Standing up for the Least Among Us: We Can’t Deny Rights to the Disadvantaged

This piece originally ran on Huffington Post, as is reprinted with permission.

What a roller coaster of a week it’s been!

On the up side, a really inspiring speech on climate change, and today’s Supreme Court decisions to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and allow same-sex marriage in California.

On the down side, some pernicious rulings from that same court on civil rights and access to justice.

You may not think all these things are related. But I think everything is related to everything. Read on…

First, the climate speech at Georgetown. I live tweeted the speech and also did a giddy video response to it, and so I’m almost reactioned-out. But here’s my overall takeaway: President Obama doesn’t say things he doesn’t mean to say. Every word that comes out of his mouth is deliberate (as opposed to, say, the vice president). Meaning that when he decides to devote an entire speech to climate change, calling on all Americans to “invest, divest… [and] remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote,” you know he’s serious about the issue.


To me, the fact that the president stood up and made this a signature issue of his administration is almost more important than what was in the speech. It means he gave us all a standard to which to hold him and Washington accountable — and for which he will hold himself accountable.

But the speech content was important, too. (For those of you who like pictures better than words, here’s a great infographic from TckTckTck laying out the president’s promises.) The president put forward plans to lower carbon pollution in just about every area where he has power to act without Congress. EPA rules on power plants, appliance and building standards, renewable energy on public lands, fuel economy standards on heavy-duty vehicles — all of these made it into the speech.

So, surprisingly, did the Keystone XL pipeline. In a much-discussed part of the speech, the president said the pipeline must “not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” That’s a hard one to parse: what does “significant” mean? Who decides? But it directly connects the pipeline to the larger goal of taking action on climate change, which to my knowledge hasn’t happened in a White House speech before.

Taking a step backward, this was a speech about responsibility to future generations, and about American leadership. And that’s where the Supreme Court rulings come in.

Maybe it’s because of my background as an organizer, and a civil and consumer rights litigator after that, and a green jobs advocate after that — but I honestly don’t believe we can truly rise up and lead in the global fight against climate change if we can’t also rise up against inequality here at home.


Today’s decision to strike down key pieces of DOMA is a huge step toward equality. But yesterday’s decision on the Voting Rights Act, striking down the heart of the law and opening the door to racial discrimination in voting laws in key states, is a step backward. So is Monday’s punt on affirmative action, a move that ultimately makes it harder for universities to use race or the general goal of diversity in making even the smallest admission decisions. So is last week’s heartbreaking case, from an economic justice perspective, that allows big companies to force small companies into arbitration even if doing so means the small companies can’t actually pursue their claims.

What do all these decisions have to do with climate change, you say? Consider this: climate change is a global issue. Its impacts are felt disproportionately around the world, falling most heavily on the poorest people and countries. Its solutions are found in innovative ideas that are often pioneered by small and scrappy companies, putting forward disruptive technologies that fly in the face of corporate conventional wisdom.

If our society denies rights to the poorest and most disadvantaged among us, and sets up structures that privilege the already-privileged, we will become less — not more — willing and able to take on the global fight against carbon pollution.

We can’t let it happen.

Kate Gordon is the Director of the Energy & Climate Program at Next Generation.