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Asian American Policy Review

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

Leading from the Margins: Immigrant and Refugee Leadership for a Green New Deal

This piece was published in the 30th print volume of the Asian American Policy Review.

A transformative Green New Deal needs to answer important questions about who benefits from this new economy, who controls it, and who has been left out in the past. The Deal has to be about restoration, repair, and balance. And it requires an end to American empire.

The climate emergency is finally in full spotlight.[i]

After decades of movement building and generations of resistance, people of color, indigenous youth, immigrants, women and girls are finally grabbing headlines. Tackling the crises of wealth inequality and systemic racial injustice together, the fight for climate justice unites so many avenues for a clear path forward to the transformation we need.

At Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), we’ve been building ranks of Asian American immigrant and refugee community leaders across California to take on polluting corporations, transform racist land use policies, assert new visions for community health, and engage thousands of immigrant voters in multiple languages. For over 25 years, we have embodied the Principles of Environmental Justice, “build[ing] a local, national, and international movement of all peoples of color to fight the destruction and taking of our lands and communities.”[ii]

Now, we are ready to advance our solutions at scale.

In California, APEN and frontline communities across the state are designing a Green New Deal that centers on layered solutions to the multiple crises we are facing, creating the infrastructure and policies to repair our connections to each other and place. With a clear-eyed vision from the frontlines, solidarity across borders, a willingness to address the root causes, and structural support for those already deeply impacted, we have the opportunity to radically shift course for the better.

Politicians, technocrats, corporate boards are ready to act, whether or not they agree on the cause or scale. Unfortunately, many of the proposals for climate action from both sides of the aisle are more like false promises, rather than real solutions to the crisis. From those who diminish the urgency of the crisis and want fossil fuels to continue unabated, to those who accept the crisis yet insist on market based mechanisms as a business opportunity to commodify air, water, land, and public services, these actors are all protecting the status quo that puts profit over people and planet. In California, we’ve lived the consequences of letting the oil and gas industry design climate solutions. For years, California’s cap and trade program has let big polluters off the hook with allowances to pollute and carbon trading schemes to ‘offset’ their pollution, while turning our communities into environmental sacrifice zones. Taking on climate change requires more than balancing a math equation– it requires a change in values.[iii]

A transformative Green New Deal needs to answer important questions about who benefits from this new economy, who controls it, and who has been left out in the past. The Deal has to be about restoration, repair, and balance. And it requires an end to American empire.[iv] That means frankly addressing historic and ongoing injustices in our current extractive economy rooted in slavery, genocide, and war. It means transforming decision making around infrastructure, energy, labor, and food. It means shifting the supply chain of the green economy to eliminate frontline impacts;[v] it means supporting economies of scale that are based on mutual exchange and cultivating shared wealth.

Roots of the Crisis: Imperialist assaults on human rights, ecosystems, and sovereignty

The roots of the climate crisis go to the heart of how our economy functions. Immigrants and refugees have borne the brunt of harmful one-sided free trade deals that allow money to flow freely across borders, while restricting the movement of people; these policies incentivize businesses to participate in a race to the bottom, with wages, worker safety, and environmental regulations seen as trade barriers — the undercutting of all worsening the climate crisis.[vi] However, like multinational corporations, carbon emissions don’t observe national boundaries in a global dig-burn-dump economy.

Immigrant, refugee, indigenous, and Black families know firsthand the destabilization wrought around the world to support an empire-building economy. The growing number of climate refugees from the world’s coastlines know firsthand the impacts of foreign corporations “securing” and extracting natural resources in new markets at all cost.[vii] Families fleeing conflict rooted in food and water scarcity know. Whole communities pushed off their ancestral lands have known the impacts for generations because of the foreign-owned plantations that displaced them. It’s time to bring the folks from the margins into full participation going forward to redefine sound policy, sustainability, wealth, and progress. Visionary and intersectional solutions based on lived experiences offer a just transition[viii] from an economy of boundless exploitation to a one of sustained, shared prosperity.

The endless growth paradigm is directly tied to military action and foreign intervention. Over the past century, U.S. administrations have exploited Asian and Pacific Islands as outposts for war or resource extraction. For decades, Southeast Asian communities have withstood the  impacts of chemical weapons, bombing campaigns, and covert war. Islander communities are still enduring the damages of nuclear testing in the Pacific and ongoing neocolonial status.[ix] The United States operates over 800 bases around the world to secure natural resources for profit and the regimes that will keep those resources flowing.[x],[xi] Operating often outside local jurisdictions and unaccountable to host governments, the US military and other human rights abusers have committed high levels of violence against surrounding local communities, women, children, trans people, and even soil and water. Wreaking havoc on the health of generations of families and local ecosystems, “the US Department of Defense is one of the world’s worst polluters. Its footprint dwarfs that of any corporation.”[xii]

Paramilitary forces also contribute directly to the climate crisis. Globally, the mining industry was responsible for the deaths of the most land defenders. Many corporate polluters are skilled at tax avoidance,[xiii] shrinking public funds and demanding further private takeovers. Excess profits readily go towards undoing already anemic legal protections for land and workers.[xiv] The Philippines is currently the world’s deadliest country for environmental activists, where indigenous peoples steward land atop mining reserves fight back the spread of export-crop plantations, and protect the country’s last old growth forests and endangered species from short-sighted development.[xv] In return, indigenous peoples face private armed security forces that target community leaders and their supporters with harassment, intimidation, and assassinations.[xvi] Globally, “Indigenous peoples protect 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. Indigenous peoples and local communities who have distinct cultural and social ties to ancestral homelands and bioregions still care-take at least a quarter of the world’s land area.”[xvii] Bold, visionary climate solutions come from those who are already standing up to mercenaries, while slowing down the climate crisis for the rest of us. A just Green New Deal (or a Red New Deal)[xviii] is an opportunity to ally with the frontlines against the violence of endless growth.

All industries in our global capitalist economy are pushed to compete for the lowest costs and highest profits, even the industries we need to grow in order to phase out fossil fuels. Solar companies rely on mining that is highly polluting and unsafe for workers, and instead of responsible recycling, some send e-waste overseas or use prison labor.[xix] Establishing a renewable energy economy to meet the demand of the global need cannot continue exporting the problems of developed countries to formerly colonized ones, while inaccurately claiming the mantle of climate leadership.[xx] Forcing developing economies to rely on exporting only raw goods, processing waste, and incentivizing shortcuts in environmental and labor regulations–all these actions uphold a colonial relationship and limits innovation at a scale the Earth needs. “Recent studies show that, as long as countries cooperate, all continents have the wind, solar and hydropower resources they need in a zero-emissions world. An International Green New Deal could utilize these differences and ensure that renewable energy is available to all of them year-round.”[xxi]

Without and within the United States, policies abound that criminalize those least responsible for the current crises. Over-policing of working-class tenants, houseless populations, public transit riders, and struggling public school students punishes those with the least financial means and smallest carbon footprint. Governments across the world protect the right to make exorbitant profit on mobility, housing, education and incentivizes incarceration, creating obstacles to solving the root causes of climate catastrophe. This includes waves of policies across the United States and the world that criminalize protest. Water protectors, land defenders, activists fighting for human rights and racial justice, and even the journalists that document their stories are under attack. “‘Water is Life’, ‘Black Lives Matter’, Abolish ICE,’ and ‘No Ban on Stolen Land’ are not mere slogans but demands for a dignified life.”[xxii] Climate solutions support economies of care, especially for our most vulnerable. Instead of punishing the resilience and resistance of frontline communities, we can learn from their struggles to promote healthy relationships with places and each other, and welcome a dynamic process of dissent and accountability that deepens democracy.

Centering frontline leadership in California’s Halls of Power

To build up a Green New Deal that addresses the root causes of climate change, a New Deal that we deserve, we’ll have to transform the political infrastructure. In California, we’re experimenting with new processes to create policy and plans from the grassroots up. During the last several years of wildfires, frontline communities endured destruction at the intersection of the climate and economic crises. Immigrant communities were not getting information in language; precarious and undocumented workers were afraid to miss any work and went into dangerous fire zones or stayed away from shelter and evacuation.[xxiii] Queer communities were alienated when the only shelters available to some weren’t welcoming to their identities. Disabled folks were amongst the highest fatalities. Grassroots environmental justice organizations saw these gaps and won Senate Bill 160 (Jackson) that requires counties to make their emergency plans culturally competent through community engagement, so communities can plan for and meet all of the  diverse needs during the next emergency regardless of ethnicity, citizenship status, language spoken, gender identity, sexuality, medical needs, or age.

APEN’s own leaders were looking at the impacts of the climate crisis through the lenses of housing and energy.[xxiv] So much of California’s housing stock that is still in reach for working-class people is older, inefficient, exposed to environmental health hazards. This deteriorating housing stock is one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gases in the state.[xxv] Combined with extreme heat days, growing local air pollution, and more days of wildfire smoke each year, older housing amplifies dangerous conditions for vulnerable renters, while skyrocketing energy bills exacerbate the affordability crisis. Through AB 1232 (Gloria), APEN’s leaders called for state energy efficiency investments into rental housing to be paired with a suite of anti-displacement protections, as well as coordination with public health programs to improve overall habitability of working class homes. The state legislature was not equipped nor ready for such an intersectional, holistic proposal to move in its entirety through the legislative process. Nonetheless,  AB 1232 was an eye-opening first attempt for both our community members and decision-makers to generate policies that come from lived experiences and designed to meet urgent needs in a bold way.

While it is important and needed for frontline leaders to gain ground inside the halls of power, the inside strategy can never take the place of the battles on the outside. The Red New Deal, Principle 3 articulates: “politicians can’t do what only mass movements do”. Transformative New Deal policies require deep participation of everyday people across issue areas to create the structural change that climate solutions demand. As the Just Transition framework explains, “If it’s the right thing to do, we have every right to do it.”[xxvi] California recently legalized public banks, opening the door for a way to invest in renewable energy infrastructure, climate adaptation and resilience, and low-interest loans for projects to upgrade or shift transportation, food systems, and more. This wouldn’t have been possible without the indigenous uprising that ignited in Standing Rock, and a tenacious divestment campaign in solidarity across campuses, cities and states. Taking pension money, endowment funds, public investments out of pipelines and into public banks that are accountable to communities instead of shareholders increases the solutions that are possible. In Oakland, community groups were able to introduce a Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, while eyes across the country were on the Moms4Housing fight that is shifting the paradigm of power and rights.[xxvii] Investing in ways to keep people home is key to health, education, transit infrastructure, and the social fabrics needed for climate resiliency.  In ways entrenched powers cannot conceive, people power is bringing innovative, intersectional solutions up from the grassroots to the word of law.

Resilient and resourceful are words often used to describe poor and working-class communities of color around the world. There is a beautiful way that people can take care of each other in the face of such ugly theft and degradation. There is also trauma that comes from being in a community chronically exposed to instability, scarcity, and violence, while others are continuously protected from disruption and harm. Healing systemic injustices requires a different understanding of togetherness and no false pretenses about the sacrifice zones business as usual requires. Those fighting locally for safety, dignity, and deep democracy are those securing a livable future on a planetary scale. A transformative, movement-led Green New Deal means co-building resilience and sharing resources for the long term, surviving and thriving together.


[i] “Word of the Year 2019”, Oxford Languages, accessed January 7, 2020,

[ii] Delegates to the First People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. “Principles of Environmental Justice.” October 24-27, 1991.

[iii] Lisa Song, “Cap and Trade Is Supposed to Solve Climate Change, but Oil and Gas Company Emissions Are Up,” ProPublica, November 15, 2019,

[iv] Aurash Khawarzad, “The Green New Deal: A Public Assembly – On Government and Power,” panel discussion, November 17, 2019, Video, 52:22,

[v] Dustin Mulvaney, Vicki Bolam, Monica Cendejas, et al, “Toward a Just and Sustainable Solar Energy Industry”, Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition White Paper, January 14, 2009,

[vi] Powell, John A., and Elsheikh, Elsadig, and Ayazi, Hossein. The Trans-Pacific Partnership: Corporations Before People and Democracy. Berkeley, CA: Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, University of California, Berkeley, May 2016.

[vii] Jonathan Watts, “Philippines is deadliest country for defenders of environment,” The Guardian, July 29,2019,

[viii] “Just Transition: a Framework for Change.” Climate Justice Alliance. Accessed February 15, 2020.

[ix] Roy Smith, “These Pacific islanders still live at the mercy of the US military,” The Conversation, June 19, 2015,

[x] “Morales claims US orchestrated ‘coup’ to tap Bolivia’s Lithium,” Al Jazeera, December 25, 2019.

[xi] Nicolas Davies, “35 countries where the U.S. has supported fascists, drug lords and terrorists,” Salon, March 8, 2014,

[xii] Alexander Nazaryan, “The US Department of Defense is one of the World’s Biggest Polluters,” Newsweek, July 17, 2014,

[xiii] Matthew Gardner, Steve Wamhoff, Mary Martellotta, and Lorena Roque, “60 Profitable Fortune 500 Companies Avoided All Federal Income Taxes in 2018,” Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, April 11, 2019,

[xiv] Center for International Environmental Law, “CETA Threatens EU and Member States’ Ability to Effectively Regulate the Dangers of Pesticides,” accessed February 17, 2020,

[xv] Watts, “Philippines is the deadliest country for defenders of the environment.”

[xvi] Kalikisan KPNE, “Taking Lands, Taking Lives,” accessed February 15, 2020,

[xvii] Nick Estes, “A Red Deal,” Jacobin, August 6, 2019,

[xviii] “A Red New Deal,” A Red Nation, accessed January 6, 2020,

[xix] Mulvaney et al, “Toward a Just and Sustainable Solar Energy Industry.”

[xx] Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, “How a Green New Deal could exploit developing countries,” The Conversation, February 25, 2019,

[xxi] Yanis Varoufakis and David Adler, “It’s time for nations to unite around an International Green New Deal,” The Guardian, April 23, 2019,

[xxii] The Red Nation, “A Red New Deal.”

[xxiii] Claudia Boyd-Barrett, “Wildfires Expose Gaps in Disaster Relief for Undocumented Communities,” California Health Report, January 7, 2020,

[xxiv] Asian Pacific Environmental Network, “It’s Official: We Have a Healthy Homes Bill!”, Medium, March 14, 2019,

[xxv] Joe Vukovich and Pierre Delforge, “The Real Climate Impact of California’s Buildings,” Natural Resources Defense Council Report, September 18, 2018,

[xxvi] Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project, “From Banks and Tanks to Cooperation and Caring: A Strategic Framework for aJust Transition,” accessed Jan 6, 2020,

[xxvii] Marisa Kendal, “Oakland councilwoman introduces Moms4Housing-Inspired Ordinance,” Mercury News, January 30, 2020,