Diversifying Power: Energy & Climate Justice

Date 27 May, 2021

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On 22 April 2021, DRIFT, Vital Cities & Citizens, and Global Social Challenges organised the webinar “Diversifying Power: Energy & Climate Justice with Professor Jennie C. Stephens & others”. Professor Stephens was invited to share insights from her book Diversifying Power on why we need antiracist, feminist leadership on climate and energy. This blog by former DRIFTer and current Vital Cities & Citizens team member Vaishali Joshi summarizes the main insights from the webinar, shares professor Stephens’s replies to unanswered participant questions, and shares resources from the webinar.

The webinar was the second event of the #JustSustainabilityTransitions event series that aims to deepen, translate and connect knowledge on transformative change towards more just and sustainable societies. The urgency of climate change and sustainable energy is gaining increasing attention and raises important questions: Who is involved? Whose voices are being elevated? How do our responses perpetuate or disrupt the concentration of wealth and power? What does more inclusive leadership look like to advance climate and energy justice? To find answers to such questions, we invited professor Jennie Stephens to share insights from her recent book “Diversifying Power: Why we need antiracist, feminist leadership on climate and energy”. This work showcases examples of diverse leadership that addresses the climate crisis in relation to housing, transportation, economy and health.

The webinar began with a short introduction, followed by three pitches on initiatives at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam to conduct action research on: (1) sustainable just cities (by Dr. Flor Avelino), (2) social innovation in energy (by Dr. Julia Wittmayer), and (3) energy justice (by Prof. Dr. Darren McCauley). The main section of the event was Jennie Stephens’s talk on the topic of “Diversifying Power”. This talk was followed by an interactive World Café discussion, using break-out groups with 3-5 people over two rounds. The discussion was self-organized and invited participants to share their key takeaways, questions and comments from Jennie’s talk. One key question was selected by each group and shared in the plenary group for the Q&A session with Jennie Stephens.

100+ people attended the webinar, 90% of which were from Europe. Of these, a majority were young practitioners who have been researching and/or working on energy transitions and/or social justice for 1 to 10 years. During the webinar, we were also joined by Carlotta Cataldi, who graphically harvested the main insights live during the webinar.

Professor Jennie C. Stephens is the Director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and the Dean’s Professor of Sustainability Science & Policy at Northeastern University. She is also the Director for Strategic Research Collaborations at Northeastern University’s Global Resilience Institute. She shared insights from her recent book on Diversifying Power, in which she argues that effectively addressing climate change requires diversifying leadership, redistributing wealth and power, and moving beyond mainstream male-dominated technocratic solutions to climate change. She further argues that the “polluter elite” strategically invests to resist just and sustainable transformations, as climate justice is deeply interconnected with economic justice.

Professor Stephens elaborated that patriarchal leadership based on domination, control, competition, and exclusion exacerbates inequities and gender/racial disparities, concentrates wealth & power, and denies systemic problems to sustain the status quo. On the other hand, antiracist feminist leadership is based on collaboration, inclusivity, and participation. It redistributes wealth & power to people and communities, reduces inequities/disparities by centering racial justice, and leverages transformation by linking problems. Stephens argues that the climate crisis is in fact, a crisis in leadership. Diversifying power across race and gender can help in accelerating transition from climate isolationism paradigm to energy democracy. Her book shares examples of transformative leaders working in different domains, such as food, economy, housing, transportation and health.

Main insights from Q&A during the webinar

The key questions raised during the Q&A session included: How can we effectuate transformative leadership? Should we connect climate change and social justice or emphasize one more than the other? How can we heal a polarised society? How can we become more inclusive? How can we learn and coordinate efforts across multiple geographies and contexts to create climate justice? How can academics and researchers find balance between science and engagement?

Stephens replied that anti-racist feminist leadership can be practiced by anybody. However, certain social groups have been historically excluded from power and decision-making, and bring unique life experiences, priorities, and challenges. If we start acknowledging the power and privilege of some over others, then there can be several ways to effectuate transformative leadership. She also stressed that climate change and several other socio-economic issues are interconnected and addressing these collectively presents opportunities to create effective policies and bring transformative change. However, we need to move beyond the absolute technocratic lens that demands carbon reduction at all cost and position social justice at the centre of agendas and goal-setting. When investments and efforts are directed towards creating more just and sustainable communities, it brings people together and reduces divisiveness in society. More recently there has also been a sense of shift to critique structural issues of exploitation and privilege, and to hold accountable the powers that have been trying to resist change, such as the verdict of police brutality on the murder of George Floyd in the USA.

Professor Stephens points out that a lot more still needs to be explored when it comes to understanding and coordinating efforts for climate and energy justice across multiple geographies. Opportunities are emerging for intergenerational, organizational, multi-issue and translocal collaborations, and we need to take advantage of and be engaged in new social networks and coalition building. She ended with a note on academic activism and emphasized that academics as citizens have the responsibility and privilege to create impact outside of research papers. Unpacking the problematic and invisible power dynamics can help everyone to become aware and persist rather than perpetuate and reproduce.

Resources from the webinar

  • Just Sustainability Transitions event series here
  • Dr. Jennie Stephens talk on diversifying power: slides and video
  • Dr. Flor Avelino pitch on sustainable just cities: slides and video
  • Dr. Julia Wittmayer pitch on social innovation in energy: slides and video
  • Prof. Darren McCauley pitch on energy justice: video
  • Book: Diversifying Power: Why we need antiracist, feminist leadership on climate and energy: order here

Vaishali Joshi

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This webinar was organised by DRIFT, Vital Cities & Citizens (VCC) and Global Social Challenges (GSC), in collaboration with the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern, and Social Innovation in Energy Transitions (SONNET).