What is climate justice, and how does it relate to environmental justice? Why is it critical to center climate justice efforts on communities, and what does that look like on the local and international scales? How can academics, advocates, and others prioritize climate and environmental justice in their work?
Reflecting on their experiences and sharing examples from the field, expert panelists offered insights on these issues at a Sept. 30 discussion of “The Roots, Experiences, and Future of Climate Justice.”
Gabriela Nagle Alverio, a doctoral student in environmental policy who is also pursuing a law degree, moderated the discussion, which she organized with Cameron Oglesby, a master of public policy student.
Panelists included William J. Barber III (director of climate and environmental justice at The Climate Reality Project and founder and director of the Rural Beacon Initiative), Jennifer Hadden (associate professor in the department of government and politics, University of Maryland), and Yumna Kamel (executive director and cofounder of Earth Refuge).
The discussion was part of a two-day lineup focused on the Duke Climate Commitment, which unites the university’s education, research, operations and public service missions to address the climate crisis. The commitment builds on Duke’s long-standing leadership in climate, energy and sustainability to educate a new generation of climate-fluent innovators and create equitable solutions for all.
The discussion was also part of a fall series of lectures and celebrations of environmental justice at Duke.
Event partners included the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute, Earth Refuge, the Rural Beacon Initiative and the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability.
Excerpts from the event:
On how speakers got involved in climate justice
[As law students at the University of Pennsylvania, my friend and I] “realized that there was close to nothing to protect people fleeing the impacts of climate-induced disasters … And in fact, more people flee climate disasters than war or persecution.”
“We launched Earth Refuge to study that gap and to try to fill it but, crucially, through a community-focused lens: consulting with affected communities, understanding what their needs are, and then trying to match those needs with niche legal solutions and advocating for those rights. [We take that approach] as opposed to imposing an overarching legal definition upon them and assuming that we know what's best.”
“I really thought about the climate change problem as being an environmental problem … [until I had the opportunity] to attend UN climate conferences and to meet with people who were already being strongly impacted by climate change: fishing people in Southeast Asia and women in Africa and farmers in Mexico who were coming to this process to share their stories. … [And domestically there was] Hurricane Katrina, which was a really pivotal moment in the way that I understood climate change.”
“When I was working in the UN climate process was also around the time that the climate justice movement was starting to take off in the international setting. … Watching how the voices of those who were trying to bring this perspective to the international debate were either ignored or really marginalized or sort of tokenized in that process … led me to want to do academic work on this topic, to document that movement and highlight those voices.”
William J. Barber III:
“I grew up in Goldsboro [in Eastern North Carolina], in an area that is close to what many may see as the front lines of the climate crisis in our state and our nation. But … I also grew up witnessing the deep self-determination, the deep innovation, the deep commitment between people and land in that area.”
“When we talk about the low-hanging fruit of climate impact here in the United States, the people who are being hit right now by this crisis are largely poor, largely communities of color, largely in the Southeastern United States.”
“Data also tells us that out of the top hundred counties expected to be the most impacted by climate change by 2030, 99 are in the southeast. So as a native of Eastern North Carolina … as a son of the South, that put a particular urgency for me to commit myself to understanding how our communities and how our regional leadership really needed to be at the helm of solutions to the climate crisis.”
“There’s also a deep connection that I honor between my personal activism today and the past activism of my ancestors” [Bishop William J. Barber II, William J. Barber, Senior and Benjamin Luther Keys].
What is climate justice?
William J. Barber III:
“When we look at climate justice, it is actually defined as the remediation of the impacts of climate change on poor people and people of color—those who are impacted the first and worst—and compensation for harm suffered by such communities due to climate change.”
“Climate justice also makes us aware that the climate crisis is, yes, a matter of being an environmental issue. It is, yes, an issue of policy. But it is also a social issue. It is also a racial issue. It is also an issue of economic justice. It is also a gender issue. It is also an issue in terms of immigration. Because the climate crisis serves as a multiplier on deep-seated social inequities ... that, unfortunately, we have perfected as a society because they have been the result of intentional bad policy decisions.”
“Climate justice really makes us look at the climate crisis through the lens of acknowledging the disproportionate impacts for people—that we are all hit by it, but not all impacted the same way. It makes us recognize the legacy of an energy sector that has been heavily informed by environmental racism and a dependence on the fossil fuel economy: what that means for us as a nation, but also in the global context. It also makes us acknowledge that, when we are thinking about solutions, we have to amplify the voices of those communities on the front lines.”
“There's a procedural dimension to climate justice ... where we want to think about a process of decision-making that allows for self-determination of communities and informed consent as communities are exposed to various kinds of adaptation and mitigation measures. Sometimes the danger in the climate space is that the issue is so urgent that we want to move quickly without acknowledging those important procedural considerations.”
On the distinction between climate justice and environmental justice:
William J. Barber III:
“These concepts [climate justice, environmental justice, and energy justice] often do get conflated but they are separate and distinct. They build on one another.”
“Environmental justice is said to be achieved when all communities enjoy both the same degree of protection from environmental health hazards as well as equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, to learn, in which to work.”
“Climate justice … forces us to understand the current climate crisis through the lens of social inequities. It really personalizes it … It also forces us to acknowledge … deep-seated social inequities, which it makes worse, and that legacy of environmental racism that has made this moment possible.”
[Energy justice] “is defined as the goal of using our energy systems to achieve equity in both the social and economic participation in the emerging renewable energy system, while also remediating that social, economic, and health burden that has traditionally been forced upon communities on the front line.”
“We have to… use all three of these concepts to really uplift this notion of the goal really being not just a transition of our economy, but a just transition.”
“The environmental justice movement covers a broader range of environmental harms than just climate. … But I also think that it's important to realize that the climate justice movement is a little bit broader than the environmental movement too, and it encompasses a diversity of actors” [with interests in migration, international development, and more].
“The environmental justice movement has a history in contesting what may be thought of as more local issues and… when you're talking about climate change, you have to consider the global sphere.”
[A final difference is] “the strength of youth in the climate justice movement, and the emphasis on intergenerational equity. And how youth have been really strong allies to those who are advocating for climate justice.”
On communities’ roles in environmental and climate justice
William J. Barber III:
“It is important to recognize that the front-line communities have always had to be more responsive to broader realities. The same activists who were leading the civil rights struggle also ended up being the foundation for the folks leading the environmental justice struggles early on, because they had to. It was their communities that were being impacted. The same folks that are leading the environmental justice struggles are now having to be responsive to the climate justice struggles because it is their communities that are being impacted.”
On successes and challenges in the climate justice movement:
[Internationally] “one of the big demands of the climate justice movement has been recognition and reparations for climate debt, which is the basic idea that polluters exploit resources and occupy our atmosphere rent-free and then there are also impacts for marginalized people for which they're not compensated. Some of my work has traced how the global movement on climate justice has amplified that kind of concept in the international negotiations.”
“The agenda setting is easier than the actual implementation and the follow-up. And it's been really difficult to actually mobilize attention and funding to really support those who are currently being impacted by climate change.”
“One of the difficulties is also implementing accountability. I don't think it's a shortcoming of the movement because everyone is trying, but it's more a shortcoming in terms of output.”
William J. Barber III:
“I think the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act—even in its imperfect form—was a real testament to the strength of the alliance between traditional environmental and green groups and environmental climate justice organizations.”
[I am encouraged by] “the growing commitment of climate activists, especially this new generation of young climate activists, in prioritizing climate justice. And [activists] saying, ‘We have to ensure that even as we are urgently advocating for greenhouse gas reduction, we cannot do that at the expense of frontline communities. We have to hold transitioning our economy and addressing social equity hand in hand.’”
[I also see progress in] “some of the structural changes even in the federal infrastructure– the EPA announced the new Office of Environmental Justice and Civil Rights just last weekend.… That is a real victory for decades of activism.”
How Duke community members can prioritize climate justice
“We need interdisciplinary collaborations and also community collaborations so that academics are engaging with a broader set of stakeholders than we typically do. … From where I sit, I think this is something that Duke does well. … [It is important to] build up those programs more and to also center justice in those discussions, and to keep up that commitment. … [This may include] rethinking academic incentive structures for researchers to make sure that researchers are rewarded for doing that kind of interdisciplinary and community-engaged work.”
“Also [it’s important] that undergraduate training and graduate training doesn't end up being as siloed into disciplines as sometimes it can be, because we need tools from multiple areas of academic study to have any chance at tackling this problem.”
“Tap into the programs at Duke. I think that students and faculty are immensely privileged to even have a platform to contribute to, but I would also caution that environmental justice and climate justice vary from other disciplines because they are active and live issues.”
“I would caution not to become too entrenched in the academics and the theories and to actually ensure that there are elements of practical action intertwined in that motivation.”
“In the same light, just center community experiences and also community recommendations… They [community members] know what they're talking about. They are from those areas and they are so intrinsically linked to the land that they know what recommendations should be enforced, whether or not they are state- or policy-recognized.”