Organizing for Survival

· Earth Initiative, Essays · ,

by Wen Stephenson

The struggle for climate justice is a struggle at the crossroads of historic and present injustices and a looming disaster that will prove to be, if allowed to unfold unchecked, the mother of all injustices. Because the disaster that is unfolding now will not only compound the suffering of those already oppressed (indeed, is already compounding it); it may very well foreclose any hope of economic stability and social justice for current and future generations.

Why, then, does the term “climate justice” barely register in the American conversation about climate change? Lurking in that question is a tension at the heart of the climate struggle: a tension between the “mainstream” climate movement (dominated by largely white, well-funded, and Washington-focused green NGOs) and those—most often people of color—who have been fighting for social and environmental justice for decades.

Nobody has worked longer and harder at this intersection of climate and environmental justice than Robert D. Bullard, the celebrated sociologist and activist, author of eighteen books, who is often called the father of the environmental-justice movement. In 1994, he founded the Environmental Justice Resource Center, the first of its kind, at Clark Atlanta University, and since 2011 he’s been the dean of the Barbara Jordan–Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University (TSU) in Houston. It was Bullard who introduced me to Hilton Kelley, and I knew he could offer insight into the relationship between the environmental-justice and climate movements.

“Climate change looms as the global environmental-justice issue of the twenty- first century,” Bullard writes in 2012’s The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How the African American Communities, coauthored with his longtime collaborator Beverly Wright, founding director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University in New Orleans. “It poses special environmental justice challenges for communities that are already overburdened with air pollution, poverty, and environmentally related illnesses.” Climate change, as Bullard and Wright show, exacerbates existing inequities. “The most vulnerable populations will suffer the earliest and most damaging setbacks,” they write, “even though they have contributed the least to the problem of global warming.” As if to prove the point, their book project was delayed for more than two years by Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed the Deep South Center’s computer files and devastated Wright’s New Orleans East community. Her chapters documenting the unequal treatment of the city’s African Americans in the Katrina recovery are essential reading.

Bullard’s landmark 1990 book Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality established the empirical and theoretical basis—and, for that matter, the moral basis—of environmental justice. Through his early work, beginning in 1978, on the siting of urban landfills in Houston’s African American neighborhoods—as well as the siting around the country of toxic waste and incineration facilities, petrochemical plants and refineries, polluting power plants, and other industrial facilities—Bullard has systematically exposed the structural and at times blatant racism, which he names “environmental racism,” underlying the disproportionate burden of pollution on communities of color, especially African communities in the South. His work has done much to set the agenda of the environmental-justice movement.

In 2014, the movement was marking the twentieth anniversary of Executive Order 12898, signed by President Bill Clinton in February 1994, which explicitly established environmental justice in minority and low- income populations as a principle of fed- eral policy. That year also marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act—a fit- ting coincidence, as Bullard liked to point out, because the “EJ” executive order rein- forced the historic 1964 law. Nevertheless, as Bullard and his TSU colleagues wrote in a report titled Environmental Justice Milestones and Accomplishments: 1964 to 2014, “The EJ Executive Order after twenty years and three U.S. presidents has never been fully implemented.” That would qualify as an understatement.


I Sat Down With Bob Bullard that April in his office at TSU, where we had two lively and substantive conversations. I’d interviewed him once before, the previous August, and in the meantime he’d been much in demand. In September, he had received the Sierra Club’s John Muir Award, its highest honor (and the club went on to name its new environmental- justice award after Bullard); in March, he had delivered the opening keynote address at the National Association of Environmental Law Societies conference at Harvard Law School, assessing environmental justice after twenty years (former EPA chief Lisa Jackson was the other keynoter). When we sat down together in Houston, I’d seen him just a few days earlier in Cambridge, where he received two standing ovations from the jam-packed Harvard audience.

Bullard, who grew up in small-town Alabama, speaks with an orator’s cadences and a comedian’s timing. At sixty-seven, he had a fighter’s glint in his eye and an irresistibly mischievous grin above a Du Boisian goatee (he calls W. E. B. Du Bois his intellectual hero). In Houston, I asked him about the relationship between environmental justice, traditionally understood, and climate justice.

Bullard likes to start with a history lesson. In 1991, he helped convene the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, DC, where seventeen “Principles of Environmental Justice” were adopted. At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, those principles were circulated in several languages, but it wasn’t until 2000, in The Hague, that Bullard joined other leaders and groups from around the world for the first “climate justice summit,” which met in parallel with the sixth United Nations climate conference, or COP6.

“It was a very transformative time,” Bullard recalled. “When environmental-justice groups and groups working on climate, on human rights and social justice and civil rights, came together in The Hague in 2000, ‘climate justice’ was not a term that was universally used.” At that summit, he told me, “we said that climate justice has to be the centerpiece in dealing with climate change. If you look at the communities that are impacted first, worst, and longest—whether in Asia , Africa, and Latin America, or here in the US—when you talk about the majority of people around the world, climate jus- tice is not a footnote. It is the centerpiece.” Globally, he points out, climate justice “is not a minority view, it’s the majority view.”

Here in the United States, Bullard said, “equity and justice get a footnote.” In terms of framing the climate conversation, he said, it’s been a struggle to make sure that justice is given parity with the science. “That’s the rub,” Bullard told me. “And that’s why the climate movement has not been able to get traction like you’d think it would, given the facts that are there. The people on the ground who could actually form the face of climate change, be the poster child of global warming—they’re almost relegated to the fringes. And that is a mistake.” In the United States as well as globally, Bullard said, “we know the faces, we know what they look like. We know the frontline communities, the frontline nations. But to what extent do we have leadership that’s reflective of communities that are hardest hit? Very little has changed over the last twenty years when it comes to who’s out there.”

Isn’t climate justice really environmental justice writ large—on a global scale—yet with this added generational dimension?

This criticism of mainstream climate and environmental groups, and the foundations who fund them, has been leveled countless times—and it has stuck for a reason. Until very recently—witness the widely noted diversity of the massive September 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City, organized by a broad coalition that included environmental-justice and labor organizations—frontline communities, and especially communities of color, have been conspicuously underrepresented in the cli- mate movement.

And yet, I observed, even with such inherent tensions, climate justice ought to be the most unifying concept on the planet—if only for the simple reason that people everywhere tend to care about their children and grand- children. I had asked Bullard earlier about the idea of intergenerational justice—based on the fact that, along with those in the poorest and most vulnerable communities around the world, today’s young people and future generations will bear vastly disproportionate impacts of climate change. Isn’t climate justice really environmental justice writ large—on a global scale—yet with this added generational dimension?

“Exactly,” Bullard said. “And for me, that’s the glue and the organizing catalyst that can bring people together across racial and class lines.”

In that case, I wondered aloud, if the central purpose of the climate movement is to prevent runaway, civilization-destroying global warming—in other words, to create the necessary political and economic conditions for a last-ditch, all-out effort to keep enough fossil fuels in the ground—then isn’t that work already about racial, economic, social, and generational justice? Because the consequences, I said, if we don’t do everything possible to keep fossil fuels in the ground—

“Then we’re not going to have any justice,” Bullard interjected.

“In terms of the moral imperative,” he added, “looking at the severe impacts—the impact on food security, on cross-border conflicts, war, climate refugees—when you look at the human-rights piece, in terms of threats to humanity, if we drew it out and looked at it, I think more people would be appalled at these little baby steps that we’re taking. This is an emergency, and it calls for emergency action—not baby steps, but emergency action.”

Nevertheless, Bullard also explained why that all-consuming focus on greenhouse emissions is insufficient by itself—and is at the heart of the tension between environmental justice and the climate movement.

“You have to understand that in order to have a movement, people have to identify with—and own—the movement,” he said. “Just saying climate change is a big problem is not enough to get people to say, ‘We’re gonna work to try to keep coal and oil in the ground.’ There has to be something to trigger people to say, ‘This is my own movement.’’’

Bullard believes that the climate-justice framework can “bring more people to the table.” Take the example of coal plants, he said. “Moving away from coal, in terms of CO2 and greenhouse gases—the environmental-justice analysis is that it’s not just the greenhouse gases we’re talking about; in terms of health, it’s also these nasty copollutants that are doing damage right now. Not the future—right now.” So to bring those people to the table, he continued, “you have to say: How do you build a movement around that and reach people where they are?”


In 2013, Bullard and his colleagues at TSU and other historically black colleges and universities—including Beverly Wright at Dillard and the Deep South Center in New Orleans—launched an initiative they call the Climate Education Community University Partnership (CECUP). “We’re linking our schools with these vulnerable communities,” Bullard told me, “trying to get to a population that has historically been left out. We’re going to try to get our people involved.”

Photo by Stephen Melkisethian

Photo by Stephen Melkisethian

Bullard noted that these colleges and universities have always had a special mission— Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta), where Bullard began his graduate work in the sociology department created by W E. B. Du Bois, was founded by the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1865 to educate former slaves. Likewise today, he argues, “we should not run away from anything to do with justice and equity and opportunity.” When you look at the most vulnerable communities, the “adaptation hot spots,” he added, these are the same communities the schools were founded to serve, and often the very places in which they are located. “We’re not going to wait for somebody to ride in on a white horse and say, ‘We’re going to save these communities!’” Bullard said. “We have to take leadership.”

It’s multiple problems—poverty, food security, greenhouse emissions, all of these things happening at once. In the mind of a person living in a fence-line community, you have to address all of the problems.

The initiative invests in a new generation of young scholars and leaders who can work at the intersection of greenhouse emissions, climate adaptation, and the classic environmental-justice issues of pollution, health, and racial and class disparities. “Our folks on the ground can make the connections between these dirty diesel buses, that dirty coal plant, and their kids having to go to the emergency room because of an asthma attack, with no health insurance,” Bullard said. “We see it as human-rights issues, environmental issues, health issues, issues of differential power.”

As I listened to Bullard, it was clear that anyone like me—with my privileged, big- picture view of the climate catastrophe—would do well to try seeing the concept of climate justice from the ground up, at street level, and through a racial-equity lens. Sitting down with five of Bullard’s graduate students at TSU—and joined by two of his colleagues, sociologist and associate dean Glenn Johnson and environmental toxicologist Denae King—I was treated to a generous portion of that ground-up perspective.

For Steven Washington, a twenty-nine-year-old native of Houston’s Third Ward and a second-year master’s student in urban planning and public policy, “climate change means asthma; it means health disparities.” Working in Pleasantville, a fence-line community along the Port of Houston, he was concerned about the city’s notorious air quality, graded F by the American Lung Association, and what it means for a population—especially the elderly—ill-equipped to deal with impacts of climate change such as heat waves. For Jenise Young, a thirty-three- year-old doctoral student in urban planning and environmental policy whose nine-year- old son suffers from severe asthma, climate change is also about “food deserts” like the one surrounding the TSU campus—a social inequity that climate change, as it increases food insecurity, only deepens. (The wealthier University of Houston campus next door inhabits something of an oasis in that desert.) Jamila Gomez, twenty-six, a second- year master’s student in urban planning and environmental policy, pointed to transportation inequities—the fact that students can’t get to internships in the city, that the elderly can’t get to grocery stores and doctors’ offices, that the bus service takes too long and Third Ward bus stops lack shade on Houston’s sweltering summer days.

I asked the TSU grad students if they saw the growing US climate-justice movement— especially the many college students and young people who want to foreground these issues—as a hopeful sign.

“My major concern is that this is a lifelong commitment,” Young replied. “That’s my issue with a lot of the climate-justice movement—that it’s the hot topic right now. Prior to that, it was Occupy Wall Street. Prior to that, it was the Obama campaign. But what happens when this is not a fad for you any- more? Because this is not a fad.”

Glen Johnson, the coeditor of several books, including Environmental Health and Racial Equity in the United States (2011), chimed in: “It’s a life-and-death situation. There are others who come into the movement, they have a choice—they can go back to their respective communities. But for us, there’s no backing out of talking about the [Houston] ship channel. We are the front line; it’s 24/7. When we wake up, we smell that shit.”

“It’s not one problem,” said Denae King. “It’s multiple problems—poverty, food security, greenhouse emissions, all of these things happening at once. In the mind of a person living in a fence-line community, you have to address all of the problems.” Climate change is urgent, she added, “but still, I have to pay my bills today. I have to provide healthy food today.” All of which is undeniably true. And it is equally true that the overwhelming scientific evidence indicates that the window in which to take meaningful action on climate change is closing fast. Unless we— the United States and the world—act now, today, to begin radically reducing green-house emissions and building resilience, our children and future generations face impacts that will dwarf even today’s worst environ- mental and economic injustices.


What You Hear from climate-justice advocates working on the front lines—who under- stand this urgency perfectly well—is that precisely because of the emergency in which we find ourselves, the way to build the kind of powerful movement we need is to approach climate change as an intersectional issue.

After I left Houston that April, I spoke with Jacqueline Patterson, director of the Environmental and Climate Justice Program at the NAACP. One of the first things she did upon arriving in 2009, Patterson told me, was to write a memo looking at climate justice and the NAACP’s traditional agenda. “It went area by area—health, education, civic engagement, criminal justice, economic development—and showed how environmental and climate justice directly intersect in myriad ways.”

In the communities where she organizes, Patterson told me, “we see the links. The same facilities that are driving climate change are also causing immediate health and economic impacts in these very communities. So they have an added advantage to see coal be put out of business. They’re the ones who have children stay home from school because of an asthma attack—or they’re burying their children because of an asthma attack that wasn’t caught in time. People are having lung disease who never smoked a day in their lives. And we talk about all of that in an intertwined way.”

Patterson grew up on Chicago’s South Side and graduated from Boston University before earning degrees in public health and social work from Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland. She feels a spiritual pull to climate-justice organizing and is actively engaged with churches. But her entry point to the work was her interest in how women are disproportionately affected by climate and environmental dangers: the spikes in sexual and domestic violence against women during and after disasters; the economic effects of women being primary caregivers for the sick and injured; the differential impacts of toxic exposures on women, from breast cancer to complicated pregnancies and birth defects. In 2007, she cofounded Women of Color United, and in 2009 partnered with the NAACP on the Women of Color for Climate Justice Road Tour. “Globally, it’s very much a part of the conversation,” she told me. “But here there’s an absence of gendered analysis around climate change.”

At the NAACP, Patterson’s work rests on the understanding that if we’re going to address climate seriously, then we’re in for a rapid energy transition—one that’s by no means guaranteed to be smooth or economically and socially just. In December 2013, the NAACP initiative released its “Just Energy Policies” report, looking state by state at the measures that can help bring about a just transition to clean energy. “In talking about such a major shift in such a major part of our economy, we’re being very explicit that we’re not just talking about renewable portfolio standards and energy efficiency standards and net metering policies,” she said. “We’re say- ing that each state needs to have ‘local hire’ provisions, at the state and local levels, and provisions for disadvantaged business enterprises—minority and women-owned businesses. We have to be very intentional about an economic-justice transition along with the energy transition.”

The day before I talked with her, Patterson said, she stood next to NAACP leaders at a press conference in Milwaukee, “and we were talking about starting a training and job-placement program for formerly incarcerated youth and youth-at-risk around solar installation and energy-efficiency retrofitting.” An energy-efficiency bill was recently introduced in the Missouri Legislature, she noted. “Before, we might not have seen the NAACP getting behind that legislation, because the energy conversation wasn’t seen as part of our civil rights agenda. Now, we’re in with both feet.”

Wen Stephenson, an independent journalist and climate activist, is a contributing writer for The Nation. Formerly an editor at The Atlantic and The Boston Globe, he has also written about climate, culture, and politics for Slate, The New York Times, Grist, and The Boston Phoenix.

From What We’re Fighting For Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice. Copyright ©2015 by Beacon Press. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press.

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