Environmental justice, protecting wild places are on the agenda for new Sierra Club leader

Ben Jealous hiked South Mountain park in Phoenix as part of his tour through the country to meet with local leaders of the Sierra Club. It was his first time in the state since taking on a new role as executive director of the organization, and he was ready to discuss what he calls the deep commitment to protecting communities and wild places in Arizona.

He said he will continue to build on the Sierra Club’s goals for 2030: Protect 30% of U.S. lands and water, further the transition to renewable energy and address inequalities in the ways the government responds to climate disasters. He aims to focus on rebuilding health within communities and combatting the climate crisis while still growing the economy.

“I’ve stepped into this role with a lot of optimism, a lot of pragmatism, a lot of realism and a lot of hard-learned lessons about politics,” he said. “But a lot of optimism because things are lining up in a way that gives us hope that we can really transition industries in a way that’s just, and we can build a better future that’s exciting and sustainable.”

Jealous took over as the seventh executive director of the Sierra Club last month and also made history as the first person of color to lead the 131-year-old organization. Jealous hopes to continue the Sierra Club’s long-standing commitment to protecting the environment and local communities.

His passion for the environment was forged at a young age, growing up on the rocky coast of the Monterey Peninsula in central California, in a city he described as full of oceanographers and nature photographers.

As a teen, he had an itch for getting involved and at the age of 12, he signed up to lead tours at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, becoming the youngest-ever person to do so. When he was 15, a timber clear-cutting project threatened the centuries-old redwoods of his northern California community, thrusting him into environmental advocacy when he helped organize his first protest against those efforts. The same year, he co-founded the first high school chapter of the Student Environmental Action Coalition.

“When you’re at any age the outdoors humble you, it connects you and inspires you but when you’re at your smallest it really fills you with wonder and awe,” Jealous said. “At 50, it feels like I’m coming full circle.”

Prior to leading the Sierra Club, he held roles as the youngest president and CEO of the NAACP and as president of People of the American Way.

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A move to create green jobs, sustainable industries

Jealous said he is excited about the timing of his new role and the opportunities from the Inflation Reduction Act. Leading the Sierra Club in this new era, he said he hopes to help build a greener America while focusing on a greener economy.

“We're on the verge of creating opportunity,” he said. “The holy grail is that we have to move the American economy beyond its reliance on destroying people and places toward a day where we are creating good jobs and creating sustaining industries.“

He noted that Arizona is already a leader in green jobs in the U.S., and the federal government predicts that the Inflation Reduction Act will add more than 82,000 clean energy jobs in the state in the next five years. The Sierra Club hopes to work with lawmakers to bring more renewable energy jobs and projects to the state.

Jealous said the group is preparing to hire organizers across the country to work with municipal and state governments to draw down IRA funds and help create green jobs and curb local pollution.

He also hopes to use his previous experience to help address environmental injustice and the health of the people within communities that have been affected by poor policy and discriminatory zoning laws. While with the NAACP, Jealous created a climate justice campaign that addressed these issues. He also worked closely with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to expand voting rights and shrink the state’s prison system. He hopes to use this bipartisan approach to protect public land and communities affected by climate change.

“As an organizer, I’ve succeeded because I kept to a discipline looking for one thing we can agree on and getting that done,” he said. “When it comes to saving our planet, when it comes to building green industry, when it comes to driving down cancer rates by stopping poisoning of local communities there’s a lot almost everybody can agree on.”

A push for environmental justice in the Southwest

In the Southwest, the fight for addressing inequalities is amplified. Researchers at Arizona State University found that the region is a hotspot for both physical climate change and social vulnerability, with a clear "climate gap" between rich and poor. Lower-income neighborhoods tend to have higher levels of pollution because they tend to be closer to highways and factories.

Native American communities in Arizona also disproportionately lack access to safe water and wastewater disposal. Water contamination occurs more often in Native American water systems. Overall, tribal public-water systems are twice as likely to violate health-based water quality regulations than non-tribal systems, according to a 2018 journal from Arizona State University’s council of water resources.

“It’s in the interest of every Arizonian to build a robust economy that moves beyond old ways of doing things that have made Phoenix one of the worst places to breathe in the United States,” Jealous said. “This is an 'all of us together' moment for Arizona and the planet.”

Phoenix annually ranks as one of the worst metro areas in the U.S. for air pollution, exasperated by extreme heat that creates a heat dome and amplifies the effects of poor air quality. Last year the Sierra Club launched a campaign in Arizona for stronger pollution standards.

Jealous said he is excited and humbled by the work of local chapters of the Sierra Club and hopes to build on their success. One of his biggest motivators in his new role is protecting the planet for future generations.

“My goal is that my grandchildren will have no idea we once feared the planet dying,” he said. “My goal is to get us to a place where future generations don’t know what it’s like to fear the extinction of humanity itself.”

On the eastern shores of Maryland, where Jealous now lives full time, he spends his free time paddling the Chesapeake Bay to connect with nature. In the 1970s, fewer than 60 breeding pairs of bald eagles could be found in this area of the bay, but today, the bird is more than abundant over the Delmarva peninsula.

“When I was a kid, we worried about bald eagles being driven to extinction by DDT. The environmental movement came together and changed regulations and saved the bald eagle,” he said. “My son now complains that where we live in the Chesapeake Bay, there’s so many bald eagles that they are like pigeons.”

The bald eagle is a symbol of hope for Jealous in his new role. He credits this work of environmentalists who fought for a DDT ban to bring back healthy populations of the bird and says it is a testament to what can be done when people work together for a common cause.

“And that’s the way I will approach my work here at the Sierra Club,” he said. “A big transformative idea that we can agree on.”

Jake Frederico covers environment issues for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send tips or questions to jake.frederico@arizonarepublic.com.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: New Sierra Club director brings optimism to his activist role