While at COP26 in November 2021, GBA’s Jenna Cramer ran into an old colleague: sustainability leader and climate justice activist Felicia Davis.
In the corridors of the international climate conference, with global leaders negotiating their commitments just steps away, Jenna gathered Felicia’s wisdom and insight from years of climate and equity work. We present this interview in the spirit of our Inspire Speakers Series, which aims to motivate citizens and leaders to think bigger about what is possible in our region and beyond.
Felicia, it is so wonderful to run into you again. Tell us about why you’re here at COP26.
It’s so good to see you again, Jenna. I started out at COP6 many years ago. With everything happening recently with COVID and the shutdown and the postponement, I could not resist coming back to COP to see how we might move and how far we have moved. But I was especially curious about the notion that “America is back” [as a leader in climate commitments] and so I came here to see if that’s true. I’ve been looking around to see: what does it mean to say that America is back and what sort of trajectory are we on at this point? That’s why I’m here and I’ve enjoyed being here. The negotiations are the same as always, but everything else seems more beautiful this time around.
Since you have attended COP many times, does anything feel different to you this time?
When I was involved at the very beginning, we had to fight really, really hard for justice within the whole climate conversation. Justice was nowhere on the table, even for the most willing and progressive participants. It was all about “let’s solve climate first and then we’ll do justice and equity.” So, we had to push really hard to communicate the fact that we don’t have a climate problem, we have a people problem. The problem with climate is injustice: it’s exploitation, it’s extractive economies, it’s a whole mentality that says we can use it up, burn it up, and throw it away. So, it took about four or five years of that, maybe from 2000 to 2005 or so. By then, people were getting a sense that yes, justice and equity and balance and resources have to play a role in addition to adaptation, mitigation, and finance.
Around that time for me, gender became an issue – not so much as a Black woman or as an American – but as I connected with women from cultures that had more rigid gender divisions, I found that the way they experience climate and climate solutions was profound. So, we worked really hard to mainstream gender as a consideration at all levels. For example, when you look at the negotiations, who is negotiating and what is the power dynamic for women?
Fast forward to now, and there is a large women’s caucus, there’s a constituency, and there are younger women coming along who take for granted their agency, their power, and their ability to affect change – whether that change happens immediately or not – that is forward movement.
Can you talk more about how you see climate justice evolving?
For me now, I think the topic of climate justice has spread broadly and that can mean any number of things. I see it plastered everywhere. When I started out, justice was about an equity frame – it meant that those who had been used and dumped on would be restored and that resources would flow to the places where there was the greatest need. And it meant that those who profited the most – and are also most responsible for CO2 and other emissions – would have a responsibility for helping to right the ship. In that sense, I don’t know that we have gotten very far. We have gotten commitments but not enough action, and the commitments aren’t large enough. One of the speakers noted that we have trillions of dollars in bank bailouts but insufficient resources to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Those are challenges that form a justice frame for me. For example, in the U.S., I look at what the flow of resources will be to our communities. We have a Justice40 commitment from our President which should mean that disadvantaged communities will be first in line for repair and restoration and restorative justice. I’m about that.
I’m still pushing for a just transition – that we don’t move to a new economy on the same backs that we used for the old economy – and the jury is still out as to how that will go. I do want renewable energy, but I want the ownership to look a little differently. I don’t want to be a consumer with a new set of solar panels that we’re going to dump somewhere in 20 years, and we still have people who are energy insecure even with solar. Those are concerns that keep me up.
Are you getting indications that the U.S. is indeed back at the table for climate solutions and that we are re-emerging as a leader?
It’s always a big deal and important that we show up. And this time we showed up in force. Our President came, our secretaries are here – we couldn’t be more impressive. And yet back home, our congress can’t seem to act. So that says something about our leadership at the national level. We have a lot of work to do. I believe in science, but I also believe in the knowledge that people carry. Science is really important but there are other ways of knowing that are equally valid: Indigenous knowledge lasted for thousands of years. We need to bring knowledge and experience and respect the contributions that all of us can bring for solving a really challenging problem.
What inspires you most and what are you hoping for when we all leave here?
A lot of people know this story, but my grandmother lived for 100 years, from 1892 to 1992. Before I knew anything about conservation or environment, I watched her, and she wasted nothing. She had a phenomenal garden with both vegetables and flowers. Her flowers were like her children. We had to do strange things as kids: when other kids were playing in the park, we had to go into the wooded area and dig up this mulchy dirt and drag it back past the playground to her garden. So not only were we sad that we couldn’t play but we were embarrassed for dragging this dirt around. And she didn’t waste anything. She took a bath in two or three inches of water because that’s all she felt she needed. Then she used that water to flush the toilet (she had perfectly fine plumbing but wanted to re-use the water). She hung her laundry out to dry even though she had a dryer. She thought “why would I use my dryer when I can hang my clothes to dry?” When we had a drought, she would do laundry with hardly any detergent so she could re-use the water for her plants. Her garden didn’t suffer: it was green when everyone else’s was parched. So that was in me even though I didn’t know it was in me.
When she got to be about 90 years old, she predicted that in my lifetime, we would run out of things we would need because we could no longer tell the difference between our needs and wants, and that our children would turn on us for lack of love and attention and care. Fast forward to now and I look at what is going on… what are my immediate environmental concerns? Gun violence is my top environmental concern. Every part of gun violence is an environmental concern: bullets, guns, dying young people, mass murders… None of that is environmentally sustainable. That is my top domestic community issue. So, my grandmother’s lesson and inspiration are in me.
Looking ahead, I look to my daughter. I look to her and say, “this is my watch, but I won’t get it done.” My generation burned up everything we could. That was who we were: bigger was better. Now I’m inspired because even if I cannot pass on something better, I can let people know the mistakes we made and own them. So, I’m here to own the mistakes my generation made.
You do a lot of work with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Have you thought about how you will take what you learned here and what you have gained from this experience back to the people you work with in the U.S.?
Oh yeah. I believe that we can’t solve climate change without centering justice. We can never get a solution without Black American students being here. Why do I say that? It’s something about their unique creativity. And if I’m arguing that justice is the anchor, that is the community that represents the epitome of justice and injustice layered on in all of its impacts.
If you look around COP26, HBCUs are not here – not that they have never been here – I expected to see some this year, but this year was tougher than most. HBCU students have come to COP for several years – but we have to remember that the solution cannot be realized without them.
In the U.S. we tried to have a racial reckoning – we didn’t, but we tried. But given that scenario I have argued for years that HBCUs are poised to make a quantum leap. The one positive thing about racism is that Black cannot be the absolute best for long. So, if HBCUs create a model that is the absolute best in terms of sustainability, I am confident that other schools will not be able to stand it, and they will follow. And that is better than making lemonade out of lemons. That is about appreciating that there is value in whatever position you are in if you own it, maximize it, and move.
But with HBCUs, the challenge has always been resources. I cannot convince people that we can have just one state-of-the-art HBCU based on environmental 21st century standards. But if we did, what would happen is that we would have a green oasis. And an oasis creeps outward. HBCUs are typically in Black communities that are impacted by any number of things. And a state-of-the-art, sustainable HBCU can be that oasis that creeps out into its community. First, imagine if we had a resiliency hub if there were a storm or a power outage, where people could go. And then also think about the fact that it would demonstrate to the community all of what’s possible. If you don’t get to come to COP and see everything here, you don’t even know the possibilities. Some HBCUs – like Spellman –are very good and sustainable. But I want state-of-the-art. Best in class. Innovation beyond what we’ve already seen. As a model for possibilities for all people. What that would do for young Black people, to have the best and most sustainable college or university in America… that’s what I’m working for.
Can you give me one or two words that describe how you’re feeling about this experience and where you go from here?
I have three words: I’ll be back. But next year, even if I have to do it out of my own pocket, I will either bring or send young people to COP. When I got here, I thought oh man there are at least 25 people off the top of my head that I can think of who should have been in my place. What was I thinking? I’m here taking it in, but I don’t expect to be here long enough to solve the problem completely, so I want to pour it in further.
When I close my eyes, I hope to know that the corner was turned and they’re going to get it done. That it’s not going to be catastrophic.
About Felicia Davis:
Felicia M. Davis directs Sustainability for Clark Atlanta University and is a member of the CAU Sustainability Council. She supports the CAU team approach to sustainability with a focus on campus-wide engagement. A staunch advocate for measurable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions through energy efficiency retrofits, green building, and an array of sustainable practices, in 2016 she founded the HBCU Green Fund to help finance green projects at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. A co-lead for the HBCU Geosciences Working Group, she also serves on the boards of the Green 2.0-an initiative dedicated to increasing racial diversity in environmental leadership, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation & Convener of the Clayton County Black Women’s Roundtable, and the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper dedicated to protecting and restoring the Chattahoochee River Basin. She serves as the co-chair for the National Technical Association 92nd Annual Conference. Felicia began her environmental career working on air quality and climate justice as the Georgia Air Keeper director and subsequently served as the first director of Mothers & Others for Clean Air when it was housed within the Georgia Conservancy. She is an Environmental Leadership Program Senior Fellow, IGEL Fellow and Intentional Endowments Network Steering Committee Member. An author of the Air of Injustice Report, she also produced the MSI Green Report, Sustainable Campuses-Building Green at Minority Serving Institutions, and the 2014 HBCU Green Report. Her favorite question is – if we get it right what will it look like?
Blog thumbnail: William Gibson (Unsplash)