Grassroots Environmental and Climate Justice at COP21

Grassroots Environmental and Climate Justice at COP21

It’s impossible to talk about global climate change without running into issues of inequality, in fact the two seem to be inescapably entangled. The concept of environmental justice emerged, in the United States, in the 60s and 70s when the disparate distribution of pollution, especially toxic waste, among already marginalized social groups drew national attention. In the 60s and 70s, the predominantly white, middle-class environmental movement tended to exclude those who were most impacted by pollution-induced asthma, toxic cancers and poisoned water supplies – namely black and brown people and people of low socioeconomic status. Civil rights and environmental movements acted in separate spheres, as if the two never overlapped. Several reports, federal actions and high profile cases later, the environmental justice movement is a movement of movements that aims to highlight the social, political and economic dimensions of how environmental harms and hazards affect people, and their interactions with the natural environment.

Change the system, not the climate!

Scholar Michael Mascarenhas writes that environmental justice recognizes the empirical reality that “racial and ethnic minorities, low-income people, and indigenous peoples are more likely to live in close proximity to hazardous environmental facilities and that their communities continue to be the targets for the siting and growth of ‘dirty industries,’” (1).

Climate justice, by extension, is a concept that emphasizes similar unequal distributions, only now within the context of how climate change is impacting the Earth: unseasonable flooding, extreme droughts and heat waves, anomalous weather patterns, and many many other environmental harms associated with a global rise in temperature. As you can already guess, this has (and will have even greater) impacts on how we conduct agriculture, on the spread of tropical diseases, how and where we make our settlements, and on the borders (and even the future existence) of nations – and not all of us will bear those burdens the same.

The inequality inherent in the way that climate change unfolds on the ground could not be more obvious. Scholars J. Timmons Roberts and Bradley C. Parks write that “The issue of global climate change is fundamentally about injustice and inequality…” (3). Not only are historically marginalized communities most affected by climate change, but these groups contributed the least to the issue in the first place. The continent of Africa, for example, emits less than some individual countries, and is one of the lowest emitting continents in the world. Paradoxically, (unfairly), the latest IPCC reports rank Africa as the continent most vulnerable to climate change impacts!


An Oxfam report released just the other day found that the world’s richest 10 percent of the population  produces half of global carbon emissions, while the poorest half of the world contribute to just 10 percent of emissions (2).


Here in Paris it’s obvious that scholarly work is trailing closely behind the activist and organizers who already have been implementing these concepts and worldviews into their work. For example, the It Takes Roots Delegation, a broad grassroots coalition of more than 50 organizations and communities most impacted by climate change, does work squarely around the concept of climate justice. The coalition includes organizations such as the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), Cooperation Jackson, the Black Mesa Navajo Nation, Southwest Workers Union, Fuerza Unida San Antonio, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Climate Justice Alliance, Just Transition Alliance, Rising Tide North America and the Southern Mine Workers Center, just to name a very few.

The sheer diversity of perspectives on climate change illustrates how complex the problem of climate change is, but also how many different methods and possibilities exist in addressing the issue and working to restore the Earth, while addressing historical injustices.

Indigenous Environmental Network organizer gives an update on the COP21 draft and what it means for indigenous peoples.

Worrying, though, is the attempt by top COP leaders to gloss over and potentially remove the rights and grievances of vulnerable populations in the final agreement that will be reached at the end of this week. Climate justice organizers are protesting because COP leaders seem to be overlooking issues of marginalized peoples in trying to come to a deal. At an evening organizer meeting I attended for the It Takes Roots delegation, Indigenous Environmental Network organizers explained how the rights of indigenous people was put into brackets in the UNFCCC document, which means that it is still up for debate and can potentially be removed. COP leaders also are considering moving the rights of indigenous people into the preamble of the text, which holds no legal and binding authority.

I’ve been following Cooperation Jackson, a group from Jackson, Mississippi who have developed a network of cooperatives as a tangible alternative to austerity capitalism and squarely in response to institutional racism within the context of unequal environmental harms and climate change. They see their work as a merge between the long legacy of the civil rights movement and the burgeoning environmental movement of the past few decades.

Cooperation Jackson crafts their banners for the next week of demonstrations. 1.5 degrees C (instead of the official UN 2 degrees C) is their demand for a just deal on addressing climate change).

In a Dec 3rd interview on Yes Magazine with several Cooperation Jackson organizers, Elijah Williams says “If you understand the Black Liberation and Black Lives Matter movements, you’ll end up understanding climate justice and how all that works together.”

Jackson, Mississippi is a predominantly black city and one of the poorest cities in the country. It’s within this context that organizers have been collectively acquiring land and running cooperatively owned farms to work towards food sovereignty while integrating agro-ecological methods that work within, not against, nature. They’ve also been busy at work building worker cooperatives and sowing the seeds of the greater “solidarity economy” that they aim to construct.

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Organizers at a coalition of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) talk about their broad work on climate change and climate justice. Here, Sacajawea Hall from Cooperation Jackson shares her ideas on how to bring climate justice issues back to campuses.

One of the most important insights that I’ve gained in my time here in Paris is that power and tangible alternatives and solutions come not only from people with long titles and top security access, but also from the people below who themselves live the impacts of climate change. Who else to form the solutions to our generation’s most important issue than the people who are most impacted and cognizant of the issue themselves? We might do more to listen to the people who are most affected by global changes and who are busy at work creating better communities and ways of living already, regardless, and maybe in spite of, what COP leaders ultimately decide for the rest of humanity.


Clara B. Perez


(1). Michael Mascarenhas (2009). “Environmental Inequality and Environmental Justice” in Twenty Lessons in Environmental Sociology (eds). Kenneth A. Gould and Tammy L. Lewis. New York: Oxford University Press.

(2). Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2001. Third assessment report. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press;
—. (IPCC), 2007. Fourth assessment report. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(3). J. Timmons Roberts and Bradley C. Parks (2007). A Climate of Injustice: Global Inequality, North-South Politics, and Climate Policy. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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