When justice and the environment intersect

Climate change and social justice may not be topics many Americans consider strongly linked. But to Jacqueline Patterson the linkages are clear. Patterson will be keynote speaker Saturday morning, June 9, at a Thursday through Saturday conference at the UNC Charlotte Center City campus. Patterson is director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program and has worked for years on issues including women’s rights, HIV and AIDS, racial justice, and economic justice as well as environmental and climate justice.

Her appearance is part of a sustainability summit co-sponsored by the UNC Charlotte-based Integrated Network for Social Sustainability (INSS) and the Charlotte nonprofit group Sustain Charlotte. INSS is a research coordination network funded by the National Science Foundation. The conference includes:

  • 7 p.m. Thursday dinner, discussion and films (Climate Stories NC).
  • 8:30 a.m. Friday breakfast and discussion, “Understanding the Role of integrated Sustainability in Security and Prosperity,” with Poonam Arora, associate professor at Manhattan College.

After Patterson’s presentation at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, workshops throughout the day will examine issues such as greenways and parks, water quality, air quality, affordable housing and transportation. The event is free but registration is required.

See the full agenda and register here.

Patterson spoke by phone with the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute from Iceland, where she was leading a group of youth from Louisiana, Mississippi and Hawaii looking at issues related to sea level rise, including melting glaciers. Her remarks, edited:

Many people tend to think of the environment and social justice as separate issues. Can you describe how you see them linked?

I see multiple reasons they’re linked. One is that some of the same drivers, in terms of wealth-building and power-building, that have caused the oppression of certain populations, communities and demographic groups have also driven the exploitation, extraction, domination and oppression of the Earth. These effects are felt by our natural resources as well as people of color, low-income communities, women. There are common denominators in the economic and political underpinnings of the abuse.

So dealing with the root causes not only protects the Earth, but it’s also protecting and empowering the rights of traditionally marginalized groups. In our exploitation-extraction and abuse of the Earth – and the way the Earth reacts with sea level rise, disasters, shifts in agricultural yield – the impacts on humanity are felt most harshly by the most politically, economically and socially vulnerable.

For a specific example, look at the levee fortification post-Hurricane Katrina. We have disasters born of the burning of fossil fuels and the ways we have treated the Earth irreverently, which have caused the greenhouse gas emissions that have driven climate change. Then we have a hurricane like Katrina come through. It disproportionately affected low-income communities, communities of color, older residents, those most vulnerable due to low mobility and so forth.

A cost-benefit analysis is always costing the people who are most vulnerable, and benefiting the people who are most financially well-endowed. — Jacqueline Patterson

When the levees are being fortified, decisions about which levees get fortified first, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, are based on points given to each levee and which levees have the most points. The points are allocated based on which ones would have the most economic impact if they failed. So you have institutionalization of a formula that means people with the least property value, the poorest, will get the least protection from the levee system.

It’s not that people have decided they don’t care about poor people. It’s just that our political machinery pushes toward a cost-benefit analysis. A cost-benefit analysis is always costing the people who are most vulnerable, and benefiting the people who are most financially well-endowed. They’re the ones influencing how decisions are made in our political system. All of this is inextricably linked, the systematic acquisition and maintenance of power and wealth by a few, and the marginalization and oppression of certain groups.

In your career you’ve worked on many issues – women’s rights, HIV/AIDS, racial justice, food rights and so on. How did those issues lead you to the environmental and climate justice platform?

Work on gender justice led me directly to working on climate justice issues. I was working on gender justice issues in in sub-Saharan Africa, and in the Caribbean. Around the world there’s a lot more understanding and acknowledgement of the intersection between climate change and gender justice. One of the most disturbing examples was in sub-Saharan Africa, where folks are having to walk twice as far to get water because water supplies were drying up due to climate change and drought. I was doing a focus group around gender justice with some women in South Africa, who wanted access to female-controlled condoms. As we went further into the conversation they said they would like for the young girls, when they were walking to get water, to be able to wear the female-controlled condoms every time they went – because that was the level of likelihood they would be assaulted. It was staggeringly sobering to hear that.

Another person who lives here in the U.S. – her sister was sexually assaulted when she was leaving her country. The agriculture had dried up where she was and she was no longer able to farm. That was how she was feeding her family. She was crossing the border to get to another country so she could make a livelihood for her family. In that border crossing she was sexually assaulted. You see climate-driven migration, from economic insecurity and growing food insecurity. We know border crossings are insecure in a lot of places, and women are more likely to experience sexual violence.

In any disaster – not specifically climate-driven events – we are seeing an uptick in violence against women.

As I was working on health justice issues, I started looking at this intersection of climate and gender. I noticed there was more of a conversation internationally than in the U.S. That’s why I started to get involved with doing climate change work domestically as well.

Do you have any examples from the Carolinas that show the intersection of climate and justice?

A good example from North Carolina is that coal burning has, over time, been the biggest contributor to the carbon dioxide emissions that drive the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change. After the 2014 coal ash spill happened, I visited multiple communities that were host to coal ash and coal ash pollution. Those communities were disproportionately low-income and disproportionately communities of color.

I spoke with person after person, group after group, about how they experienced those impacts. One person in one community was doing her own brand of health surveillance – she had fallen ill and had been diagnosed with some challenges that she and others in her community attributed to toxic coal ash. Some toxicologists and others have tied some of the same conditions those folks were experiencing with the toxins in coal ash – airborne and otherwise. She talked about how she went door to door documenting various health conditions people had. Over time, as she would go door to door, she added notation marks to her notebook when people were sick, and added “D” for people who were deceased. I was showing a picture of her at a presentation I was doing at a North Carolina environmental justice conference. It was some months after I met her. People kind of gasped. I found out she herself had passed away just weeks before.

The environmental movement in the U.S. has sometimes been criticized for being mostly made up of comparatively affluent white people. Do you think that criticism is valid?

I think a lot of front-line community of color groups are doing a significant amount of work and activism around climate justice. Often it’s not those communities that get noticed or get the visibility around the work that they’re doing. That leads to this impression.

Also, some of the traditional environmentalism is focused on conservation in a way that doesn’t necessarily also recognize that humans are part of the ecosystem. It maybe doesn’t have that nuanced comprehensive lens around us being part of the environment. So we might see some separation between what’s happening in the environmental justice movement and what’s happening in some of the environmentalism that may at times not encompass the human rights frame and action.