“Carboniferous”: Climate and Social Justice in NYC

5_Carboniferous_SolnitNMNYThe “Carboniferous”: Climate and Social Justice in NYC event––held in November 2016 by the Institute for Public Knowledge and co-sponsored by the Urban Democracy Lab––was an impassioned discussion of climate change, urban housing, and social justice. The question of the night, posited by the speakers, was how climate justice is an issue of social justice, the two inseparable in their complexities.

Eddie Bautista, Executive Director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, began the talk with a definition of climate justice, which he contended to be the intersection of racial justice and climate vulnerability. Movements that try to reach social justice without involving discourse on race and class, he claims, “miss the point.” In academia and elsewhere, we often make a false equivalence of the notions of equity and justice; it is a misconception we see most starkly in climate change, for the impacts of global warming will not be evenly felt even if it affects everyone. Those in a position of privilege will by definition suffer less than those who have not had the same advantages. Therefore, it is imperative that we address systematic issues that give rise to economic and social injustices, of which race and class issues are essential.

Moreover, there is much talk of climate resiliency, Mr. Bautista claims, “the ability of communities to bounce back from severe weather events.” It is a term that he feels to be out of touch with reality, as there is no bouncing back from an inequitable system, and there is no bouncing back from a systematic lack of opportunity. Climate justice should be about “bouncing forward,” Mr Bautista believes, to challenge social constructions of race, class, and other systemic forms of injustice so prevalent today.

Cecil Scheib, the Chief Program Officer at the Urban Green Council, echoed much of Mr. Bautista’s viewpoints, but from the unique perspective of an energy engineer. He is particularly interested in looking at the effects of energy use in buildings on people, while he believes that a wide array of approaches to these issues we face is crucial as he half-jested: “Looking at intersectionality is not a skill of engineers.” Most interestingly, though, he believes that so-called trickle down economics, while ineffectual on a national-economic scale, works in the case of building engineering in the context of energy and climate preservation.

Lastly, Ms. Chung, the final speaker, reiterated that climate change, like many social justice issues, stands not as a singular issue, but is rather connected to systematic oppressions of society, their impacts different across social divides. The importance of energy conservation in housing, Ms. Chung asserts, is that they make up a significant portion of the problem that we can control locally for 71% of emissions today come from buildings. We have on our hands the opportunity to address climate justice in a steadfast and effective manner, but people-power is essential. Perhaps the takeaway from the night, then, is the import of optimism and collective action in the face of a web of social justice challenges that can only be effectively tackled with understanding, diversity, and empathy.