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Welcome to New York: Geoff Dembicki on Reporting from Ground Zero

Cockroaches, coronavirus, Biden and Black Lives Matter. Being a journalist in America right now is a wild ride.

Serena Renner 30 Jul 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Serena Renner is a journalist and editor who writes about culture, social justice and the environment, as well as creative change-makers and their big ideas. She is completing a practicum with The Tyee.

Moving to New York City in September 2019 wasn’t quite the reporter’s dream that Geoff Dembicki had imagined. The plan was to base himself at the centre of the media universe to cover the 2020 U.S. election and what it means for climate change. Little did he know what was waiting around the corner.

Dembicki, who has reported for The Tyee since 2008, zoomed in from his steamy New York apartment for our latest Three Things livestream interview with Tyee host Emma Cooper.

Dembicki shared what it’s been like covering the American election through a climate lens, as well as getting a front-row view of the country’s most deadly COVID-19 outbreak and massive Black Lives Matter demonstrations that are transforming life and politics across the continent.

But first, there were cockroaches.

“I spent about the first third of the month of September dealing with [an infestation],” Dembicki said. “And then by the time the cockroaches got under control, I was attending the United Nations Climate Action Summit. And so that was kind of my introduction to the city: cockroaches and the United Nations.”

At the UN summit, Dembicki watched Greta Thunberg address a crowd of 250,000 people, which he wrote about for The Tyee. He hung around as one UN official after another asked Thunberg how to solve the world’s problems. “They seemed to believe this Swedish teenager had all the answers.”

By late February, Dembicki said he was settling into a calmer routine. He told his partner he felt good about the rest of the year. “I had no idea what was coming next,” he recalled.

Seemingly overnight, subway conversations turned tense and people were avoiding each other in the streets. The city’s once bustling gathering places like Times Square and Broadway were empty. Millions of people were losing their jobs; thousands more were dying. Neighbours could no longer afford basic groceries.

Dembicki noticed a collective “brain fog” set in, especially among climate organizers who didn’t know how to fit their cause into a global pandemic. So he called 350.org founder Bill McKibben for clarity.

“We talked on the phone and [McKibben] said, ‘Well, maybe some things will move online. We’re gonna have to recalibrate, but, you know, we’re just not sure right now.’ And in a weird way, that gave me a bit of perspective,” Dembicki said. “I was like, ‘Okay, this event, this pandemic, is just so huge. We’re just gonna have to ride it out all together.’”

His interview with McKibben also foreshadowed what would become widely acknowledged a few months later: that Black, Indigenous, and people of colour are bearing the brunt of both the coronavirus and climate change. A Harvard analysis linked the higher frequency of Black people dying of COVID-19 to exposure to air pollution.

Protests in response to the murder of George Floyd and systemic racism are helping people connect the dots between social and environmental justice, said Dembicki.

“If you breathe in air pollution your whole life, that makes you more susceptible to coronavirus,” he said. “And it just so happens that a lot of communities of colour are built next to polluting fossil fuel infrastructure. So that information was becoming more widely acknowledged just as these massive demonstrations against police brutality took off, and that started a really interesting conversation in the climate change world.”

While mainstream environmental groups have been slower to respond, younger organizations like the Sunrise Movement and 350.org immediately got behind calls to defund the police, Dembicki said. How does defunding the police contribute to fighting climate change? For starters, it gets huge numbers of people in the streets, challenging the status quo.

According to the New York Times, Black Lives Matters may be the largest movement in U.S. history, with up to 10 per cent of the population involved during one survey period.

“So, for environmental groups to get behind that meant that they were amplifying a movement that was challenging vested interests and political leaders, and also organizing people who want to fix the climate emergency even though that wasn’t the explicitly stated purpose,” Dembicki said.

What does all this mean for Canada? Dembicki said we can expect a reckoning around racism in the environmental movement.

“If you look at the 10 years of protests over oil pipelines and infrastructure, those fights have primarily been led by Indigenous communities, who are protesting not only the oil development, but also centuries of state-sanctioned violence and poor treatment toward their communities.”

So for a Tyee article on Canada’s green recovery, he ran some of the most popular climate solutions like retrofitting homes past Lindsey Bacigal, a spokesperson for Indigenous Climate Action. Bacigal summarized the human rights issues, from access to affordable housing and clean water to the safety of Indigenous women and girls, that need to be addressed before people can think about retrofits. Her comments underscore the need for a Just Recovery, not only a green one, Dembicki said.

The conversation circled back to the 2020 U.S. election, and how Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden managed to go from getting a D from Greenpeace for his climate plan to now being lauded as one of the most climate progressive candidates in U.S. history. His $2-trillion plan is built around clean energy and low-carbon housing. Forty per cent of the funds will be invested in disadvantaged communities.

It goes beyond Canada’s carbon pricing plan by putting money into struggling communities and creating millions of jobs, Dembicki said. Having Biden in office would put pressure on Canada to follow suit, he added.

And if Trump wins a second term? That would be “massively bad,” said Dembicki. “With less than a decade left to achieve these really ambitious goals, having four more years of a climate denier doing everything [he] can to prop up oil, coal and gas would be absolutely devastating.”

But worldwide climate demonstrations and the Movement for Black Lives combined with the speed with which some governments marshalled resources to respond to COVID-19 give Dembicki hope for what’s possible.

“I think if tons of people join up together, join groups, and figure out how they can build their collective political power, I think now is the time to really change the way things are done.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Environment

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