OPINION | The Inflation Reduction Act is now law. But its carbon fundamentalism won’t solve climate change for marginalized communities.

To meet the challenges of the global climate crisis, we need bold ideas and to speak truth to power. That’s the idea behind Climate/Justice, a Planet Detroit opinion column written by Detroit-based environmental justice activist Michelle Martinez. Martinez writes not only as an activist but as a mother and fourth-generation Detroiter. Martinez will be donating all proceeds from this column to Black to the Land Coalition, and she urges readers to donate to the organization via CashApp at $blacktotheland. Follow all of Martinez’ columns here.

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At the Democratic National Debate in 2019, thousands of people poured into the streets under the banner, “Make Detroit the Engine of the Green New Deal.” 

What did that mean? Work, good wages, union jobs. A safer future for youth, now. Regenerative agriculture, good abundant cheap food. Housing and transit. Community-owned energy. Health care, elder care, and childcare. The right to breathe fresh air and drink clean water. A loving and safe home. Fewer prisons and more peace, more music, more love. Healthy communities created with community wealth and healthy democracy.

Frontline Detroit March and Rally on July 30. Photo by Michelle Martinez

Those are the aspirations of the climate justice movement — a movement that calls for the love of life. The climate justice movement is distinct from the climate movement in that it centers people no matter where they come from; it centers all living beings and actively seeks to dismantle the triplets of evil: racism, materialism, and militarism. 

Unfortunately, through the process that led to the Inflation Reduction Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law this week, we’ve seen a distinct break between the two. The climate and climate justice movements are now divided.

The IRA marks the single most significant investment in climate action in U.S. history. Big green groups from the Sierra Club to the League of Conservation Voters to the Evergreen Alliance are celebrating. But climate justice groups — like Climate Justice Alliance, Indigenous Environmental Network, and Center for Biological Diversity, are more circumspect.

I’ve been lucky to be a part of the climate justice movement led by Black, Indigenous, and people of the global majority — poor and working class people who want to build bridges to end systemic oppression. I have had the privilege to learn from elders and leaders who want to stop climate change and end the economic and political conditions that created the climate crisis in the first place, rip it from the root.

When climate justice leaders call for climate action, it is not about just reducing and eliminating  carbon —  though we know that is needed. Climate justice calls for a qualitatively different outcome for all people, a foundational change in our society so there can no longer be corporate billionaires with outsized control over the decisions that impact our lives. 

Climate action focusing solely on carbon is termed “carbon fundamentalism,” a concept from a global movement seeded at the Conference of Parties (COP) in the wake of the Kyoto Protocol. Gopal Dayaneni writes that carbon fundamentalism views the problem of climate change as a “technical one, which can be addressed through narrow technological or policy solutions, …a strategic construct of the center-right.” Such a constricted solution, he writes, “hides the larger ecological context and the inequitable economic system that got us here.”

When climate technocrats aim their singular focus on greenhouse gases, not the conditions for their existence or their historical and future impacts, it creates a leadership vacuum in the climate movement. It ignores root causes, giving average people no role, no voice, nor place for dissent. The resulting policy designs inevitably benefit the status quo — fossil fuel corporations and the inequitable, extractive economic systems in which they thrive. 

Join Planet Detroit & Michelle Martinez for an upcoming webinar on “What is ‘carbon fundamentalism’ and why do justice advocates oppose it?


The amassing of wealth through stolen land, and stolen labor, gendered violence, and ongoing structural racism allowed these corporations to extract fossil fuels, dump their waste in our communities with impunity and use that wealth to invest in systems that ultimately influence our elections, our decision-makers, and undermine democracy itself. And carbon fundamentalism creates a path for them to continue to do so.

Carbon fundamentalism is a form of white supremacy that does not consider social inequity, racism, poverty, forced immigration or gendered violence. It ignores decades of redlining that pushed Black families into flood zones. It erases the fact that even though Indigenous people protect  80% of the world’s biodiversity, they remain subject to ongoing displacement. 

Carbon fundamentalism is about faulty math —  it utilizes models to calculate precisely where carbon is emitted and how to reduce it in the atmosphere. Yet the needs of those most impacted by fossil fuels and the inequitable systems that created the problem simply do not enter into the calculation.

Instead of rooting out the problems of inequity, which the fossil fuel industry helped create, the end product is the regulation of fossil fuels through market mechanisms, tax giveaways, and techno-fixes like carbon capture — all of which serve to strengthen the position of the same corporations who caused the crisis. And now they get to take credit for “fixing it.” 

At best, carbon fundamentalism increases political disenfranchisement and wealth inequality and abdicates responsibility to vulnerable communities.

At worst, it leaves behind vast populations of people to die in floods, fires, drought and starvation, while the privileged few can drive EVs and eat organic food — a greener world of haves and have-nots.

In the IRA negotiations, technocrats began arguing that the legislation would reduce carbon by 40% by 2030. Though there was speculation that those figures were inflated, it became the main narrative supporting passage of the bill —  everything else was a “necessary evil.” 

The elements that climate justice advocates asked in the earlier versions of Build Back Better were struck: things like community ownership of renewable energy, public transportation, or adequate and universal housing. We were sacrificed.

Instead, we have nearly $60 billion in the IRA for false solutions like carbon capture, hydrogen, and nuclear. Oil and gas leases were opened on public lands. And Senators Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin struck a side deal that will fast-track permits and side-step aspects of the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. 

The Mountain Valley pipeline now has the green light, solidifying increased export markets for fracked gas. The oil and gas lobby is preparing to force Line 5 through the Manchin side deal. All of which means the fossil fuel industry is celebrating.

Climate justice advocates lambasted groups like Evergreen Alliance for their willingness to support a bill that sacrifices communities in the Gulf South and in Alaska, who now must open lands and waters for more oil and drilling. Indigenous groups are asking which pipelines will be next. Alaskan Natives are calling the bill “genocide.” 

Even members of Biden’s own White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council are speaking out.

“Somehow, we’re both a bargaining chip and the people that can save the day when it comes to elections,” said Maria Lopez- Nuñez, deputy director of organizing and advocacy with the Ironbound Community Corp. in Newark, N.J., and a member of the council. “Those are moral contradictions that can’t stand for too long. Something’s got to give.”

Advocates are asking where and how this bill will help the average working family, because tax credits for EVs or home electrification won’t make much of a difference in the lives of people facing down floods, heat waves, and wildfires amid poverty.

While it’s still unclear how the IRA will impact Detroit, we know that every single Democrat in the Senate voted against Bernie Sanders’ amendments that would have given parents a child care credit of $300 per month and the Civilian Climate Corp that would have employed and trained thousands of young people in fighting and adapting to climate change. Democrats voted against striking benefits to fossil fuel corporations. They voted against capping prescription drugs for seniors. All things that would help Detroit parents, elders, youth, survive… today.

Climate justice advocates don’t want to regulate carbon alone and call it a climate win because it maintains the system that has condemned our communities to death. Instead, we call for a regenerative economy that centers on a loving family, healthy community, good jobs, safe food, and universal housing for all. 

We call for investments that grow community wealth, not shareholder dividends. We seek prosperity, a place we can come together no matter how much money you make and bridge across our differences with dignity for a future we can believe in. For that reason, this fight is far from over; in fact, it’s just begun.

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