation is essential to solving the global climate crisis, and that liberation is impossible without reparations.

White supremacy and an extractive economy built on forced labor, stolen wealth, and colonialism allow — even incentivize — the fossil fuel industry to treat Black people as if they were disposable, and their communities as sacrifice zones. Reparations would be a profoundly important next step toward healing those environmental harms, and helping Black communities build resilience to future climate disasters. The Movement for Black Lives, for example, calls for investments in a “collectively governed, decentralized, climate resilient, modernized grid,” that could keep the lights on during heatwaves and freezes like the ones we’ve seen in Texas and California.

Working to change these systems is nothing new for BIPOC-led environmental justice groups. They redefined “the environment” beyond wilderness, outdoor recreation and conservation to include the environmental health of all communities, especially those that endure deep trauma from a legacy of genocide, racial terror, and exclusion. Their insights made it clear that it would be impossible to create a healthy, safe, and sustainable future for all without materially addressing the past and present economic, cultural, psychological, and spiritual impacts of racism. Thanks to their guidance, the Sierra Club has joined their call to invest in the communities most impacted by environmental racism in Detroit, New York City, and elsewhere.

What we are advocating for now may seem unprecedented, but it’s not. It’s an extension and a deepening of the work that’s long been central to the Sierra Club — making plain the intersections between environmental justice and racial justice — and working to combat both. Community investment and principled dialogues require low ego, high trust, and a shared vision for the work ahead and reparations are a key part of building the impactful, intersectional climate justice movement that we’ve been striving for. Working to build a better world means repairing harm and building the resilience of all our communities — and ending the toxic legacy of white supremacy that has harmed so many. I hope you’ll join me in supporting reparations to build a healthier, more just world.

Dad, husband, executive director of the @sierraclub, writer, Jersey Shore native, Little League coach, #Yankees fan, climate hawk. Optimist. Love the Bay Area.