Diversifying Power: An Interview With Jennie Stephens
Hannah
Axtell
September 14, 2021

Jennie C. Stephens, PhD, is the Director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and the Dean’s Professor of Sustainability Science & Policy at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. Her research, teaching, and community engagement focus on integrating social justice, feminist, and anti-racist perspectives into climate and energy resilience, social and political aspects of the renewable energy transition, reducing reliance on fossil fuels, energy democracy, gender in energy and climate, and climate and energy justice. 

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Can you tell us a little bit about your more recent research, passion projects in the works and what you’re excited to share with our Center’s readership?

Recently, I have been continuing to engage with and promote the idea of anti-racist, feminist leadership on climate and energy (which is a different way of thinking about a lot of climate energy policies that have tended to be quite technocratic), and prioritize greenhouse gas emission reductions, decarbonization, and economics above all else. I’ve been a part of a few panel discussions this past year in efforts to shift this way of thinking to where we can see the climate crisis and the priority of climate justice as a real opportunity to invest in people, communities, and infrastructure in the broadest sense — education, health, housing, transportation, etc. The intent of my book, Diversifying Power: Why We Need More Antiracist, Feminist Leadership on Climate and Energy, has really been to expand the opportunities for connecting climate energy policy with other social policy, while investigating who is involved and contributing to the vision for the policy, and who would be benefitting from the outcome of the legislation specifically. 

This year, I’ve also been researching climate justice and international Green New Deal (GND) work and just had a paper Green New Deal proposals: Comparing emerging transformational climate policies at multiple scales accepted for publication evaluating different GND-like policies in different jurisdictions not only on a national-level, but on the state-level where it’s been a focus to elevate indigeneous perspectives on GND work. 

The other piece for publication that I’m working on now centers around the role of higher education in the climate justice sphere. My research team and I seek to assess whether higher education institutions are indeed “paving the way for climate justice work” or whether they are actually doing more to perpetuate and exacerbate climate inequality and existing racial, gender, and class disparities in society. This is actually the topic I look forward to furthering in my sabbatical I hope to take next year. 

You’ve spoken about the necessity to move away from a technocratic approach to the climate crisis and diversifying power. What made you realize that the issue of climate change can’t be addressed from an approach relying too heavily on technological fixes and that there is work to be done investing in social and organizational innovations?

I think elevating social science of all kinds is extremely important, because when we dismiss social research, we automatically fail to address the social justice implications of our decisions. Engaging with different communities and speaking to different audiences explicitly exposes the faults of the technocratic approach. This approach is not only ineffective, but is also continually perpetuating injustice and inequity by advancing climate mitigation strategies without evaluating the impact they will have on power structures, communities, and people’s quality of life. 

For example, there’s an incentive program here in Massachusetts that encourages people to install solar panels on their roofs — sounds like a sensible, sustainable act, right? Well, this in practice essentially functions as government subsidies for wealthy households, as it requires homeowners to have the disposable income to dish out the hefty initial installment costs. But after you've fronted this initial investment, you then are rewarded with free electricity for 50-plus years. In turn, this instance is a great example of policy and climate mitigation strategy that doesn’t assess its social ramifications; therefore, it provides a benefit to people who likely already maintain privilege and further exacerbates the wealth disparities and economic inequities local to Massachusetts. 

The necessary transformation is emancipatory, dynamic, and not only about climate. It’s about so many other factors — ensuring clean air and water, food, housing, education, healthcare, and economic prosperity for all people, households, and families.

This is why I gradually arrived at the conclusion that we have to move in a direction where we can transform society in ways that eradicate these clusters of inequality, and technocratic policy is not the way to do that. Although there’s no formula to achieving social change, a transformative lens is essential to incremental progress, because it allows grassroots and non-profits like this Center to continue to raise awareness and provide the essential background on the intersection between social justice and climate issues. The necessary transformation is emancipatory, dynamic, and not only about climate. It’s about so many other factors — ensuring clean air and water, food, housing, education, healthcare, and economic prosperity for all people, households, and families.

Why do you think it’s so important to take a radical and empowering approach to pursuing energy justice and democracy?

What we’re seeing right now during the pandemic is these injustices being so blatantly and explicitly revealed. Without acknowledging how unsustainable and unjust current operations are, we run the risk of perpetuating them. While the transformative lens is practical and a priority, it is also essential to confront the climate crisis head-on in an inclusive and accessible way that will welcome anyone and everyone into the climate justice action discussion. There’s a lot more potential for transformation when we connect these issues and expose their seamless integration into our society rather than keeping these issues detached. I think that’s what is so powerful, exciting, and optimistic about doing this work as well.

What does climate justice action mean to you and how do you see it diverging from the climate action we’ve all known previously?

Moving forward, it’s really dangerous to pursue climate action that doesn’t address the social and racial justice components of climate work as an overarching and grounding focus of policy. Conventional climate action plans traditionally focus on plans for decarbonization and greenhouse gases reduction utilizing quantitative technocratic metrics. Climate justice action plans, however, prioritize climate action that addresses the climate crisis in a way that not only evades exacerbating existing disparities, but actually reduces inequities in our society. Naturally, this distinction can get distorted, because not everyone has an understanding of the differences between climate action planning and climate justice action planning. But of course, this gives us all a unique opportunity to help educate our neighbors and mainstream this contrast. This effort is essential both for the scale of change that is needed and for the inclusive change that is needed.

You're a Fellow with the Global Center for Climate Justice. How do you see your work as intersecting with or complementing the mission and work of the Center?

There are definitely multiple aspects of the Center that I’m inspired by, knowing the vision and mission of our work. A definite strength of the Center is the leveraging of varying academic backgrounds as you have contributors pursuing undergraduate degrees and higher education working alongside Fellows, faculty members, and academic researchers, which is a really powerful dynamic in itself. I’m a strong believer that coalition building is incredibly important and will forever be a fundamental part of advocating for transformation. The Center is supplying an innovative approach to mobilizing, networking, and building social movement capacity. So for those reasons and more, I couldn’t be more thrilled to be a part of this community and create new global relationships as a Fellow of the Center.

Anything else you would like to share with our Center readership?

A key topic I wanted to touch on is how important it is to resist mainstream assumptions and the misinformation spread by what Dario Kenner and some of us have been calling the “polluter elite.” That is to say, fossil fuel executives, special interest groups, and the collection of wealth-hoarding billionaires in this country (US) have been forcefully counteracting transformative social change, all the while promoting technocratic, technical fixes that have historically done little to challenge ‘business as usual’ as we know it. Technical ideas like solar geoengineering, which rely on the notion that we can somehow learn to manipulate the earth’s systems and innovate our way out of this crisis, are entirely out-dated and incompatible with the scope of our problem. 

Collective societal awareness of key issues is so rare that it’s extremely important that the right information becomes popularized. I have found that the more you fund malignant research, the more mainstream it becomes, and the more people start to build their careers off of the idea, which in the case of solar geoengineering, is not in the best interest of the people. In saying so, I’ve definitely been outspoken in my opposition in solar geoengineering spaces especially as it pertains to halting the funding of this kind of research.

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