“Climate change is in fact a social justice issue,” said Gerald Torres, addressing a packed room in Myron Taylor Hall on October 23. Torres was the keynote speaker at the Environmental Justice Workshop, co-sponsored by the Law School’s Environmental Law Society and a dozen other organizations and open to students, faculty, and members of the Ithaca community.
Torres, the Jane M.G. Foster Professor of Law at Cornell, welcomed workshop participants with a speech titled “Climate Change to Social Change: Environmental Justice 101.” Environmental justice, he said, is about “the way in which we conceive of protection of the natural environment and its impact on the way we construct the social institutions through which we live our lives.”
Most people think of social justice in terms of distributional equality, Torres observed, but we also need to think about it in terms of “intergenerational equality.” “One of the deeper links of environmental justice isn’t just the link between us in the room or between us and communities across the country; it’s the link between us and those who aren’t here yet,” he said, “so environmental justice really is about our commitment to this chain of humanity.”
Torres continued, “When you think about social justice, it really is about that too. It’s about how to construct a world that is more just. And environmental justice just says, when you think about constructing a world that is more just, you cannot leave out aspects of the natural world, and the control of resources or use of resources, and sustainability.”
Torres is a leading figure in critical race theory, environmental law, and federal Indian Law. He previously served as the Bryant Smith Chair in Law at the University of Texas School of Law and is a former president of the Association of American Law Schools. He has served as deputy assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., and as counsel to then U.S. attorney general Janet Reno.
In his talk, Torres touched on some manifestations of climate change and climate disruption, including the spread of mosquito-borne diseases, the various threats to food and water supplies worldwide, and the increased incidence of extreme weather events like Hurricane Patricia, the strongest hurricane in recorded history, which was bearing down on Mexico as he spoke. Such developments, he said, constitute an environmental justice issue, “because the people who are most affected by climate disruption are the poor, people who live in the most vulnerable areas. The whole idea of ‘environmental refugees,’ which is a relatively new idea, grows from the consequences of environmental disruption.”
“I’ll let you in on a little secret,” Torres told the audience as his speech drew toward its end. While “communities of color are disproportionately impacted by environmental burdens,” he said, the communities that are most vulnerable are not those that are completely black or completely brown but those in transition—for instance from a poor white population to a poor black one or a poor black population to a poor brown one. This is because of “the racist script that separates people on the basis of ethnicity and race,” he said: these transitioning communities are politically vulnerable, because they cannot organize. Torres concluded, “So one of the challenges is: confront the scripts that reduce political solidarity. Environmentalism is a way to do that, because… a quality environment—a way to a healthy life, a healthy world—in fact is the first right. It’s the thing upon which all other claims depend.”
Following Torres’ speech, workshop participants split between four student-led breakout sessions: “Real Food Challenge and Labor Practices,” with Sarah Paez; “Labor and Environment,” with Samsuda Kem-nguad and Li Ye (Alice) Zhou; “Food Recovery and Waste,” with Alex Klein and Deepa Saharia; and “Environmental Racism and Empowerment,” with Treijon Johnson. Participants then reconvened for a presentation by Ravi Kanbur, T.H. Lee Professor of World Affairs, international professor of applied economics and management, and professor of economics at Cornell. The event concluded with an interdisciplinary panel discussion including students, faculty, and members of the Ithaca community.
The Environmental Justice Workshop was co-sponsored by ECO, the Environmental Law Society, KyotoNOW!/DivestNow!, Cornell United Religious Work, the Protestant Cooperative Ministry, the Asian American Studies Program, the Islamic Alliance for Justice, the Cornell Organization for Labor Action, the Society for Natural Resources Conservation, the Cornell Roosevelt Institute, the Cornell International Affairs Society, Amnesty International, and the Cornell Student Assembly Environmental Committee. The event was also associated with the People’s Climate Movement National Day of Action.
The Environmental Law Society works to increase environmental law curriculum and scholarship. ELS provides a forum for scholarly discussion of environmental issues, connects students to environmental law practitioners, and coordinates sustainability and community service programs.