Interview with The Center's Executive Director, Nina Schlegel
March 22, 2022

Bold climate action requires dynamic leadership. To kickstart a series of interviews that look behind the scenes of the Center, we introduce our Co-Founder and Executive Director, Nina Schlegel. Nina discusses her experience in the climate justice movement and why our work at the Center is so vital to building a just and equitable world while we fight the climate crisis.

What drives Nina to work in the climate justice movement?

Growing up, my family traveled frequently so my father could work to support us. Every couple of months, the six of us would pile into our minivan and travel 18 hours between the U.S. and Canada. Occasionally, we would see our extended family in our homeland Switzerland. Since we were never in one place long enough to enroll in a school, I taught myself online. When you’re alone like that, nature becomes your classroom and your closest friend. You begin to perceive the world around you differently - to notice the inequalities across neighborhoods as you walk through a city, and see how countries value their land and people differently. It led me to pursue a degree in government because I had seen what was possible when the government invested in the long-term prosperity of communities.

After completing university, I worked in local and state government, and with various environmental nonprofits in Massachusetts. Every position offered new insights into the complexities of environmental struggles, and over a decade, it became increasingly clear how entrenched these struggles were, how deeply rooted in historical, political, economic and social practices. We were constantly reacting to laws that weren’t protective enough, protesting luxury development or fossil fuel infrastructure that would easily get approved, and trying to make little gains in a system rigged against us, against real change. Meanwhile, every week a new study or report would come out revising the speed at which our natural systems were deteriorating. The thought slowly crystallized, looking around at the mainstream environmental organizations and public offices I had been working with, that these dominant structures of decision making and advocacy were not enough.

In 2017 I had the opportunity to be a delegate to the IPCC COP23 Conference in Bonn. It was a strange time - the U.S. had pulled out of the Paris Agreement, and Syria had just signed on. The negotiations themselves proceeded without incident, but outside the formal talks the energy was palpable. Protests were happening in the city against the destruction of a centuries old forest to build an energy plant. In a far-flung suburb, international grassroots activists came together for the annual People’s Climate Summit and tens of thousands of activists, nonprofits and researchers from every corner of the planet mingled at the COP23 side events - sharing their stories, their successes, their visions for a radically just and sustainable future. Anti-fracking activists from the U.K. sharing their demonstration insights. Forest protectors from Borneo showing how indigenous communities have been protecting precious ecosystems and providing for themselves.

There was more knowledge exchanged in those few days than can be digested in a lifetime. I saw that the paths forward to a truly sustainable future were already known, regenerative and supportive practices were already being implemented in communities across the globe, and the energy to pursue transformative justice was already there. What was needed was a way for it to be shared continually and effectively. For a brief moment, the isolation of being an environmental advocate fighting uphill battles had been lifted as all these diverse interests and communities, like so many little streams, came together into a thunderous current. The confines in which I had been working had exploded, and for the first time in years, I felt hopeful about our collective future and empowered to find a better way to advocate for the change we need. So I began having conversations about how to bring more people to this current, to show them how their work is helpful to others, and how we are not alone in the fight of our lives.

What differentiates the Center’s work in climate justice from others who work to address the climate crisis?

Our politics, and in some countries our culture, has made it seem as if the climate crisis can be separated from our collective practices and choices. You see this in governments where climate action is siloed into a single city department or in mainstream environmentalism where the historical focus has been on the conservation and preservation of nature. If you think about it, it’s a strange way of seeing the world. As if we do not exist in nature, as if our societies and our futures are not deeply tied to those of other communities, other species, and the viability of ecosystems big and small. We live within deeply interlinked and interdependent closed-loop systems, but the predominant Western view for centuries has been one of linearity, where we’ve been told to assume we have infinite inputs and the side effects or externalities of extractive activities are considered marginal and deliberately hidden.

Climate justice is described as many things: a framework, a movement term, a philosophy. For me, climate justice is an intentional worldview. It’s intentional because it requires a re-education of what many of us were taught when we were young. It’s intentional because it means learning how the injustices and inequalities we see around us today are frequently the result of unequal power dynamics between individuals, communities, and nations. A worldview is how we understand and conceptualize the world around us. Climate justice is a worldview for me because it is holistic, it acknowledges the profoundly intersectional reality of environmental, political, economic and social struggles. How do you separate racial justice from climate justice, when the same communities traumatized by police brutality quite literally cannot breathe their neighborhood’s polluted air? How do we build a sustainable future for all when certain forms of green energy result in the forcible taking of indigenous land and the pollution of water systems half a world away? How can climate activists not care about the sharp rise in billionaires and global wealth hoarding when it is our wealth they are hiding - wealth that can be used to create public services and resilient cities?

Climate justice is a worldview that demands we zoom out from single issues, from the level of the consumer-individual, to see the roles that dominant structures, institutions, and even individuals have played within a larger, global context. This critical, structural lens is necessary if we are truly interested in liberating ourselves from cycles of oppression. Reactive and piecemeal solutions coming from within the system alone are not enough, and may even lead to greater oppression or environmental damage. There are deep and growing networks of movements around the globe that realize we need truly transformative alternatives to business as usual. That vision of the future is not going to be championed by those currently in power. It will require the largest coordinated effort of grassroots movements in history. And to do that, we need to see all our issues and all our actions as intimately tied to climate and justice. To see our local efforts as important pieces of a global shift towards intentionally building a future we can all look forward to, that supports us but also every other community on earth. Climate justice is about climate, but it’s fundamentally about looking upstream at systems and power dynamics- who has power in our systems, who does not, and how we shift that balance to create a sustainable planet for everyone.

What impact does Nina hope the Center has on the global fight for equitable climate action?

So much of what we hear about the climate crisis - in the news, from the impersonal campaign emails of environmental organizations, and even from each other  - is about how bad everything is, and how time is running out for us to make a difference. That’s true in some ways, but you can’t motivate and inspire people with fear and vague ideas for what needs to be done. And given the structural complexities of the climate crisis, the solutions need to be thoughtful, not thrown together in a haste. I co-founded the Center based on the conviction that the knowledge, strategies and solutions we need to create a just and sustainable future already exist- the question is, how do we share that information with the world?

The Center is both a resource hub and bridge builder. We want to show people why the climate crisis cannot be solved without wrestling with its roots in neoliberal capitalism, imperialism, class exploitation, racism, extractivism, sexism, corruption, tyranny and environmental violence. A truthful education of how the climate crisis was created is necessary groundwork so we can focus our energies on defining what comes next. We’re creating our own resources, but in many ways the more important work we’re excited about is building platforms for communities, activists, practitioners and researchers to share what they know with the world.  

The important question of our time is not “what are the problems we face?” but “how do we solve them in a truly liberating way?” We cannot be paralyzed by analysis. It is our responsibility in this age to envision and pursue what we can create together that is better. The Center’s approach starts with an intentionally intersectional analysis of an issue, shows how it reveals the need for emancipatory alternatives, and ultimately, lifts up specific but transformative changes that are both possible and deeply revolutionary. Pioneering research on climate justice still sits behind an academic paywall. There are activists all over the world doing important work that can benefit other communities if their experiences and expertise was broadly accessible. It is these individual efforts, these streams that together make up a current that can shift our global narrative. The Center is about building bridges - across issue boundaries, expertise silos and geographic borders - to help build movement solidarity for climate justice and bring people to the current.

How can individuals help the movement and get involved with the Center?

We encourage anyone and everyone interested in climate justice to visit our website and subscribe to our newsletter, Praxis for the Planet. We will also put out important information and movement resources on social media: follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

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