Climate Change Battle Must Include Environmental Justice
Senator Ed Markey (Hon.’04) touts $60B in government funding at BU Center for Antiracist Research Symposium
Environmental justice must be central to our efforts to fight climate change, US Senator Ed Markey (Hon.’04) (D-Mass.) and Ibram Kendi told a BU Center for Antiracist Research symposium on Friday.
“You can’t be an antiracist, you can’t even understand what it means to be antiracist, if you are not also fighting against climate change,” Kendi, the center’s founding director, said at the Sustainability, Health Equity, and Antiracism in the 21st Century event. “They are interrelated.
“There has been a tremendous reception to the idea” that climate scientists and antiracists must be organizing “hand-in-hand,” he said.
People of color, indigenous people, the poor, and residents of the global south have long borne a disproportionate share of pollution, resource depletion, and environmental degradation, panelists told an audience of more than 150 at the George Sherman Union Metcalf Hall and nearly 450 watching remotely. Those communities have paid the economic and health costs of problems ranging from urban heat islands and toxic industrial neighborhoods to rainforest destruction and strip mining. They have been exploited for their natural resources and available labor while reaping few of the benefits. Now they are suffering disproportionately from climate change effects, such as flooding and drought. Addressing these disparities is essential to winning the larger battle.
“That’s what it’s about—are we going to save ourselves?” asked Kendi, BU’s Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and a College of Arts & Sciences history professor.
Markey arrived as the bearer of good news: some $60 billion of the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act is dedicated to clean energy, antipollution, and sustainability efforts targeted to marginalized communities. Moderator Katharine Lusk, BU Initiative on Cities codirector, called it “the greatest investment in environmental justice certainly in my lifetime.”
“It didn’t happen by accident or easily. It took a movement,” Markey said, crediting the momentum from the Green New Deal plan he developed with US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (CAS’11) (D-N.Y.).
Their plan included “justice for poor communities, for indigenous communities, for disadvantaged communities, for women,” Markey said, “for those who historically have been left out of any frame of thinking about climate.”
The Inflation Reduction Act will fund tax credits for clean energy and electric cars, new projects to expand sustainable energy sources and remove carbon from the atmosphere, and much more.
It also includes money to fund the aims of the Environmental Justice Mapping Bill previously introduced by Markey and US Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) for data collection on disproportionate environmental and climate harms. Their goal is to collect and use that data so at least 40 percent of investments for a clean and climate-safe future go to communities harmed by environmental injustice.
Lusk: “We have learned that the quality of air a person breathes, the water they drink, the soil they plant in, the temperature they experience throughout the day, and the environmental risks and extremes to which they are exposed—that in America these are associated with race, ethnicity, and income.”
Markey and others said the $60 billion is only the start and that achieving climate justice will require a committed, wide-ranging, and fundamental effort. But at the symposium, there was a sense of opportunity after many years of frustration.
“This is a transformational moment—if we make it become that,” said symposium speaker Mustafa Santiago Ali, executive vice president of the National Wildlife Federation.
Panels on “Moving from Denialism to Climate Justice and Antiracism” and “Collaborative Approaches for Sustainability and Health Equity” highlighted the need for new and systemic solutions. The event was sponsored by Boston-based pharmaceutical company Vertex.
The increasing activism of young people gave hope to some panelists. “They’re on fire about this issue of climate change, and specifically, climate justice,” said Tamarra James-Todd (SPH’02), a Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health associate professor.
The panel “Indigenous Communities, Authentic Academic-Community Partnerships, and Environmental Justice” focused on the specific case of Native American communities, which have historically been victimized by land loss, forced assimilation, and outright genocide, as well as more recent problems like high rates of asthma and lead poisoning.
“Indigenous communities have been on the front lines of the environmental crisis,” said Rosalyn LaPier, a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign professor of history and an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana and Métis.
Indigenous peoples need a seat at the table in discussions of climate response and a leadership role in addressing those problems in their communities, panelists said. The Inflation Reduction Act includes allocations for programs in those communities.
The symposium was chaired by Monica Wang, chair of narrative at the BU Center for Antiracist Research and an associate professor of community health sciences at the School of Public Health. Panelists agreed that the people affected by environmental injustice must be part of the solution, because their lived experience and on-the-ground expertise will make them invaluable to solutions. Outsiders need to listen to them.
“Is my job as a scholar, as a scientist, to fix or to be of service?” Kendi asked. “When I enter into the community, am I there to learn or to teach?”