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Environmental Justice

Cars in front of houses in residential neighborhood, with large refinery spewing emissions in near background
The neighborhood of Wilmington, California, which lies just north of the Port of Los Angeles, is home to hundreds of active oil drilling operations and the largest concentration of refineries in California. Over 85% of Wilmington residents are Latino, and 20% live below the poverty line. Source: Emmett Institute/CC BY-NC 2.0

In recent decades, human activity has produced global change challenges at paces and scales never experienced before in human history. The ways we think about and respond to these challenges are closely tied to social issues of equity and justice. Because the impacts of these global changes are not equitably distributed, but tend to disproportionately burden historically marginalized and vulnerable communities, there are environmental justice dimensions to all major global change challenges.

AGCI spoke with Rajul (Raj) Pandya, VP of Community Science at the American Geophysical Union (AGU), about the ways global change science and scientists can partner with impacted communities to help advance environmental justice and equity.

AGCI: How would you define environmental justice?

Raj Pandya

Raj Pandya: For me, the outcome or the aspiration of environmental justice is that everyone has the same opportunity to thrive. And not just humans, but also the natural systems that we are part of and we participate in. And that notion of participation is part of the process too: everyone has the right to participate in the decisions that affect them and the environment in which they live and work and play and breathe in and be.

AGCI: How is environmental justice a global change issue?

RP: There’s five big ways I think about it:

First, many of the communities most vulnerable to climate impacts are often those who have emitted the least amount of carbon, who have contributed the least to the problems. So there’s a real element of injustice in the way current impacts are landing on people.

A second element of that injustice is not only have they contributed the least amount of carbon – often they’ve benefited the least from clean energy. Clean energy allows you to do all kinds of wonderful things for and with your community, and it creates money. And many of the communities that are most vulnerable to climate change are vulnerable in part because they haven’t had access to resources to build resilience.

Third, there’s also access to power and decision making. Many of the most vulnerable communities are not part of the corridors of power and influence where climate-relevant decisions are made. That’s changing. I’m starting to see more of those communities as part of those conversations and exerting influence. That’s a good thing, but it isn’t changing fast enough.

Fourth, we are really all in this together, and figuring out how to live sustainably is a project that requires all of us to work together. We need to bring ideas and inputs and perspectives from all kinds of places. Many of the places that are experiencing climate change the fastest are also innovating the fastest and doing some really creative and wonderful things. So for the benefit of everyone, it’s important that these conversations be equitable, inclusive, and participatory.

And the last thing is I really believe injustice is unsustainable. What if we didn’t devote extra resources to keeping people down and could instead devote them to building the sustainable future we want to get to?

AGCI: How does your work relate to understanding and advancing environmental justice?

RP: I call my work community science, which is simply the idea that science and scientists can be allies with communities as they build good futures for themselves and others. From a justice perspective, it’s about offering science as a powerful tool that communities can use so they can participate in decision processes and be part of planning. But it’s also about recognizing that science is sort of incomplete. Science needs to be a part of ensuring good decisions about good futures, but those decisions rest on a bigger and a more inclusive, participatory process. And so it’s helping scientists learn to participate in those bigger and more inclusive, participatory processes.

A big part is simply doing the work. So, we sit down with community leaders through partners, and we ask them, What are you working on and what’s important to your community? What are you excited about? Then we try to have a conversation where we imagine how science could contribute to those goals. And once we’ve done that, we write together a description of what a project that uses science to advance the community goals would look like. Then we find a scientist who can be a volunteer partner in that project, and we work with the scientist to help them hone the skills that are going to be really important in that work – which may be different than the skills they’re usually asked to bring to their work. So we have workshops on how to be a good listener, on what cultural humility can look like. And then we do the projects and help them move along towards a good outcome. We don’t try to solve everything; we try to make progress on something. And we try to work with everybody on the project so they feel like they don’t need us anymore. So the scientist feels like they understand the skills and want to do this again. So that the community feels like it was really helpful that you introduced us to the scientists and helped us frame this, but we think we know how to do that ourselves now.

We’ve done all kinds of projects. Originally we would work with community leaders as a staff. Now we’re starting to train volunteers to do that community interfacing. And that’s been really powerful because now we have this cadre of people who are really into this work and advocating for change and the academic structures to allow this work. The other piece of our work is trying to work behind the scenes on the incentives and the structures that make this work easier or harder to do. So what if we have a new journal where you can publish community engaged work? Not because we think publishing is the be-all, end-all, but because we recognize that it’s a way for academics to be supported in doing this work. We work with funding agencies to say what if instead of funding scientists to work with communities, you funded communities and they got to pick the scientists they wanted to work with? That’s a bigger change. It’s going to take a while. We work where we can to say maybe tenure policies should change a little bit. We’ve developed educational courses for people who want to do community science. So those are all parts of our work.

I can’t believe I get to do this; it is the coolest thing. And the world’s changing. You know, 10 years ago, I would say this stuff and scientists would say, Man, I don’t know. Or, I feel the same way, but I would never say that. Now people are saying it and working on it.

AGCI: What would you say are the most important parts of your work, and why?

RP: There are three principles that really define for me what we mean by community science. The first is to start with community priorities. It’s never about science coming in and telling communities what they should do. It’s about asking communities about the futures they want to build, and then being an ally and accompaniment along the path towards that future. That word “priorities” is really important to me. A mayor once told me, I’m tired of rich cities having priorities and poor cities having needs. Sometimes in science, we imagine that if people just knew more, everything would be okay. That’s a real deficit model of thinking, and it’s demonstrably not true. Humans tend to select evidence that supports our viewpoint, not use it to change our viewpoint. But it’s also a deficit model because it fails to recognize the expertise and the knowledge and the wisdom that’s within communities already. So begin with community priorities.

It’s never about science coming in and telling communities what they should do. It’s about asking communities about the futures they want to build, and then being an ally and accompaniment along the path towards that future

–Raj Pandya

The second principle is to end with community impact. I think science has an opportunity to contribute to solving problems, to building solutions, to imagining creative, new, equitable, just, sustainable futures. But it has to intend to do that. It can’t just intend to understand and diagnose. It has to be involved in the messy work of application. And for too long, we’ve prioritized understanding over application. I’m not advocating for a move away from basic science. I’m advocating for an expansion that includes and welcomes basic science, but participates in it as part of a larger ecosystem of impact. All that’s a long way to say that a paper ain’t an outcome. [laughs] Let’s get stuff done!

And then finally, the third principle is science is a human right. Every community has the right to ask and answer their scientific questions and to contribute to and use scientific methods and processes. So part of our goal is to make sure that the community on the factory fenceline has as much access to scientific tools and information as the factory itself. That’s how you make equitable decisions. I think, foundationally, the most important piece of this work is being able to listen.

AGCI: Where do you see some of the biggest challenges in terms of moving environmental justice forward?

RP: This is the existential question, right? One of my aunts says people never willingly give up power voluntarily. And I think that’s a huge challenge in this. Part of what community science asks the scientific community to do is share decision making about what kind of science we do, and share investment. And on some scientists, that lands badly. They’re like, Wait, how do I know these people are smart enough to be part of the conversation? I used to do this all by myself, I didn’t have to check with anybody. So power. And I think the power stuff gets even more complicated because we’ve got an implicit set of metrics that are inherently quantifiable, that are inherently a little more economically driven. And those aren’t the complete set of things we need to think about when we think about sustainability and environmental justice. How do we quantify the value of the relationships that we build and make those part of our calculus?

Megan Bang, a professor of Learning Science at Northwestern University, is doing some really cool work around conceptions of nature and how we learn them. And she talks about the distinction between seeing humans as part of nature and seeing humans as apart from nature. Her hypothesis, which I think seems plausible, is that that has a pretty profound impact on the decisions we make about our interaction with each other and the planet. And so, moving from a Western human exceptionalism, that humans have dominion over the planet, toward something that recognizes our interrelationships with the planet and the responsibility that comes with that and doesn’t separate us from nature seems like a really profound challenge, but a really important one to embrace. It even shows up in how we think about things like conservation, right? Old school conservation was to build a fence around it and keep people out. And that’s just demonstrably bad, it doesn’t work. We’re starting to think a lot more creatively and holistically about conservation and what it means to live with and as part of a landscape rather than apart from it.

Not all of the choices we have to make are easy. For example, it seems like a good idea to move towards renewable energy, but that requires a lot of infrastructure to be built. And a lot of it to be built in places where there is infrastructure now. How do we make those choices? How do we evaluate those compromises? How do we make sure that we don’t follow previous patterns of putting things in places where people with less power lived and turning the Green Revolution into another perpetuation of environmental inequity? Which is why, for me, it always comes back to this idea of who’s in the room. I have a friend who says if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. So how do we make sure people are at the table? And then I have another friend who asks who got to build the table in the first place. These are hard things to grapple with, and we have to learn how to do it with respect and care for each other. I think sometimes we forget that part of it, too. So maybe one of the biggest challenges for environmental justice is being good to each other, especially in hard decision making.

AGCI: On the flip side of the challenges, where do you see some of the most exciting opportunities to advance environmental justice in coming decades?

RP: I get to support amazing people who are doing incredible things in their neighborhoods and their communities. We did a project with someone named Amy Stelly, who lives in New Orleans on Claiborne Avenue, which was a thriving, middle class African American community with thriving businesses, houses, lovely trees, and it became the site of the I-10 freeway overpass. And she’s been working to undo that decision. We helped her collect some data that shows that, not surprisingly, having a freeway in your neighborhood leads to noise pollution, air pollution, water pollution, and soil pollution. And, in some ways, I feel ambivalent about it, because residents knew this, but their knowledge was discounted. They needed a scientific study to show that it was true. Well, we were able to help her develop that scientifically credible information. She knew how to reach out to local media. She knew how to engage kids in helping collect that data. She turned it into a citizen science project. She invited media, politicians. And all of her work culminated in testimony before Congress on the Inflation Reduction Act, and it included money for highway removal in neighborhoods like hers. Now the money hasn’t been spent yet, but it’s a victory, right? And it’s cool that we can see these small victories.

Another thing that I’ve noticed is there’s all kinds of small organizations doing amazing, amazing work, and they’re starting to network with each other. They’re starting to share strategies. They’re starting to show up at UN meetings. They’re starting to be in the room. And, on the flip side, there’s an increased sensitivity and awareness that people have been left out, that these conversations are incomplete the way we’ve been having them. I hear people talk about Indigenous sovereignty in ways that I didn’t hear 10 years ago. I hear students talk about wanting to build inclusive space. Those things give me hope. The Environmental Defense Fund recently created something called the Frontline Resources Institute, where the advisory panel making decisions about how the grants will be awarded is entirely people living and working in frontline communities. What a courageous thing for a big environmental organization to say, that we don’t have the expertise to tell people in certain places how they should make these decisions, we’re going to defer to them and give them control over these resources. Even in federal agencies, I’m seeing an increased sensitivity to designing programs with, rather than for, the participants of those programs.

AGCI: Is there a geographical dimension you would add to your consideration of environmental justice as a global change issue?

RP: That’s a great question. Some of the gains I’m seeing in environmental justice are increasing consideration to the vulnerability of island nations, increasing recognition of the rate of change in Arctic regions and its impact on those communities. Heat is also an amazing environmental justice issue, though it’s becoming less and less geographically specific. I was at a conference the other day in Montana, on the Flathead Indian Reservation, and one of the participants was pointing out that cold doesn’t kill you. You can put on a coat, you can burn wood, you can do things to survive cold. But without access to power, heat will kill you. Without air conditioning, without energy, heat is dangerous. So I think that’s an aspect of it. These geographically disparate impacts of climate change are often exacerbated by political and economic decision making, so it isn’t pure geography, but it’s got a geographic component.

The UN estimates that there might be as many as 250 million climate migrants by 2050. That has a profound geographic impact, and we’re already seeing how challenging it is to have thoughtful conversations around migration, even without that big climate justice overlay. And in fact, there’s some evidence that a contributing factor to what happened at the southern US border a couple of years ago was drought in Central America. So we’re already seeing climate migration happening.

AGCI: The last question I want to ask is why should all people care about environmental justice as a global change issue?

RP: There’s a self-interest argument I could make that we should all care about inclusive environments because these are really hard things to figure out. This isn’t something that’s going to be accomplished by a few people. This is going to be accomplished by a lot of people working together, so we need to develop that skill. And those are both strong arguments, but they’re slightly utilitarian. I think they can land on people who have experienced injustice as you’re in the room because you have something to offer. Not you’re in the room because you have a right to be in the room.

And so the other argument I would make is people should care about advancing environmental justice because it’s the right thing to do. Because we have a moral responsibility to think not just about ourselves, but about who we share this planet with, and to think not just about our own benefit, but the benefit of everyone. And not only is it the right thing to do. It makes us better versions of ourselves when we do those things. We become better people when we start to care about environmental justice, we become more connected. There’s that phrase Abraham Lincoln used, “the angels of our better nature,” right? We become the best possible versions of ourselves when we incorporate this into who we are and what we do. And that’s a pretty cool reason to do it. Historically, injustice, extraction of resources, and exploitation of people have always gone together. And so it seems plausible to me that you’re not going to get to the opposite without tackling them all together. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a future that’s sustainable that isn’t just. So in some ways, we don’t have a choice. You can’t pick sustainability without picking justice.

Raj Pandya is the VP of Community Science at AGU. Raj’s work invites everyone to be part of guiding and doing science, especially people from historically marginalized communities, so that the sciences can contribute to a world where all people and nature can thrive, now and in the future. Raj was the founding director of AGU’s Thriving Earth Exchange, the program described in this article.

Raj chaired the National Academies committee on “Designing Citizen Science to Support Science Learning,” is a member of the Academies Standing Committee on Advancing Science Communication and their Resilient America Roundtable. A board member of Aspen Global Change Institute, he also serves on the boards of AGCI, Public Lab, the Anthropocene Alliance, Community and College Partners Program, and ISET International and was a member of the Independent Advisory Committee on Applied Climate Assessment. Raj also helped launch the Resilience Dialogues, a public-private partnership that uses facilitated online dialogues to advance community resilience. A founding board member of the Citizen Science Association, Raj also served as Education and Human Resource Commissioner for the American Meteorological Society.