From California to Louisiana: Finding America's Climate Heroes

Read time: 4 mins
Reel News Americas Climate Heroes composite

British video activist Shaun Dey was one of two members of Reel News who went to North America last year to make films about grassroots struggles around climate change, particularly around the ideas of “just transition” and “just recovery”. He reflects on his experience of travelling the region for 14 weeks.

When Trump got into power, we immediately wanted to get over to the States and see what was happening. We knew there were a lot of grassroots movements in the States coming together around climate change, and that refreshingly it was a movement led by working-class communities of colour.

What were all those activists doing now that a climate science denier was President?

We’d decided that, since we were doing a project on climate change, we should try and go around the country on public transport – mainly on greyhound buses, with the occasional train. This caused considerable astonishment wherever we went (people aren’t used to meeting people who don’t drive), but it was actually a great way to get an insight into the place.

Greyhound buses are the poor people’s transport in America, and we met some amazing people who would often have some pretty shocking stories. The USA is a brutal place to live in if you’re poor, which a frightening proportion of the population is.

The real shocks were in the South, particularly in the big oil states: Texas, Louisiana and California. We saw how communities of colour had been deliberately put right next to refineries and other polluting industries – so close that the stench from the refineries was overwhelming. So many people were suffering from cancer, respiratory diseases and other diseases we’d never even heard of.

It’s one thing reading about the white supremacist nature of a country built on slavery that continues to be highly segregated and racist – it’s another thing seeing it for yourself.

We rather naively thought that when we got to California, things might be different; maybe more liberal. But it was the most unequal, segregated state of the lot.

It’s also the state with the most police killings, so it’s little wonder the Black Lives Matter movement started here. And it was a real honour to meet some of the founding members.

In fact it was a constant thrill to be meeting amazing activists, organising in incredibly difficult circumstances - from original black panther members, to militant civil rights activists, to First Nations Standing Rock veterans, to teenage Puerto Rican activists, to militant coal miners in Kentucky fighting for renewable energy and an end to coal.

Interestingly, the miners told us that, yes, people had voted for Trump – but the turn out was pitiful, with more people that hadn’t voted at all. Kentucky was one of many places we went to where there were serious voter registration campaigns going on, with a lot of people are determined not to let Trump back in again.

Although the inequality and racism were truly shocking, the movements we came across were inspiring and visionary. The election of Trump has brought people together everywhere, with groups working together who’ve never worked together before. The response to Trump pulling out of the Paris climate agreement has basically been to get on with making a just transition away from fossil fuels happen themselves.

And maybe this is something we should all be doing. I’ve always felt angry about the Paris agreement being held up as a major step forward – the (voluntary) commitments of countries actually add up to projected warming of 3.5 – 4°C.

A number of the groups we met are making huge steps forward through their own collective activity.  I hope that the films we made from our trip will convince at least a few people that we can’t rely on governments, and that the only solution is to make the change ourselves.

American Climate Rebels premieres on YouTube on 14 April 2019 - WATCH HERE

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