Dr. Cornel West Is Running to Become President of the United States. What Are His Views on Climate Change and the Environment?

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—Dr. Cornel West is running to become U.S. President, and he wants your vote. 

In October 2023, West, a high-profile academic and thought leader, announced he would no longer run for the nation’s highest office under the Green Party banner, instead choosing to campaign as an independent. 

Then, on Wednesday, West shifted courses, announcing in a press release that he would form a new third party, the Justice for All Party, to facilitate what the campaign characterized as a 50-state strategy “for the expansion of voter choice and proportional representation.”

“We are proud to already be on the ballot in the great states of Alaska and Oregon,” West said. “We’re on the move with a 50-state strategy, establishing the Justice for All Party as a platform to gain access to the ballot in those states where it’s easier to gain access as a party, as opposed to independent.”

West, a Harvard and Princeton-educated philosopher, has long been outspoken on issues ranging from race to militarism to the climate crisis. Following his visit to Birmingham to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, West spoke to Inside Climate News about his vision for Alabama, the climate, and beyond. 

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You’ve called climate change “Planetary Selma.” Tell me what you mean by that phrase.

The intersection of white supremacy on the one hand and ecological collapse on the other can be the catalyst for a movement that is multiracial—that keeps track of the very ugly consequences of predatory capitalist processes, where it’s just money, money, money, whether it’s fossil fuels, it could be oil, it could be coal, it’s just profit, profit, profit, over satisfying people’s needs. But it’s rare that people make that connection. 

The same was true with the military. It’s rare that people make the connection between the military and its contribution to ecological collapse with its carbon footprint and so forth. So that’s what I have in mind. We just need more visionary thinkers who can bring together those in the ecological movement with the anti-racist realities that we’re dealing with—what you’re seeing right now in Alabama.

Your platform mentions Green Reconstruction. Can you tell me more about what Green Reconstruction is and what that would look like in a West Administration?

It goes beyond the New Deal because the New Deal excluded Black folks. The New Deal did not allow for the coverage of domestic maids or agricultural laborers. Most Black brothers in the ’30s were agricultural laborers. Most Black sisters, like my grandmother, were domestic maids. So instead of the New Deal, it’s reconstruction. 

Reconstruction reaches out and embraces the most vulnerable and embraces poor people, Black people, indigenous people, brown people, white people, but it’s poor and working class in orientation. So that the New Deal ended up with just another kind of managerial politics, you know, in the name of diversity or whatever, but it didn’t talk about fundamental structural transformation. Reconstruction is more all-embracing and more structural in transformative content.

How do you see a Green Reconstruction being implemented? Is it increasing the federal workforce to do green jobs? Lay out the policy implementation for me.

It would be massive, massive investment in renewable and regenerative jobs rather than extractive jobs—in the same way there would be massive disinvestment from military projects and military operations. And in the massive reinvestment in housing, education, jobs with a living wage—$27 minimum wage.

I want to get to a few Alabama issues. One of the things that has been on our radar for a few years now is the lack of access to sanitation in the Black Belt in particular here in Alabama. What do you see as a potential solution when it comes to that lack of the basic ability to flush a toilet for folks in the Black Belt? And how do you see the State of Alabama’s lack of reaction when it comes to actually doing something about that?

Yeah, the thing is, you’ve got to have a president at the bully pulpit that says that it is a priority—that it’s not an afterthought, there’s not any form of denial, or ignoring the reality that you just talked about. It is a priority to ensure that people have access to decent resources. And that’s part of what it means to be part of the abolitionist movement. I consider myself an abolitionist when it comes to poverty, when it comes to homelessness, when it comes to people not having access to decent facilities. But part of so much of it is a question of political will, brother. 

It’s doable. It’s definitely doable. We spend billions and billions and billions of dollars on war. But we can’t muster under either the neoliberal framework or now, more and more, the fascist framework of Trump, we can’t make it a priority for poor people to have access to decent conditions.

You make me think of a story we reported about a company that cuts down trees and makes wood pellets to then ship over to Europe for heating. They just located one of these plants here in Alabama, in the Black Belt. One of the things that happened there is that, in the Black Belt, where again, many folks don’t have access to sanitation, the state government gave thousands of dollars in grant money to build sewer facilities to this plant, not to the people in the community, but to the plant.

That is a concrete example of what I’m talking about. You’re seeing firsthand in such a raw way. It’s amazing how you are able to sustain your deep sense of commitment and hope because you are exposed to the underside of the rock of this system we live in. I salute you, and I don’t want you to get discouraged.

The company is facing financial turmoil now, so this community doesn’t even know if the plant is going to be there anymore.

They’ve already got the money and gone now. That is just an example of the warped priorities that we have. That’s an example of what happens when the powerful and the greedy and the avaricious are in the driver’s seat. And the sad thing is, it’s contingent. There’s no way that can last. It’s not sustainable. It’s leading toward collapse.

Utility companies here in Alabama, particularly Alabama Power, which is our largest utility, have been storing toxic coal ash, the waste product from burning fossil fuels, in unlined pits across the state… In south Alabama, communities like Africatown have been put at risk of environmental damage because of its proximity to coal ash waste. As president, what could you do to protect folks from the risks involved with extractive capitalism?

There would have to be strong—not just regulation—but imposed constraints on anyone who would try to violate what we could call our most sacred spaces, sacred lands. Of course, this applies also to precious indigenous brothers and sisters on a broader scale. I know you’re talking about Alabama right now, but with the Willow Project and in other places, you just have to bring the power of the federal government against the greed of the avaricious capitalist enterprises.

Stepping back a bit, could you tell me what your experiences have been like when you visited Alabama?

For me, I’ve always believed that Alabama and Mississippi are ground zero for the Black freedom struggle. And because I understand that the Black freedom struggle is the leaven in the democratic loaf, which is to say it’s one that’s tied to solidarity with poor and working people of all colors. But from Montgomery with Rosa Parks to Emmitt Till in Mississippi—in the last 70 years, there’s no doubt that those two states are at the center.

So I am always profoundly encouraged and inspired when I’m in Alabama. The eight events I did in Birmingham left me so empowered and on fire, man, because I just see the resilience. I see the resistance. It’s just a beautiful thing to see people who are hungry for truth, thirsty for justice. And that’s what I encountered in Birmingham. 

What do you think the country can learn from Alabama? 

Birmingham was a post-Civil War creation, right? It was created by the railroad magnates—bankers looking for cheap labor, trying to divide Black and white workers to ensure that their wages remained low and their powers were subordinate to the big companies. And I think that Alabama is a place where it’s clear that if Black and white workers do not come together, that the greed and the obsession with profit remains in the driver’s seat. And the best of Alabama has always understood that. 

When brother Fred Shuttlesworth founded the Christian Movement for Human Rights using that language before the great Malcolm X, he knew precisely that you had to connect the struggle against vicious white supremacy, with a connection with labor. And now that means, of course, the ecological movement, too. And though it may not be as visible, those struggles are going on in Alabama And those are my people. 

The United Auto Workers is trying to unionize in auto plants here, and you have the governor coming out with language that is explicitly anti-union. She said that unions are attempting to “ruin” our economic model. Can you describe that economic model for me, as you see it?

I think that she’s right that we’re trying to undercut it. We’re trying to pull the rug out from under it. The economic model in place is one in which it puts the priority on the profits of the company, then it treats the workers like marginal utilities and afterthoughts. That, to me, is the height of economic injustice. 

The same is true in terms of the escalating real estate efforts in the North that’s just an obsession with prices going up for profits, making it difficult for people to gain access to decent housing. So the whole model is being revealed, as, in the end, unsustainable.

Do you think that utilities like Alabama Power should be nationalized? 


And what do you think that would do to help serve the people who are the customers of Alabama Power?

By nationalized what I mean is democratized—that citizens’ concerns and interests should be shaping the destiny of the company rather than just the elites at the top. 

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We recently had a man facing homelessness die here in Alabama from hypothermia. As climate change gets worse, more extreme weather is going to happen. Southern cities will need to step up and figure out what to do when it comes to warming stations in ways they haven’t before. What do you think the government needs to be doing when it comes to protecting homeless folks as the weather gets worse, not just when it comes to extreme cold but extreme heat?

That reminds me of my own neighborhood. I live in Harlem, brother, and when I walk out of my apartment, I’m stepping over precious human beings made in the image of God, man. And when it gets five degrees and 10 degrees, you can imagine what the consequences are. And the idea that it happens in Alabama? Christ. 

We need a major moral awakening and spiritual renaissance and political engagement to zero in on the plight of precious poor folk. That’s why a massive abolition of poverty must happen. Martin King was absolutely right. I want to eliminate Right to Work states as part of my anti-poverty program. But that’s tied to labor when it comes to providing social services.  

Would you like to close with a message of hope for Alabamians in the midst of all this?

The creme de la creme of freedom fighters come out of Alabama and Mississippi, brother. We got genius, talent, courage and vision coming out of those two states. 

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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