Environmental Justice and Climate Justice, with Dr. Sacoby Wilson and Dr. Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò
This episode of Warm Regards focuses on the intersections, but also the disconnects, between environmental justice and climate justice movements. First, Jacquelyn and Ramesh talk with Dr. Sacoby Wilson about his work with communities throughout the United States who are facing the consequences of environmental racism, and his beliefs that scientists’ publications are not enough to enact meaningful change for communities struggling with environmental injustice. We then shift to a more global frame, speaking with Dr. Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò on climate colonialism, and how climate change is inextricably linked with the histories of colonialism, and how we can avoid continuing that legacy in a warming future.
Environmental justice factsheet from the University of Michigan.
World Resources Institute report on the largest emitters
Why climate change is an environmental justice issue
The United States is the richest country in the world, with the largest wealth gap
How the response to Hurricane Katrina caused gentrification in New Orleans:
We still don’t know how many people died in Hurricane Katrina
Don’t repeat the mistakes of the Katrina recovery
For more about how communities of color are marginalized in terms of solar power access.
Dr. Sacoby Wilson
To read more about Dr. Sacoby Wilson’s work, visit his University of Maryland website.
Dr. Wilson directs the Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health Lab. The Lab can also be found on Medium and Twitter.
Publications mentioned during the conversation:
Fumes Across the Fenceline
You can read the story that Yessenia Funes talked about in her data story on Earther
Some selected publications by Dr. Táíwò:
The Great Climate Migration, an article by ProPublica and the New York Times, recommended by Dr. Táíwò
Please consider becoming a patron on Patreon to help us pay our producer, Justin Schell, our transcriber, Joe Stormer, and our social media coordinator, Katherine Peinhardt, who are all working as volunteers. Your support helps us not only to stay sustainable, but also to grow.
Jacquelyn Gill: “We’re all in this together.” If you follow the climate conversation, you’ve probably heard this phrase at least once. These five words carry a lot of weight: they speak to an essential truth about the climate crisis: that its impacts are global, and they transgress geopolitical boundaries. But there’s another truth, too — one that can be erased by those words. We didn’t all contribute to climate change equally. There’s a clear front-runner here — and you’ve probably already guessed who it is: The United States of America. According to the World Resources institute, we contributed over a quarter of all the carbon dioxide that was emitted between 1850 and 2011, and no other country came even close. While China has recently surpassed the US in terms of annual emissions (we’re currently down to about 15% of the total each year) we can definitively say that the US has played a disproportionate role in warming the planet over the last century.
We’re also the richest country in the world, and the one with the largest economy. Which means compared to countries in the Global South, we simply have more resources to deal with the impacts of climate change — like heat waves, food shortages, coastal erosion, or damaging storms. And that means that the country that’s contributed the most to climate change is not going to bear the brunt of its impacts.
But get this: we also have the largest wealth gap in the world, and most of that wealth is held by white people — 86% of it, to be exact. So, once again, even within the US, those who are contributing the least to climate change will feel a disproportionate amount of its impacts.
Think about what that means for just a moment. We built the largest economy in the world (with the jumbo-sized carbon footprint that goes along with it) and it’s an economy that’s fundamentally based on extraction — of coal, oil, and gas, and of trees, metals, and water — yes — also of human beings. We’re a country founded on stolen land, built by stolen people, and that history has left indelible imprints on the present.
And that’s why I’m talking about racism in a season devoted to climate data. Consider these facts:
- Air pollution is concentrated in communities of color, where factories and power plants are more likely to be located.
- A 2019 study found that Black and Hispanic communities are exposed to far more air pollution than they produce, and white Americans experience better air quality than the national average (even though we produce the majority of pollution).
- Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples are three times more likely to die from asthma and other respiratory illnesses linked to air pollution.
- Neighborhoods of color are more likely to have more pavement, and fewer trees, which contributes to higher than average temperatures — which in turn puts them at higher risk of illness and death linked to heat waves.
And to top it all off, people living in those communities are twice as likely to be uninsured as white people, which means that not only are they getting sicker, they don’t have access to the healthcare they need.
Here’s another example: Around 80% of people of color in the US live in coastal regions, especially in the South where we also see the greatest risk of sea level rise in the country. Take New Orleans, which is 62% Black and two feet below sea level. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, almost a third of its Black residents didn’t own a car — which meant they couldn’t evacuate. We’ll never know exactly how many people died in the storm, and the deaths seem to have largely fallen along demographic lines when it comes to race. But in the aftermath of the storm, rebuilt neighborhoods become gentrified, pushing people out of their homes or even out of the city entirely. While white neighborhoods have largely rebuilt over the last fifteen years, there’s been a net decline in New Orleans’ Black population.
These examples illustrate a phenomenon known as “environmental racism,” a term coined in 1982 by Benjamin Chavis. He defined the term as “racial discrimination in environmental policy making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the ecology movements.” I was two years old when he wrote that, and almost forty years later very little has changed.
When climate activists talk about how communities of color bear the disproportionate impact of climate change, sometimes people get annoyed. “Why are you trying to divide us, when climate change unites us? Why bring up social justice at all? Just stick to the science!” I tell them to look at the data. We know that climate change disproportionately impacts communities of color for the same reasons we know about what’s happening to coral reefs, ice caps, and forest fires: research. Environmental justice scholars research the differential impacts of climate change and pollution on marginalized communities; this is a well-respected field of scholarship.
But understanding the impacts of living near an oil refinery or a concrete plant requires a different approach than monitoring butterfly populations or measuring sea level from satellites. It’s one that puts people front and center and recognizes them as authorities — experts about their own lived experiences. It also means challenging the ways that science itself has been an extractive process, where white experts parachute into marginalized communities and convert pain into products -publications that never get into the hands of policymakers. So the cycle continues and white scientists prosper, and it’s no surprise that so many of the solutions we propose to climate change run the risk of repeating the same mistakes that got us here in the first place. Have you ever looked up where the lithium and cobalt needed for electric vehicle batteries comes from? And how do we make sure that Black and Brown neighborhoods have the same access to green energy development that white neighborhoods do?
Welcome to Warm Regards. I’m Jacquelyn Gill.
Ramesh Laungani: And I’m Ramesh Laungani. For this episode, we’re exploring how an understanding of environmental justice can help us to avoid repeating the harms of centuries of environmental exploitation as we grapple not only with the impacts of climate change, but also the potential impacts of proposed solutions to this global challenge — from the Green New Deal to carbon capture. We’ll talk about how environmental justice research explores the differential impacts of climate change and pollution on marginalized communities and how, if we want to do something about that, we’re going to need a new approach to science that’s collaborative and community-driven. Then we talk about how we can avoid the legacies of colonialism by placing environmental justice at the center of climate policies as we implement climate solutions.
Jacquelyn: Our first guest is Dr. Sacoby Wilson, an Associate Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park School of Public Health, where he directs the Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health (CEEJH) laboratory. He also serves on the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) of the EPA, and is a member of the National Academy of Science’s Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology. As an environmental health scientist, Dr. Wilson partners with community-based organizations to study and address environmental justice and health issues, and to translate research to action.
Dr. Wilson, often when people talk about environmental research, they’re thinking about things like monitoring the impacts of pollution on streams or climate change impacts on frog populations or sea ice. But your work takes a different focus: not only in terms of your focus on marginalized human communities, but your entire approach to science. Could you tell us a little bit about that and why the focus on environmental justice is so important?
Sacoby: Yeah, thank you for that question and thank you for having me. I think it’s really important to understand how science can be used for good and for evil [laughs]. And, and honestly, I believe when you look at science as a tool, science is not a science is not an a means to an end. When you look at issues of environmental health, environmental justice, environmental racism, and climate justice, we really have to think about science in terms more often than we do. As a researcher, a lot of work that I do is really engagement in application science and so if you’re going to solve problems of environmental justice, you can solve problems of climate injustice. You really have to engage front line defense community members in that science. You have to uplift community and cultural knowledge systems. You have to really leverage it (make sure this work is community driven) because those individuals live on the frontline defense line are the contextual experts. In many ways that are true subject matter experts. In Bayesian terms, those individuals have what we call specificative knowledge. Our experts have general knowledge. They’re not living in a community, a frontline defense line community, a community that might have multiple power plants, a community with multiple fracking sites, or community with multiple refineries, a community that’s dealing with pipelines. The folks who live there understand exposure patterns — upwind, downwind patterns. They know when at certain times the day, certain times of night that there’s a plume of gas coming from a facility. They know a certain odor, what that odor means for a child with asthma. That’s contextual knowledge, that’s specifitory knowledge. And so in the work that I do, I uplift that. I really focus on doing science that’s empowering. I mean, I talk about liberation science and empowerment science. I talk about science that needs to be done particularly in the context of environmental issues, whether it be environmental racism or climate change, science that focuses instead on those who are most vulnerable — socially vulnerable, economically vulnerable, geographically vulnerable.
Jacquelyn: Thinking about those who are most vulnerable: you mention environmental racism, which forms the foundation of much of your work. For those who might not be familiar with this field, can you tell us about the connections between racism and the environment here in the US?
Sacoby: Our history of racism in this country and the environmental racism is one form of the institutional racism that has been a plague of the US since its founding. You can’t have America without racism — white supremacy — because we have had white supremacists since the founding of the country. So if you can go fight against racism (you think about environmental racism), how communities are targeted for these Locally Unwanted Land Uses, right? What we call LULUs, from incinerators, to power plants, to landfills, refineries, pipelines. A lot of times the folks who are disproportionately burdened, they’re disproportionately burdened cuz the color of their skin. You wouldn’t see the number of incinerators that we currently see in companies of color in white communities. You wouldn’t see the number of power plants we see in communities of color in white communities. Look at the work of the NAACP. They had two reports: “Fumes Across The Fence Line”, and another report called “Cold-Blooded”m really about how the fossil fuel industry (oil and gas extraction, whether it be traditional or fracking), how that industry disproportionately impacts communities of color. You look at “Toxic Waste and Race [at Twenty]: 1987–2007”, reports that were commissioned by United Church of Christ, icons of the movement like Charles Lee and Bernice Miller-Travis found that race was the most significant predictor of the location of hazardous waste sites. Racism drives where we place these facilities. Think about how we permit facilities. We permit facilities to pollute, right? We permit facilities to admit poison into the air, water and soil? In my opinion, that’s state-sanctioned poisoning of communities, and that’s a state-sanctioned form of violence against communities of color.
So you already have violence against communities of color when it comes to police brutality. You already have violence against communities of color when you see people like George Floyd or Breonna Taylor murdered, you see trans folks of color getting murdered. You see young people of color being accosted just because of color skin; the dehumanization of individuals; the dehumanization of children of color when it comes to punishment in schools. You see young kids who’ve been arrested, right? Five- or six-year-old kids have been arrested. Their hands are too small for the handcuffs; the handcuffs fall off. You see this trauma and this violence on Black skin — the over sentencing when it comes to certain offenses. You can connect that type of violence to the violence of environmental racism, the trauma of environmental racism in these communities. So how can science (and this is deep, y’all), how can science impact that?
Well, science can first not contribute to more violence, not contribute to more trauma. As you know, the history of this country (when it comes to science), we’ve actually done a lot of violence to Black communities, too — racial and biological exploitation of Black bodies. You look at the father of gynecology; he worked on enslaved women, right? You look at the sterilization of Black women and other women of color. You go on and on, whether it be Tuskegee (as everyone talks about), Henrietta Lax with the HeLa cells, and look at how folks of color — Black folks — have been exploited by science. And unfortunately, a lot of science today is extractive. There’s helicopter science, colonial science, and there’s a lot of science I call “pain pimpin’ science.” We’re studying what’s wrong with folks instead of what’s right with folks. We’re doing [audio cuts out] . . . We’re doing science that only focuses on the negative and doesn’t focus on the positive we see in communities. What’s important in the science I do is that it is about liberation; it is about empowerment; that it’s science that’s for social justice. I do science for the people. That’s science that focuses on social change.
Ramesh: I really like the way that you approach the science that you do — from an empowerment perspective rather than an extractive perspective. To that end, what kinds of data are you collecting and working with? And how does that data translate into action and policy changes?
Sacoby: I do a lot of work on air quality. One of the big issues when you think of environmental justice around racism and air quality is the fact that you have a lot of these pollution-emitting facilities in communities of color, both mobile and stationary sources. So think about the National Highway Defense Act, urban renewal; a lot of highways and byways with both through Black and Brown communities. So what does that lead to? That leads to a lot of mobile pollution in those communities. So when you burn fossil fuels, what do you get? You get particulate matter, you get polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, right? You’re gonna get NO2, SO2; you’re gonna nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide — you know acid rain, smog, right? And then of course, VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and VOC?] with sunlight, PM, NO2. What do they produce? They produces ozone — ground-level ozone. That’s the mobile-source pollution. Then you think about stationary-source pollution. You have incinerators, you have power plants. And let me go back; I don’t want to forget that industrial truck traffic. They’re burning diesel. Diesel has forty different cancer-causing contaminants and short term exposure to diesel exhaust can mess with your concentration, your coordination, your focus. Think about children riding schoolbuses or kids walking by schools, or school buses idling that burned diesel. But the issue is there’s not enough monitors to monitor these pollution levels in this communities overburdened by mobile and industrial sources of air pollution. What happens is you may have a monitor that’s giving you a background reading, but then there’s a new facility that’s going to be permitted right by your house. The monitor is twenty miles away from your house; they use that data in the permitting process. That’s actually bad science and in environmental health it is called exposure misclassification. It could be 10 micrograms per m2, twenty miles away. You don’t know what the levels are at the neighborhood level, so we lack granularity in monitoring. What I’m doing is actually helping communities build hyper-local air quality monitoring networks so you can actually get spatially resolved, granular data at the neighborhood level that can be used to inform policy.
We’ve done some air quality monitoring work in Charleston, South Carolina (specifically North Charleston with the Low Country Alliance for Model Communities. That data has been useful in that community shutting down the Charleston County Incinerator, also been used in zoning changes. We’re doing monitoring work in Uniontown, Alabama. This is a community that’s near Selma, Alabama, that’s dealing with issues of not having publicly-regulated sewer and water infrastructure. They have a catfish factory. They have a lot of diesel truck traffic. They actually have a landfill that takes in I think, waste from like thirty-five states, and that landfill also takes a special waste (I think four million tons of coal ash in there), and so we’re trying to get the type of data into the hands of community members. So we’re using low-cost sensors that can be be used to measure PM10, PM 2.5, and PM1. You can get the data through an app and visualize the data. That type of low cost sensor data can be useful for education. Now it cannot be used for permitting and compliance, but what it can be used for is to say, “Hey, permit agency, we need you to come in and do more monitoring because we think we see a signal here.” I’ve done work providing testimony around a concrete block plant that wanted to expand to be a concrete batching plant in Bladensburg, Maryland. We did some monitoring and the incident point is there was an African-American church that was forty feet away from this concrete facility (it was there before the facility) and when we measured particulate matter levels there using some low cost sensors, it was higher than the EPA annual standard and much higher than the EPA daily standard. The pastor said it was so bad from the dust from the concrete facility that he couldn’t do church during the week. And on Sundays, they had to use the shovel to shovel the accumulated dust away from the front door. That’s environmental racism.
Jacquelyn: We often talk about how the impacts of climate change are not shared equally across communities, and you’ve done a lot of really important work that shows that these impacts aren’t just the result of burning fossil fuels; they really go all the way back to extraction and processing. In other words, it’s not just that we burn fossil fuels and they warm the planet or produce pollution, but it’s also where the pipelines and processing plants and coal-fired power stations are located, and it’s very deliberate. What have you found about these kinds of impacts on communities of color?
Sacoby: Communities of color and low-wealth communities are impacted across the whole continu whether it be extraction, or . . . I have a colleague, Jill Johnston, who’s done some work to look at oil and gas wells and disproportionate impact on Latinx populations in California. You look at some of the work that’s been done looking at fracking in Texas and other states, you’ve seen the disproportionate impact on folks of color and also low wealth populations. You get to the pipelines, you see a disproportionate impact; the studies show disproportionate impacts on communities of color and low wealth populations. You get to refineries, the same impacts. You look at the refinery work that’s been done in Richmond, California (for example) or the work has been done in the Gulf coast (particularly the Houston ship channel). We did a study that really looked at the location of Clean Air Act-permitted facilities and other pollution-emitting facilities, toxin-releasing facilities in Houston pre-Hurricane Harvey and we found a disproportionate burden of those facilities on low-wealth populations or communities of color. So when you think about the science that I’m doing, part of that science is really understanding vulnerability.
One of the things that I was a part of a few years ago, I was part of a team that was looking at the public health impacts of fracking in Maryland. We visited West Virginia to do some work looking at how hydraulic fracturing was impacting folks in West Virginia. We use a mixed-methods design. We did a lot of community engagement outreach. We did focus groups with folks in western Maryland where we have the Marcellus shale deposit, and then we went to West Virginia to do some interviews of folks. Then we also did some noise monitoring near compressor stations. So we’re able to kind of pull that information together, look at that for like the hazards associated with fracking. You have air pollution is a hazard associated with fracking. Potential earthquakes hazard’s associated with fracking. Also, water quantity and quality issues. We also looked into sort of social impacts, traffic issues, impacts on healthcare infrastructure. We basically ranked those different kinds of impacts (high risk, medium and low) and we basically used that to inform our recommendations to the state agencies about whether or not we should have fracking in Maryland. I think that report that we did . . . not just a hazard ranking and hazard scoring, but also the work we did to engage folks in Western Maryland with Marcellus shale and individuals already impacted by fracking in West Virginia. Typically though those were impacted by compressor stations, which are very noisy and also have a lot of volatile organic compound emissions. So you think about benzene and what benzene can do to human health. And so I think that report played a role in the governor at the time banning fracking. Unfortunately we’ve banned fracking, but we didn’t ban fracked gas. So we still have an issue with pipelines in the state of Maryland, and so that’s ongoing.
Ramesh: Are there other effects of climate change that may be more pronounced in communities of color than in other communities?
Sacoby: You got heat island issues. Why do we have heat islands? Well, you can look back at the history of redlining in this country. Why is that important to this question? Well, the places that were colored green had access to more municipal services. Places that are colored green didn’t have the concentration of impervious surfaces to absorb the heat. So you think about a heat island, you have too many impervious surfaces. You have no trees, no tree canopy, in many these communities. And then also a lot of these older communities don’t have air conditioning. So heat waves, as I like to say, are hell for the poor and the elderly and those who live there in redline neighborhoods. And then also too many impervious surfaces when it comes to heat waves and heat islands, it’s also important for stormwater. So you got communities that are dealing with heat islands and at the same time, because of climate change, you’re gonna have more episodic rain and more episodic flooding, too many impervious surfaces, no green infrastructure, nowhere for that water to go. So you have that impact. But we have to engage those communities who are dealing with those issues. We have to engage with communities who are dealing with more frequent and more dangerous hurricanes. Why is there a relevant discussion around environmental justice? Well, you know, last year was the fifteenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. We knew that a lot of low income folks of color lived in the areas lower elevation that flooded easily. We also know that New Orleans was highly-segregated community where a lot of the folks of color — Black folks — are in poverty. And then we didn’t learn the lessons from hurricane Katrina. We saw Hurricane Harvey. Remember the people who were into that toxic soup in the Hurricane Katrina? Folks were escaping through a toxic soup in Hurricane Harvey. Why is that important for Houston? Houston doesn’t have any zoning. You basically have all these impervious surfaces in Houston, so you got the heat Island issue. You also have the flooding issue in Houston, and remember you have the Houston Ship Channel, which is the largest petrochemical corridor in the world. So that’s an EJ [environmental justice] issue by itself.
Ramesh: It seems to be that these impacts are fundamentally the result of long-standing historical inequities, right?
Sacoby: You look at the history of our country. After folks who were enslaved, Africans were freed. Where they settled, after slavery lived in communities that were in flood plains and flood zones. So you fast forward to today, because of climate change you have a higher number of black folks who are at risk from hurricane impacts because of those settlement patterns and because of the racism associated with settlement, where they were forced to live in areas at the time that were deemed less viable or less wanted by white citizenry at the time. So you look at today at Hurricane Florence again, that hurricane dumped eleven trillion gallons of rain a few years ago. The reason why it’s important, you have a lot of industrial hog farms that have been raised in an eastern hydrohysiologic plain; it’s the coastal plain of North Carolina. People, after Katrina and Harvey, were escaping through a toxic soup of chemicals, right? And maybe some human sewage. In North Carolina, they were escaping through a toxic soup of animal waste and human waste, and also coal ash. This is why it’s important for us to take into account the historical issues (historical racism and contemporary environmental racism), and what we do when it comes to climate change policy, we have to focus on equity and justice. You have folks because of hurricanes, because of heat islands, because of flooding, they’re dealing with climate gentrification; hey’re pushed out of their communities during the event and the post event, and they’re not able to come back. That’s a big environmental justice issue in itself, when people can not come back home. A lot of folks after Katrina couldn’t come back home. So we have to again think about those are most vulnerable — whether it be flooding, whether it be a heat island, whether it be hurricane, whether it be forest fire, whether it be drought. We have to think about them during that event (so preparedness and response) and we’ve gotta think about them during recovery and rebuild ,and with true resilience. Some of these communities were never — we talked about resiliency, right? They weren’t resilient before the event. So what are we going to get them back to? We don’t want to get them back to where they were. Because of racism and segregation these communities haven’t been able to reach their full potential. We’ve been using them as dumping grounds; we’ve been using them as sacrifice zones.
We’re going to focus on climate justice. We have to invest in these communities. That’s, again, another equity component. When you think about recovery after a hurricane, we have to get folks back to three times or five times of where they were because, again, they’ve been dealing with the cumulative impact of racism and segregation in many cases over multiple decades. So if we gonna address climate justice, we have to address this issues of — I mean, we had to bring in a human rights frame. You have the right to clean air. We should all have the right to clean water. We all have the right to energy that’s affordable. We should all have the right to safe housing that’s affordable. We should all have the right to safe food that’s affordable. If we’re going to do that and make those communities resilient, it has to be investing in just sustainability.
Jacquelyn: I’m actually a geographer by training, so I’m really fascinated by the place-based nature of your research. You’ve worked at the scale of individual dumpsites or factories, and you’ve talked a lot about this need for granular data, and also partnering with the people who are the real experts because this is their lived experience. But often, those individual perspectives get lost in a cloud of datapoints. But on the other hand, that broader perspective picks up general trends that can affect federal policy at the national level. So it makes me wonder: What’s the right scale for us to research these impacts? Should we be doing this hyper-granular work at the neighborhood scale, or do we need to zoom out to see the big picture? Or do we need a new approach to this kind of science entirely?
Sacoby: In a lot of my work, I do what we call community-based participatory research. So if you think about there’s a community engagement continuum. So as you move from left to right y’all can like visualize audience, visualize outreach to kind of consultation, to involvement, to participatory research / community driven research, right? So as left the right communication increases, trust increases, and engagement and involvement in the community increases, then the impact should increase too. So outreach is really one-directional; you just kind of giving people information. It’s not really participatory. You’re not really engaging community. Think about involvement. You may have a community for those of you to do, you know, scientists out there have a community advisory board where you get the kind of feedback loop, the community advisory board. You may have a neighborhood representative, maybe say you have five people who represent five neighborhoods. They get asked questions of you about the study, you answer those questions, they take those answers back to their community; they have more questions, we get data. So it was like that feedback loop between you, the individual representatives and those communities that they represent. Then you have community-based participatory research with communities engaged in all stages of research process: development of research methods, the research design, data collection, in some cases data analysis depending on how the study is designed, and dissemination data. Translation to action is not enough to collect the data. “Community riven” is community drives the research. It’s of the community, for the community, by the community. They may not have their own capacity to do their own research. The work in North Carolina with West End Revitalization Association, they develop a framework called community owned and managed research, COMAR. And that, to me, is a model of community and research.
Jacquelyn: You’ve also written about and worked with citizen science, too, right? How does that fit in here?
Sacoby: Citizen science is a little bit different. So y’all know citizen science from birdwatching. You may have people collecting data just for the fun of it, right, but in CBPR (community-based participatory research) or COMAR community owned and managed research, you’re doing research to address a social ill, to address a public health issue, to address an environmental justice issue. Whereas some citizen science, it just may be just to want to answer a research question. A lot of times, citizen science traditionally may be top down where an academic, a laboratory, a government agency, or a nonprofit group put out a question and it’s like crowd science. We want y’all to answer this question for us. And so you use the power of the crowd to help answer that question.
One type of a citizen science that’s useful when you think about data collection is mass contributory citizen science. What you can do is, you can have a bunch of folks who wear air quality sensors, right, or who have a sensor at their house across the country. Say you have clusters, for example in Atlanta, Georgia, or in New York, LA. You can get place-based data and you look at exposure patterns, spatial-temporal gradient in that city. But then since it’s mass contributory, you can also look at patterns across the country. So in epidemiology studies, the really important thing when you think about air quality (particularly environment epi studies) is having more monitors. The more sensors that you have, the more data that you have, the more power that you have. You can definitely move from a mass contributory (like a local citizen science perspective) to a mass contributory system science perspective. A lot of my work, what we’re trying to do is we want to have these place-based projects where we’re engaging communities and see what’s happening locally, but then also through the power of the crowd, be able to look at exposure patterns (spatial-temporal gradient) nationally, and then feed that into national policy. I’m on the national environmental justice advisory council, and NEJAC provides advice on EJ issues (environmental justice issues) to the office of environmental justice in the EPA. This type of study could be really beneficial to informing what the office of environmental justice does. This type of study could be very beneficial to things, particularly if you’re doing citizen science and collecting data near a mobile source of pollution for DOT, trying to change traffic patterns. And really, really what’s important about this type of mass contributory citizen science is the fact that you can use it to say, “Hey, we need to electrify our fleet vehicles, man, our buses, our trash trucks.” We can really use this type of network of sensors to say, “We need to move away from fossil fuels to renewables.”
Ramesh: I really appreciate what you are saying. We have a lot of scientists that listen to our show and I know that, for them, they want to do better in pushing back against the historical inequities that exist in science and that have resulted in mistrust of science in marginalized communities. So the question to me is: how do we as a scientific community rebuild trust within those communities?
Sacoby: I think scientists, we made it easy for folks to be anti-science. I like to say that we’re using science right now. We watch science, we turn science, we drive science, we wear science, we eat science, we breathe science, we wear science. Some of that’s not good science, right? I mean, science is everywhere. We have to help people connect with science better, like with climate change. There’s a lot of doom and gloom when it comes to the end of the world with climate change, and that doom and gloom doesn’t work in the communities I work in.
They’re already dealing with doom and gloom. They’re already dealing with survival mode in many cases when it comes to the pollution, the hazards that they’re experiencing. So you have to use science in a way to (like I said) empower, for to inspire folks. And I think what’s important about the erosion of the trust (like you said, and I’ve said), there’s been a lot of racial and biological exploitation of BIPOC folks over the years. How do we undo that? I mean, that’s baggage that science has. We have to undo that baggage. In part, as a scientist we have to do several things. We have to build trust with communities that have these issues. We have to do more science that’s focused on action.
Ernest Boyer. Boyer’s five dimensions of science: the science of science of discovery, the science of teaching, the science of integration (that’s multidisciplinarity) the science of engagement, and the science of application. Boyer talks about the all five elements of science. I tell my students or colleagues, “If you’re not doing all five dimensions, you’re doing science science.” And I cannot just do discovery science because to me working in a community that has multiple power plants or methane crackers or has multiple highways and are being exposed to tons of criteria pollutants and hazardous air pollutants like (as I said before), volatile organic compounds or criteria pollutants like particulate matter; folks are already suffering from these — being poisoned, basically.
As a scientist (I like to say this), I’m not curious about anything I work on when it comes to environmental justice. Because it’s macabre. “I’m curious about being poisoned,” basically, that is inhumane. Unethical. So when we do science that only observes an issue or science that extracts from people’s experiences and doesn’t give back, that’s (in my opinion) bad science. To me, partly because of the incentive structure that we have in academia (for example, publish or perish), a lot of folks focus on discovery science because the culture of academia really focusing on discovery, focuses on inquiry. Supposed, that’s the most objective of former science. And unfortunately, I think that puts scientists who want to maybe do more of this community-engaged research (like community-based participatory research position) where I have to choose my career over my heart in some cases. But me, I don’t have a choice in the type of science that I do because I came from a community that had a sewage treatment plant, they had a landfill, that had a major highway. My dad was a pipe fitter so my dad actually worked at a lot of these pollution instances like coal fire power plants. So my live experiences have really driven me to be the scientist that I am — a scientist who does applied action-oriented research.
Jacquelyn: I have to say, a lot of this sounds very different from what we’re trained to do as scientists!
Sacoby: There’s no objective science. “Oh, what do you mean by that?” Well, if you grew up near a butterfly farm and you researched butterflies; there’s nothing wrong with that. But something informed your lens, some experience that you had drove you to that research. There’s nothing wrong with that; that’s a positive bias. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s also what we talk about rigor. You want to do rigorous science; I try to do the most rigorous science I can. But also this doesn’t need to push back on both objective and rigor at the same time. So who says a science’s rigor? Who makes the decision on what’s rigorous and what’s not. Part of the issue also is about power and control. Unfortunately when you have science that I do, it’s been deemed or described as being not objective and not rigorous. I scoff at the objectivity and I scoff at the rigor because to me, if you’re doing science where you’re studying a particular problem and you’re not really engaging the folks that impacted by the problem, how do you know you have the right questions and you have the right methods, you have the right tools? So for me, when you do community-engaged research *particularly in this area of environmental health), it is highly rigorous research because you’re actually getting the questions informed by the lived experience by those who are the frontline fenceline folks. Remember what I said before: they are the subject matter experts. There are folks who like to hide behind objectivity and rigor. If you’re doing science at all, well, “Sacoby, my job is to publish.” No, you choose to publish only. “Well, Sacoby, it’s not my job to communicate the science beyond publications.” Let’s be real out there, fellow scientists. I’m the Editor-in-Chief of Environmental Justice. I have about 80 publications. So I’m not saying you shouldn’t publish, but let’s be honest. Publications are about you, about putting change in your pockets, about your career. Y’all can push back on me; you can send me questions. Publications are not about solving social problems. Is a policy maker going to read your publication? 99% of the time I will say no to answer that question for y’all. Why is that? You have to have your elevator speech when you share your science results with policymakers. When you only publish, that is not really doing comprehensive scientific communication. If you want to do comprehensive science communication, you should be doing briefs, white papers. You should be doing infographics. You should be creating maps, right? You should be in newspapers, on radio and on TV, Facebook. You should be doing Instagram. You should be doing tweets and you should be TikToking. How is your science getting to the people? How is your science getting to the policymakers?
In my lab, we engage policymakers directly. We actually have a weekly work group where we have policy makers and we’ve been working on bills. So our science has been integrated directly into bills that have been submitted in the state of Maryland Assembly this year. Right now in my statements, I am pushing scientists to do more. Publishing is really about us. It’s an insular act, for an insular crowd. If you really want to make change on these social issues I’m talking about, you have to take your science, be able to communicate the science to those policy makers directly through a white paper, through a brief, executive summary, through a press release, through some type of visual. In today’s society, you have to better use social media. We can not continue to say, “Well, it’s someone else’s job to take what I publish and do something with it. You’re doing incomplete science. Think about when talk about environmental science, if you’re able to share that scientific information to the community members, they can also take it and use it. But see, I put it in the form that it’s useful to them. Same way with policymakers. You gotta do your fifteen second and your thirty second elevator speech. You know, you cannot just have, again, your ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five page publication and think that’s good enough. Not for the communities I’ve worked in. Maybe you’re just doing discovery science that’s good enough. But if you really want to solve the problem, that’s not good enough.
Justin Schell: Hey everyone, producer Justin Schell. This week’s data story comes from journalist and writer Yessenia Funes. She talks about a story she wrote last year that looked at the high rates of COVID-19 deaths in an area known as Cancer Alley — a stretch of communities between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that has both an extraordinary number of refineries and chemical plants, and whose residents have extraordinarily high cancer rates.
Yessenia Funes: i there, my name is Yessenia Funes. I’m the climate editor with Atmos; it’s a climate and culture magazine. Back when I was a senior reporter at Earther, I wrote about a study finding high rates of death among Black residents in parts of Cancer Alley. When I wrote the story, I was pretty intentional about ensuring that the story wasn’t just one full of data and statistics. I wanted to be sure that it showed the humans, the faces, the individuals and communities behind this devastation that COVID-19 was having on the community. So I connected with Myrtle Felton; she’s a 66 year old resident over in St. James parish. Her community is one that faces high levels of air pollution. When I spoke to her about this new research and the finding of the pandemic’s impact there, she expressed a lot of fear. She expressed how much she’s being careful to protect herself and her loved ones from this highly contagious virus.
These types of stories are important because oftentimes research and new scientific findings . . . it’s not always easy for readers to automatically know what that means, what that looks like. It’s important to remind them that there are real life people being impacted by this and that their experiences go beyond just a number or a piece of research. And so in my reporting, I aim to do that. This study that I covered for Earther and the story that I wrote is a little attempt at making sure that we’re providing human experiences and human stories to the science that we’re sharing with our readers.
Schell: If you’d like to share your data story with us, you can leave us a voicemail by calling 586–930–5286, or record yourself and email it to us at OurWarmRegards@gmail.com.
Ramesh: Both my mother and father were born in India. They were born in the early 1940s while India was still a British colony. In fact, my father and his family were part of a migration event where millions of Hindus from what is now Pakistan moved south to India, and Muslims who lived in India migrated north to the newly formed state of Pakistan in 1947. Although both of my parents experienced India’s independence early in their lives, in many ways they grew up under colonial social norms; one of which was primary school that was taught in English rather than Hindi.
To be honest, whenever I learned about the expanse of the British empire in school, I always felt weird. The black-and-white pictures in the history books felt both foreign and familiar, simultaneously frozen in time and alive because of my family in India who had experienced that colonial history. But I also learned about people like Gandhi who helped liberate India from British rule. While India’s story of liberation shaped my own view of colonialism as a feature of a bygone era, I also came to understand that colonialism left many lingering ghosts, both large and small. In fact, I still see these ghosts of colonialism when I visit my family in India today. Whether that ghost takes the form of a crowded Mumbai train car as part of the extensive rail system that criss-crosses India built in the colonial era with Indian labor; to skin-care products like Fair & Lovely that uphold whiteness and light colored skin in high esteem; to simple things like afternoon tea and biscuits, and the way that my family members say the word “shhedule” instead of “schedule.”
While the daily tradition of afternoon tea & biscuits may seem like an entirely benign, Casper-like ghost of colonialism, it is (at its core) deeply rooted in the exploitative nature that is central to all colonialism. And while vast colonial empires like the British no longer exist, the globe is still characterized by an unequal distribution of power and economic clout; and this disproportionate power distribution has the potential to drive a new type of colonialism — a colonialism that is just as exploitative as what once existed under the British empire. This modern day form of colonialism could be driven by the conditions of a warming planet, where rich & powerful nations (who have driven so much of the climate change that we see today) functionally subjugate other countries through resource extraction in an attempt to fix climate change. This type of colonialism has been more aptly described by our second guest today as “climate colonialism.”
Dr. Olefemi Taiwo, a Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, has written extensively about the potential colonial dynamics that could arise from trying to fix climate change — but also about how (if done right) those same solutions to address the climate crisis could be an opportunity to advance justice and equity on both a global and local scale. In fact, it was the mix of hope and realism in his writing that made such an impact on me when I came across a piece he wrote recently in The Conversation. This piece, “How the Green New Deal could exploit developing countries”, was not a dire prediction that colonial dynamics are guaranteed to emerge from fighting climate change, but it was (like many aspects of climate change) framed as a choice that we as humans must make to determine what type of future we want to see on this planet that we all share.
Jacquelyn: Dr. Taiwo, In your piece in The Conversation you wrote that “Green New Deal policies could empower communities on both sides of US borders and could expand the powers of poor nations to determine their own destinies, or they could promote climate colonialism”. What did you mean by that? And for those unfamiliar, what is climate colonialism?
Olufemi Taiwo: So the first thing that I would say is that climate colonialism is really just a straightforward application of what colonialism is, if you understand colonialism in a particular way. I think what people typically imagine when they think of colonialism is: a guy gets off a boat carrying a flag and plants in the soil and says, ”This belongs to the queen now.” I think that’s kind of the background story that I know I have; I would take it that a lot of people have. And it’s not like . . . that’s not wrong. That’s certainly one way that colonialism has worked and could continue to work. But I think that kind of story (that kind of drama) is maybe misleading if we’re trying to think politically speaking, “What is colonialism?” So the way I think about colonialism is well summed-up by an anti-colonial activist, fighter, and thinker, Amilcar Cabral. He fought against Portuguese imperialism in West Africa in Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau. He said that the core aspect of imperialist domination was foreign control of the means of production and culture, which turned out to be linked. Without jargon, what he’s saying is the person who controls, or the country who controls, or the corporation who controls whether you have the basic kind of security that you can’t live without (food, energy, water, shelter), that person controls more of your life and robs you of self-determination — the ability to decide how you’re going to live. If you can’t decide how you’re going to survive, you can’t have the same kind of autonomous choice over everything else. So all climate colonialism is just recognition of the fact that as climate crisis deepens (as there are more and stronger natural disasters, as resources get harder to come by for some people), that’s going to shift the kinds of relationships of power and domination that decide whether or not people (and the governments that represent them) are able to make meaningful decisions about how they’re going to live.
Jacquelyn: I think that’s a really powerful framework because it reminds us that colonialism isn’t just something that happened in the past; it’s an ongoing process that’s still playing out today. You’ve written about how climate colonialism may take different forms than what people might think of when they hear “colonialism”. Can you talk more about that?
Olufemi: So I think a good way to think about the concerns is through thinking about this other related concept. This is something that people like Kwame Nkrumah (who is the political leader in Ghana and also an anti-colonial fighter), he used the term neo-colonialism — which other people have used. The basic idea was, “Let’s get away from thinking about the ‘planting of flag’ definition of colonialism.” If people if empires leave and say, “You get to have your own government now but, by the way, nationals from our countries retain the companies that own your raw materials,” for example, your natural resources, “we can assassinate anyone who’s pushing a line that we don’t like about the course of your development.” If we control multinational supernational institutions (like the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank) that decide the course of how your government meets their needs, you might have kind of the external trappings of independence. You might have your own flag, and not the queen’s flag. You might have your own government, but there might be some important political sense in which there’s something rather colonial that’s still going on. And I think once we think of that, it helps us understand both what climate colonialism is it helps us understand how specific pieces of legislation might make that position worse or better. So the Green New Deal might set ambitious net zero targets (which in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing), but it might set places like the EU and the United States on a course for acquiring land in the Global South, and then directing land use and land management practices in other parts of the world. That’s one concrete illustration of how things could go worse.
Ramesh: You brought up the Green New Deal and its potential pitfalls and opportunities. What do you think the Green New Deal gets right, and what do you think is the best way to turn those good ideas into realities?
Olufemi: The basic thing that the Green New Deal gets right . . . and right now I think it’s much better to think of it as an idea than a particular set of policy commitments, just because we’re not really there politically. So the particular thing that the Green New Deal gets right is that it links the set of things that we need to do with a comprehensive kind of transformative economic program. Part of the problem I think is a kind of piecemeal approach to climate politics. We’re going to pass a tax credit here, clean air regulation there, and hopefully at the end of ten years of disparate legislation. We’ll get something that amounts to change of our currently fossil fuel-based economy on a scale that is going to be atmospherically relevant, that is going to address the US’s very sizable contribution to global emissions. We may end up backed into a corner where that’s all we can do (and certainly I guess that’s preferable to doing nothing), but I think what’s actually called for is something on the scale New Deal — in fact, something beyond the scale of what the New Deal was (which was an effort to pretty fundamentally renegotiate the relationship of the federal government to the economic security of people and also to the commercial world). That’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about moving from our current economy to something that will emit less and that would, in the ideal case, be justice-promoting — as opposed to this racial capitalist system that doesn’t do such a good job at a lot of aspects of justice.
Ramesh: In thinking about the disproportionate impacts of climate change, is there really any way for future energy production and climate change solutions (even if they ultimately reduce carbon emissions, like direct air capture) to not be colonial because those solutions require resources to be built and implemented somewhere?
Olufemi: I definitely think that’s a clear way that things could go. So you take something like direct air capture. The technology pulls carbon out of ambient air. Sure, fine. That’s a technical description of what it does. So the question about whether or not it helps colonialism then becomes a political question about what we use that technical capacity to do. It seems very likely that you could roll out direct air capture in the following way: we encourage direct air capture by something like a tax credit kind of system that thus ties direct air capture to the continued production of revenue and profit by polluting industries (that would include the fossil fuel companies that would include airplanes and aerospace, et cetera, et cetera). And so politically, the point of direct air capture (on that way of rolling it out) would be to keep those things going in the way that they are. The organizing feature of how we do both direct air capture and fossil fuel extraction would continue to be profit (rather than fueling necessary things in the world), and that would go in the way that it has over the past decades — which is in a way that exploits lots of parts of the world including Louisiana and including indigenous communities in Canada, but also strongly targets the Global South — places like Nigeria and Angola. That is certainly one version of a politics that involves direct air capture. It’s the version that the oil companies are betting on, and it’s the version that they’re likely to win unless they meet strong, organized political opposition.
Ramesh: So you highlighted the idea that these new green, climate-friendly technologies might perpetuate and provide cover to these exploitative processes. Is there a better way to think about those technologies when we consider implementation?
Olufemi: I think there’s a much better way to think about those technologies, and it begins with starting out at the technical note. What is it that direct air capture in and of itself does? Well, it’s a negative emissions technology. So like afforestation, for example, like other kinds of approaches, it’s a way to make the amount of pollution in the air lower tomorrow than it is today. That’s obviously something we should want. Not only is it something we should want, but the story about colonialism tells us I think the most powerful story about why we should want it. It’s literally undoing some of the damage that has been done. If we thought about a rollout of carbon removal (whether natural or technological like direct air capture) where the countries that have emitted the most were committing the most research dollars to develop the technologies to the point where they could actually remove significant amounts of carbon at scale (which is something that is cost prohibitive in the present tense, but that research might help along in the medium term and long term, and we should certainly try to find out), if you had the EU and the United States building direct air capture facilities, participating at scale in afforestation, participating in regenerative agriculture (especially in ways that didn’t make the Global South deal disproportionately with the land use problems that arise from those kinds of questions), I think what you’re looking at is a very literal description of what climate reparations would look like. Now, winning that politics involves beating the fossil fuel companies; that’s not the version that they want. For any of that to matter, emissions would have to be dramatically lower than they are now, which means the fossil fuel companies would have to lose serious battles (would have to be legally enjoined to do some of this work rather than given tax credits and goodies for pretending to do it); and the latter is overwhelmingly the strategy that they’re adopting in the present tense. They’re promising to maybe think about doing carbon capture, and on the strength of that promise trying to get investors to keep giving them money and trying to get regulators not to make demands of them; and that’s what we have to challenge directly.
Jacquelyn: One of the proposed mechanisms for kind of leveling the playing field between countries is the Green Climate Fund. Can you talk us through what the fund was designed to do? And how well is it working in practice?
Olufemi: So the basic idea of the Green Climate Fund was it was supposed to be a resource transfer fund. On the one hand developing countries need to develop and so they need to build things; they need to have more robust economies. The idea was (or the problem, rather, was) that many of the going ways of doing that of meeting rising energy demand are dirty, from an emissions perspective. I take it the thought was, “Well, if we want these low income, low middle income countries to shell out for more expensive ways of developing (that are cleaner) then the rich countries should help them along.” So a fund was established to help do this. There are obviously a lot of problems; I’ll select two of them. One problem is just the size of the current monetary commitments, which is just too low. There haven’t been enough dollars dedicated to the process. Dr. Mariama Williams at the South Centre says that the target of how much money developed nations were supposed to kick in was itself too low, and the amount of money that’s actually been kicked into the program is an order of magnitude smaller than even the target; it’s pennies on pennies, relative to the amount of money that should be going towards this kind of project. And if that’s not enough, the form in which the money has come has also been less than reassuring: things like loan financing, things that are private sector intensive rather than, say, cash grants (just more unconditional transfers of money and/or other resources). I think you put these problems together and you get a pretty unimpressive picture of what’s going on with the Green Climate Fund. But nevertheless these are the kinds of transfers that we’re gonna have to make at scale if we’re going to meet the problem of climate justice in anything like a just way.
Jacquelyn: You’re writing a book about climate reparations. For those who might not be familiar, what do reparations have to do with climate change? What should that process look like?
Olufemi: The way that I think about reparations is relating to the story that we’ve been kind of talking around as far as colonialism. In one sense, colonialism (the domination of one group by another group), that’s not new in human history; that’s something that’s happened in a lot of parts of the world for thousands upon thousands of years. What is new in human history is climate change, and what is also new in human history is global politics. So actually before 1492, there were just different parts of the world; there actually wasn’t a globally-sized political system. What built the globally-sized political system was the conquest of more-or-less the entire world by European empires starting with Christopher Columbus (if we want to start there). Along the way, there was a transformation in how the world produced (affected by the British empire, which was at the time one of the strongest empires in the world), and that’s what we call capitalism.
Capitalism was related to fuel when it started. Part of the reason that the British Empire was able to do this was because of the coal reserves that they had. Eventually, the primary energy source became oil rather than coal, but there’s always been this connection between the production system and the kind of going energy system. And all these things that we’re talking about have the same history.
When I’m talking about reparations for transatlantic slavery and colonialism, I’m talking in very literal terms about the moral crimes that built the world (the bad things that happened historically that created the global system that we have); and when I’m talking about climate justice (when I’m talking about climate change), I’m also talking about something that is going to literally reshape the world. Part of the reason why the connection is so unobvious is because people think the connection should be conceptual or something like that. There’s something about what race means, should, like, mean climate or something. And that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is literally we’re in a situation that exists because of slavery and colonialism. Our situation tomorrow (our situation the next part of the century) is going to be shaped by climate change and our response to climate change. So if we want to make a better world system to respond to the bad things in the past that shaped this one, we’re going to have to contend with the thing that’s explaining what tomorrow’s world is going to look like. That’s just facts about what built the world. It’s not symbolism about what a spiritual reckoning with the past is. It’s a very sober analysis of what in fact built this global system up until now and what’s going to rebuild it over the next century.
Ramesh: So in talking about the nuances of the Green Climate Fund, you got me thinking about some of your work on how the 2008 financial crisis drove large land acquisition, and how that ripple effect intersected with climate change. Can you talk about how those things intersected with each other?
Olufemi: Yeah, that’s a really important point; I’m glad you brought it up. As you said, the global financial crisis of 2007–2008 had these major consequences. There were major financial institutions that were on the brink of collapse and the world’s monetary system it seemed was on the ropes. One of the things that happened was a large influx of capital into the Global South. You saw the effects of this in South Asia; we saw the effects of this in Latin America; but I don’t think we saw the effects anywhere as hard as the African continent. Something like a land mass the size of Zimbabwe (which represents a quarter of the available arable land on the African continent) was acquired in this period of world history. What this means is that the land use implications of a lot of decisions that we have to make at the climate policy-level are going to powerfully shape things like (I mentioned before) food security for the most vulnerable people who have contributed the least to global emissions. For just one example: in the carbon removal space, there’s a lot of people thinking about different approaches to carbon removal. Sometimes the distinction people make is natural solutions (like afforestation) with technological solutions (like direct air capture). But politically speaking, a better split might be something like land-use intensive strategies versus non-land-use intensive strategies. So land-use intensive strategies (there was a study in Nature recently) like afforestation (which is a so-called “natural” form of carbon removal) and BECCS (bioenergy carbon capture and storage), which is on the technological end. Those take up a lot of land; they have a large footprint in that sense. If those were rolled out, it was estimated that food prices in Africa might spike five times over. Those are genocidal conditions, essentially. There are people who won’t eat. There’s already famine at the current price levels affecting people in the tens of millions on the continent as things stand; magnify food prices by five, you see how much worse it is. Those are the things that aren’t currently a part of the conversation about natural-versus-technological carbon removal (much less than the much broader conversation about climate policy) that really need to be if we’re going to get the justice part right.
Jacquelyn: Another way that these transnational climate change policies are playing out is through climate-driven migrations (which are already underway), and even driven in part by land grabs and displacement. Thinking about how nations are responding to these migrations, in what ways are border policies another manifestation of climate colonialism?
Olufemi: Thanks a lot for that question; I think it’s something we really need to think about, especially those of us who are on Team Justice (for lack of a better term), because one of the things that is most chilling and concerning to me in the current political environment is that I think the the global Right has an answer to the fact that climate crisis does not respect borders — and it is border militarization. They’ve been able to effectively launder that position (which I think is an eco-apartheid position that is anticipating further cross-border migration as the century wages on), which is why which is part of why entities like the department of Homeland Security are pouring so much money and personnel into border policing. It’s not in response to current levels of immigration. I believe it is institutional scaffolding for eco-apartheid in the coming years and the remainder of the century. It’s important, as you said, that we recognize that this aspect of eco-apartheid is present tense politics. There are climate refugees in the concentration camps on the United States’ southern border as we speak, right? Migratory flows from Guatemala have already been linked to climate-related environmental concerns. But I think the scale at which we can expect that kind of displacement (especially if we continue to fail to get our act together with climate crisis) is just going to increase over the next few decades. ProPublica and the New York Times put out an explainer on this called “The Great Climate Migration”, which I highly suggest everyone checks out. That’s the politics that the people who are against migration (and who don’t seem to care about these people) are promoting, and I think we also need to get in front of this issue. We need a much liberalized migration policy. We need better climate policy so that people don’t find their homes unlivable in the first place. We need a return to resettlement policy rather than warehousing, which seems to be the order of the day in places like the US and Australia and elsewhere. All that’s going to take political effort and all of that’s going to take political will, and all that’s going to take responding to timelines and timescales that are longer than four years or two years — as our kind of (in the US at least) electoral landscape trains us to do
Jacquelyn: A common refrain in the climate movement is, “We’re all in this together.” Given what we know about how marginalized communities will bear the brunt of the impacts of climate change, do you think that that’s a fair or useful framework? Does it unite us as a global community, or does it erase the differences in who contributes most to the problem, versus who feels the impacts the most?
Olufemi: I think that “We’re all in this together” is the right attitude, but I think a lot of people are treating “We’re all in this together” as the starting point of the conversation (using it as a way to exclude certain kinds of ways of thinking about climate politics and priorities about climate politics), when the better way to think about it, in my opinion, is as the kind of aspirational end of the conversation we’re having about climate politics. Everyone’s got something at stake, but we don’t have the same things at stake. So if we want a climate solution that’s going to work for everyone (that’s going to be accountable to everyone) we have to have not just the fact that we’re all in danger at stake, but the very important political differences in the kinds of danger that we face and in our levels of accountability and responsibility for the problem in the first place. So, “We’re all in this together” is where we would need to get to, and we would get there by supporting approaches to politics and slates of policy that respond appropriately to those differences.
Ramesh: When I read your piece in The Conversation, one of the things that really impacted me was that policies like the Green New Deal are in fact compatible with a just climate future. I got a sense of hope from that framing, that an unjust future was not already baked in. So do you have hope that we can in fact build these policies right?
Olufemi: I do, and that hope is not a trust in any particular political figure or political party. It’s not even my estimation that the political conditions are politically favorable for the kind of politics that I want. I don’t think they are. I think the fossil fuel companies are on the ropes in a lot of ways, but they still have entrenched power structures and lobbying structures, and those are going to be hard to come up against. Global North countries and former colonizer countries are still putting their national security interests first and that’s not where we want things to be politically. If we want justice solutions, the political winds are against us. But one of the things I often think about and remind myself of is how quickly things can change. I have this weird fascination with maps, particularly colonial maps. I just look at what the divisions used to be in Africa. Before the Second World War, the British empire controlled a quarter of the land area on the Earth’s surface and a quarter of its population. And in my father’s lifetime . . . my dad was born a colonial subject of the British empire and then during his childhood there was independence, and there is a much different map of the African continent. All of that is to say that even the most powerful parts of this global system that we have now from the point of view of history (and from the point of view of time) are more flimsy than they appear to us. So it’s not for us to think we’re going to win every battle in our lifetime; no generation gets to do that. But it’s for us to think we can do enough so that the people that come after us are starting from a better position than we were. As pessimistic as I ever get about the current state of colonial justice, I don’t have to look at an African map that is organized by whether the French, Portuguese, or British Empire owns that particular part of the land. That’s not the whole ball game, but it’s not nothing either. We should try to look at our children, our grandchildren, our students, their students, their students’ students. We should try to look at the next generation and think, “What are we going to say to them? What can we give them that we didn’t have? The answer is never nothing.”
Ramesh: Warm Regards is produced by Justin Schell. Jo Stormer creates our transcripts, and Katherine Peinhardt is our social media maven. Music for this episode comes from Blue Dot Sessions.
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