February 16, 2017

Professor Explores Intersection of Climate Change and Social Justice

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Prof. Gerald Torres, law, discussed the ramifications of climate disruption and its effect on children, vulnerable communities and indigenous people in a lecture Monday.

“[Climate disruption] speaks to your role not just as budding scientists,” Torres said. “Not just as people who may be concerned about the environment, who may or may not be concerned about justice or injustice, but it speaks to your role as citizens.”

Torres sees an intersection between climate justice and issues of race, fairness, and the fundamental question of political activism — what a citizen can rightly demand of his or her government.

From his experience as counsel to former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno ’60, Torres described that while race plays a substantial role in the distribution of environmental burdens, the most susceptible communities to environmental hazards are largely low-income “communities in transition.”

Torres said he views the relationship between social and environmental justice in economic terms. A basic standard of living is necessary for citizens to muster the political currency to demand environmental protections, according to Torres.

“Environmental quality is a good; it’s a good like any other good, and in order to demand environmental quality, the basic needs [of citizens] … have to be satisfied first,” he said.

Yet Torres ultimately frames climate justice as a question of governmental obligation, asking what the state owes its citizens and in whose interests it should act.

He cited three examples in considering questions of fairness in environmental protection: indigenous peoples in the United States, climate refugees and the Our Children’s Trust cases.

“Tribal governments ought to have a say … in the creation of policies that are going to have an effect on their resources,” Torres said, referencing a lawsuit brought on behalf of Alaskan natives forced to evacuate their island due to rising sea levels.

Torres referred to people such as the Alaskan natives as “climate refugees.” He argued that the “legal system has to take into account [climate refugees] in the same way that we would take into account consideration of refugees … from other human-caused events.”

Torres maintained his sincere belief, grounded in legal argument, that the environment belongs to the people, and therefore the government must act as its steward for future generations.

For that reason, Torres insisted that the federal government has an obligation to act to protect that resource.

Citing the Our Children’s Trust cases — class action suits that have been brought by children across the United States to demand environmental action by their government — Torres reiterated the inclusive and deeply egalitarian argument that social justice for the environment is a collective responsibility.

“By failing to act on climate disruption, [the federal government] is trading away our future,” Torres said.