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‘If We Don’t Have a Planet, We Don’t Have Anything.’ Rep. Deb Haaland on the Importance of Equity in the Climate Change Conversation

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U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland says the conversation around climate change needs to focus on the economic and racial disparities that heighten environmental injustice.

The New Mexico Democrat, who is one of the two first Indigenous women members of Congress, noted during a TIME 100 Talks discussion that the coronavirus pandemic disproportionately affects communities that are already vulnerable to more severe cases of the disease COVID-19.

“Right now, when I think about the folks who are suffering from the pandemic in high rates, like in Indian country, those are the folks without running water, with clouds of methane hovering over their communities that exacerbate a respiratory illness,” she told TIME Correspondent Justin Worland.

From the start of her bid for office, Haaland’s platform has shined a spotlight on climate change. Just earlier this month, Haaland was appointed to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s Climate Engagement Advisory Council, created to mobilize youth and BIPOC voters who are driven towards dismantling the intersection between racism and the environment. “If we don’t have a planet, we don’t have anything,” Haaland said.

Haaland also addressed the renaming of Washington’s NFL team during Thursday’s Talk, saying she welcomes the change. She paid tribute to the activists who demanded the long-awaited rebrand for decades, and expressed regret that change only came once corporate sponsors put pressure on the team’s owner. “Native American activists have been present as long as the Europeans have been working to colonize us,” Haaland said in recognition of their role in removing the offensive branding.

Like many Americans, Haaland notes that the killing of George Floyd has forced an overdue dialogue about the country’s troubled history surrounding racial injustice. As the unprecedented uprising leaves way for communities of color to organize demonstrations, Haaland said it’s the duty of lawmakers to propose the legislation that will address some of the biggest issues facing our country. For starters, Democratic lawmakers introduced the Justice in Policing Act and the Heroes Act.

The House passed both acts, separately, weeks ago, but they have been stalled in the GOP-led Senate. As neighboring states Arizona and Texas see a spike in coronavirus cases, Haaland is advocating for renewed support for the Heroes Act, which would include funds to facilitate widespread testing, expand the enrollment period for Medicare and Medicaid to uninsured Americans, provide hazard pay for frontline health care workers, along with providing funding for Indigenous tribes to mitigate the spread of the virus.

“We are all working hard to pass legislation, to protect our environment, to protect [from] violence against women, to move our country forward,” she said.

This article is part of #TIME100Talks: Finding Hope, a special series featuring leaders across different fields encouraging action toward a better world. Want more? Sign up for access to more virtual events, including live conversations with influential newsmakers.

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Write to Nadia Suleman at nadia.suleman@time.com