Different voices = different outcomes 

How changing current systems will heal our planet and ourselves


One of the most thought-provoking contrasts of the Right Here Right Now UN human rights climate summit CU Boulder hosted last fall was between the different perspectives offered by the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities on the front lines of the climate crisis, and the Western capitalist perspectives on how to address the climate crisis through science and industry. Indigenous peoples have been tending to the wellbeing of land, water, air and all the life our ecosystems sustain since time immemorial, yet our capitalist and colonialist systems continue to exclude this wisdom from climate solutions. 

As was highlighted in a New York Times analysis recently, the wealthiest areas of the world, and our country, have contributed the most to emissions. Yet, as speaker after speaker noted, the poorest regions and those who consume the least are the first to suffer the loss of their land and ecosystems with the climate crisis. 

With this knowledge of how people like me have contributed the most to the climate crisis, my personal guilt at upholding and sustaining unjust systems makes me eager to jump in and be a part of the solution. Action enables me to assuage my discomfort.

But as I listened to the Indigenous speakers and speakers of color at the summit, I heard those on the frontlines of the climate crisis repeat a different message: If we really want to address the climate crisis and heal our planet, those on the the frontlines of the climate crisis need to be centered in policy- and decision-making. My role in mitigating the climate crisis as an affluent, white suburban resident is to ensure the perspectives of those most impacted by the climate crisis are driving our solutions.

That is a heavy burden to sit with, because it means that getting ourselves to a position of relative safety involves finally overcoming the structures Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told us would destroy our country: racism, capitalism and militarism. None of us will be safe until we undo white supremacy culture and create authentic partnerships with First Nations peoples and those who are most affected by the climate crisis.

It was and is uncomfortable to sit in this space of recognizing how my ancestors and the culture I sustain has created an existential threat to all life on the planet. That is a heavy burden. And we must have the courage to carry it as we do the work to change the colonialist, patriarchal, capitalist behaviors, patterns and beliefs many of us who are privileged hold, that can unintentionally lead us to act from a place of superiority without meaningful involvement from those most impacted by our decisions. 

Changing these destructive systems means validating the solutions of those we currently exclude. It means investing in the lived experiences, cultural knowledge and representation from communities that our country has oppressed for centuries and repairing the harm we have done. It means recognizing that Western science and quantifiable data are not the only ways of knowing and understanding problems, nor of identifying solutions. As a scientist myself, I understand the challenge of this shift in thinking. And yet, our survival depends on our ability to finally recognize our country’s inflexible, one-sided bureaucracies and political divisions as existential threats to all life on our planet. 

We need a revolution of values, in which we recognize our interconnectedness and shared wisdom, and finally put policy-making power, money and resources back into the hands of the people who have been the most impacted by the consequences of centuries of one-sided decision making. As white people, we can do this by investing our time and money into programs that support Indigenous leadership and the leadership of other People of Color, such as Harvest of All First Nations, FLOWS, Native American Rights Fund, Luna Cultura and other BIPOC-led climate justice advocacy organizations working across Boulder County. 

These groups are already doing the work we need but are often not paid for their efforts, or are severely underfunded. We can demand that our majority white policymakers meaningfully include BIPOC perspectives in their policy solutions, and we can spend time every day re-educating ourselves to understand how our internalized white supremacy culture impacts our ability to create change.

The climate summit made it crystal clear that the faster we can undo our colonialist, white supremacist and capitalist systems, the better chance we will have to heal our planet and ourselves, and prevent further devastation from climate disasters. Let’s get to work.

Nicole Speer is a director of research services at CU Boulder’s Institute for Cognitive Science and a member of Boulder City Council. She wrote this opinion piece in her personal capacity and acknowledges with gratitude the thoughtful review and editing of FLOWS. 

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.