Published: May 7, 2021 By

Working for a better climate won’t be easy, but will always be right, Rhiana Gunn-Wright tells CU Boulder environmental studies graduates

Doing the right thing for the planet and its people is always good, even when your efforts draw public mockery, dismissal and disrespect, an architect of the Green New Deal told environmental studies graduates at the University of Colorado Boulder on Thursday. 

Rhiana Gunn-Wright, the director of climate policy at the Roosevelt Institute, acknowledged that while working to improve the climate is clearly good, it is not easy.

I’m truly awed by your accomplishments, but I know that may not be how you feel.”

“As many of you have probably already learned, environmental work is chaos,” she said, explaining that addressing climate issues requires rapid changes to massive, foundational systems in industry and society worldwide.

“It’s just challenge on top of challenge and uncertainty on top of uncertainty,” she said, adding that it is “totally OK” if graduates go to work on climate policy and find themselves feeling outmatched, overwhelmed, incapable or powerless.

Such feelings could mean that “you are grasping and grappling with the gravity of the situation,” Gunn-Wright said.

The work can be both hard and demoralizing, noting her experience working on the Green New Deal. “The entire time I worked on the Green New Deal, I felt like I’d been getting my ass kicked,” she said, calling it “an unbroken ass-whupping.” 

“I can’t tell you the number of times people have laughed at me, or I’ve gone on TV and talked about cow farts, or had big, important pacemakers mock me and call me stupid, or had people tell me that if the U.S. doesn’t pass climate action, it would be my fault and the fault of my allies for mixing racial and environmental justice.”

The Green New Deal, introduced as a congressional resolution, calls for 100% clean energy as well as affordable housing and high-quality healthcare. Some pundits criticized a congressional document summarizing the resolution that mentioned cow flatulence, which releases methane, as a problem. Research has found methane has 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide.

“It’s been hard, because, like many of you, I have always wanted to be taken seriously. I wanted to be seen as serious and rigorous and reasonable,” Gunn-Wright said.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright

Rhiana Gunn-Wright

“Having people dismiss me and my work was really crushing. But the fact is that what is right is right, even before it is popular. And I know all of you know what’s right.”

While writing the Green New Deal, “we knew that it was wrong to have an energy system that poisons people and allows powerful folks to profit off of it,” that treats “anyone as disposable.”

“We knew what was right,” she said. “Our goal was just to make that legible.”

“At the core of it, you will never lose by treating people right, even if the rewards don’t accrue to you in that moment. … Just hold onto that conviction, because it’s not always easy.”

Gunn-Wright also commended the graduates on their perseverance during the pandemic.

“I barely made it through grad school in person, and if I’d have had to do it over Zoom, there’s a very good chance we would not be having this conversation,” she said, adding. “I’m truly awed by your accomplishments, but I know that may not be how you feel.”

Gunn-Wright noted that commencement can be bittersweet. “You think when you get there, you’re just going to feel joy and relief, and instead you get a real mix of emotions.”

Quoting the writer Octavia E. Butler, Gunn-Wright said that change is constant, and that, “God is change.” 

“However big this change feels, it’s OK, and I hope that you remember that even in your journey to this degree that you have changed and adjusted and shifted many, many times,” she said.

At the core of it, you will never lose by treating people right, even if the rewards don’t accrue to you in that moment. … Just hold onto that conviction, because it’s not always easy.”

In addition to happiness, “you might also have some anxiety, some ambivalence, and maybe even sadness” and a sense of loss. “Every time I graduated, I would feel really exhausted, and then I would feel really elated, and then I would feel confused, and no amount of graduation speeches or encouragement really changed that.” 

The Roosevelt Institute is a nonprofit that describes itself as a think tank, student network and the nonprofit partner to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.

The institute and library together are “learning from the past and working to redefine our collective future,” the groups say. Focusing on corporate and public power, labor and wages, and the economics of race and gender inequality, the Roosevelt Institute unifies experts, invests in young leaders, and advances progressive policies that bring the legacy of Franklin and Eleanor into the 21st century.

Before joining Roosevelt, Gunn-Wright was the policy director for New Consensus, charged with developing and promoting the Green New Deal, among other projects. Before that, she served as the policy director for Abdul El-Sayed’s 2018 Michigan gubernatorial campaign. 

A 2013 Rhodes Scholar, Gunn-Wright has also worked as the policy analyst for the Detroit Health Department, was a Mariam K. Chamberlain Fellow of Women and Public Policy at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and served on the policy team for former First Lady Michelle Obama. 

She graduated magna cum laude from Yale in 2011 with majors in African American studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies.