Celebrating Black Climate Week with Iowa climate scientist and activist Tamara Marcus
by Dr. Brian Campbell on Thursday, February 24, 2022
This week is #BlackClimateWeek, a week focused on highlighting the impacts of climate change on African American communities and celebrating Black leaders and organizations at the forefront of innovative, equitable climate solutions.
#BlackClimateWeek is intentionally recognized in February, during Black History Month, to acknowledge Black environmental justice leaders. This week, I chatted with Iowa climate scientist and activist Tamara Marcus to celebrate her leadership and hear her perspective on climate change in Iowa, both how it is impacting communities of color and how we can support Black climate leaders and organizations.
Tamara grew up in Cedar Rapids, and it was at Kennedy High School that she developed a love of science, thanks in part to Cindy Garlock, her AP Biology teacher. Garlock was an important role model who combined scientific curiosity with a commitment to community activism.
Tamara is also grateful for support from Keegan Kautzky and Lisa Fleming at the World Food Prize Foundation. The Foundation supported a fellowship to Taiwan, where Tamara did seed viability research and learned to love problem solving in a laboratory. Research has taken Tamara across the world several more times since then, including to India and the north of Sweden, where her PhD studies are investigating climate change in Arctic lakes.
A big part of her research is about the impacts of climate change on indigenous communities in these regions and how local people can better access scientific data to collaborate on climate solutions. So Tamara was excited to come home to Iowa and serve as Linn County’s first ever Sustainability Program Manager, starting in 2020. The position is highly focused on reducing Linn County’s greenhouse gas emissions and preparing the county for the ongoing and intensifying impacts of climate change. It’s a perfect opportunity to combine scientific expertise and community engagement.
When I asked Tamara what examples she sees of climate impacts on Black communities in Linn County, she described the disproportionate impacts of disasters like the flood of 2008 and the derecho of 2020. While people across the state and the county were impacted by these events, people of color have had an especially difficult time recovering. Many people were displaced from their homes, which was especially difficult for low-income residents, many who depended on neighborhood and social networks to help out with childcare, transportation, and meals. Local, state, and federal disaster response programs helped plug gaps temporarily, but public services are often siloed in separate departments, each with their own complicated red tape.
In the wake of the derecho, Black folks already struggling to get by now had to navigate different departments for help with meals, housing, healthcare, and mental health. And all this has been especially difficult for the large numbers of recent immigrants whose first language is not English.
Tamara has seen many similar challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has especially impacted people of color, disrupting children’s education, straining parents’ employment, and stressing the medical and mental health systems they depend on. True resilience, she says, would mean preparing now for the next disaster, building strong social support systems rather than scrambling to react to future disruptions. In 2019, Linn County supervisors declared a climate crisis, committing to reduced emissions and to accelerated efforts at adapting and preparing for future climate disasters.
I asked Tamara about Black History Month and the people and stories that have inspired her as a climate scientist and activist. Not surprisingly, for her as an individual, it was not necessarily the iconic historical figures that were role models, but the personal friends and mentors who helped her along the way as she navigated the world of climate science where there were almost never people who looked like her.
She emphasized this trailblazing work cannot fall on people of color alone, but that white scientists and activists have a critical role to play in transforming systems to welcome diverse people and ideas. Tamara also acknowledged that it takes courage for white people, especially white women, to prioritize equity and inclusion when this could be a risk for them professionally. She is grateful for mentors like her PhD advisor Ruth Varner, who reached out and supported her education and career.
Tamara has embraced her own role as a mentor to the next generation of climate leaders. She served on the board of Reclaiming STEM, an organization supporting historically marginalized communities in justice-focused science communication and policy advocacy. In Linn County, she serves on the board of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate advocacy group, and she chairs the environmental justice committee of the local NAACP chapter.
As the Iowa Environmental Council works toward our mission of addressing climate change and environmental justice, we look forward to continued partnerships with leaders like Tamara Marcus, working together to build capacity in these local organizations and young leaders. We must expand and strengthen these networks now as we prepare for the climate challenges that lie ahead.
- climate change
- environmental justice
- racial justice