Climate action requires ‘local brilliance,’ Yeampierre tells YESS summit

Photo of Elizabeth Yeampierre
Elizabeth Yeampierre, co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance, described Puerto Rico as "a poster child for climate injustice." (Photo by Peter Otis)

When more than 300,000 people marched in the streets of New York City during the People’s Climate March, in September 2014, Elizabeth Yeampierre, a co-organizer of the event, made sure that young people of color stood at the front of the line.

As Yeampierre sees it, theirs is the generation that will bear the biggest cost of climate change in the coming years — so they should be leaders in addressing the challenge and making choices on what is most needed in their communities.

The support for local leadership — and the nurturing of “just relationships” — is all too often lacking in the response to climate change, even among well-intentioned environmental groups, she told a group of Yale alumni and students during opening of the second Yale Environmental Sustainability Summit (YESS).

The biggest obstacle to climate action isn’t financing community-based solar projects or creating carbon neutral buildings, said Yeampierre, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent who is co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance and executive director of UPROSE, Brooklyn’s oldest Latino community-based organization: It’s overcoming a deeply entrenched cultural reality that puts power and resources into the hands of some, while depriving rights and leadership opportunities for too many “descendants of colonization.”

Fixing the problem, she said, requires personal self-examination — including by those in the audience.

The biggest obstacle may be you,” she said. “It may be that you are not committed to building just alignments, that maybe you’re competitive, that you’re top-down, that you think that you have the solutions. That you can helicopter into a community and tell them what is in their best interest.”

Her keynote opened the second YESS summit on Nov. 3. Organized by alumni from across the university, the two-day summit was focused on “catalyzing, cultivating, and connecting” sustainability-driven change makers and how to build a more diverse community.

Achieving that diversity in the climate fight, Yeampierre said, will require recognition of the skills and “brilliance” of local leaders across the world.

My grandmother didn’t know how to read or write and she could do mental math that blew my mind,” she said. “There may be some people who never had access to a formal education, but they are brilliant. And so if we are to address climate change we have to honor that local brilliance.

We need to make sure that we use all our tools, all of our resources, all of our privilege, all of our blessings, to make sure those people lead in a historical moment that is about to take them all out — as we saw in Puerto Rico.”

The devastation caused by Hurricane Maria, she said, has made Puerto Rico “a poster child for climate injustice.” It’s an island where the people have been forced to depend on the U.S., she noted, yet have been deprived of an adequate response following the hurricane, where mortality and illness are rampant, and food and water are now being rationed.

More than 60,000 Puerto Ricans, she said, have already left the island, and there are concernsthat many of these people will never return, leaving the communities open to gentrification, privatization, and a stripped heritage as a consequence of “disaster capitalism.”

Disaster capitalism doesn’t just happen when corporations swoop down and take advantage of a dire situation of people from the global south,” she said. “It also happens as a result of the nonprofit industrial complex and how that is supported.”

Again she challenged the audience to examine how they and their organizations respond to the challenges facing Puerto Rico. Rather than indulging the urge to “come in and fix” Puerto Rico’s problems, she said the climate justice movement can provide support that builds food sovereignty and systems that promote local, livable economies.

Her own organization has helped raise $800,000 for Puerto Rico as part of a multi-organization effort known as #JustRecovery campaign, sending solar-powered generators, water filters, non-GMO seeds, and hazardous materials gear.

”What we want to tell folks in Puerto Rico is not only that they can survive but that they can thrive,” she said. “We are working hard to make sure that Puerto Rico comes back stronger and better and different than it was before. Because there will be more extreme weather events.”

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