Climate Injustice: Environmentalists and Social Justice Advocates must Unite!

Climate Injustice Reprise

I posted this blog on Peaceful Uprising’s website almost two years ago. Because of discussions underway within PeaceUp and elsewhere about how to frame “climate justice,” I thought this was due for a reprise.

There Is No Justice, There Is Just Us.

Remember how citizens of the United States became discarded refugees in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?[i]

African Americans were rounded up and tightly packed into the Superdome, as in some monster slave ship of the infamous middle passage on the ocean of flood waters. They were held like captives in slave-pens, without food and water for days, awaiting the slow-to-arrive school buses that would disperse them throughout a land far away from their homes. Some tried to walk out of the flood- ravaged city, rather than wait to drown or die of thirst as our government did nothing. Crossing the Crescent City Connection, the bridge that links the city of New Orleans with the west bank of the Mississippi and the predominantly white town of Gretna, they were met with shot gun fire from White Gretna city police. The group of hundreds of predominantly Black citizens stopped at the fire of warning shots, and were instructed that they could not cross. Not knowing where to turn, they began to set up camp on the middle of the bridge, when a Gretna police officer yelled at them through a bull horn “Get the f*** off the bridge.” Someone asked why they couldn’t pass on to safety. They were told that “there will be no Superdome here.”[ii]

“the police are stationed at the bridge and they’re preventing passage to higher ground…” Ani DiFranco, Red Letter Year

Citizens, who by definition have the constitutional right to travel, who reasonably rely on their own government to help them in a crisis, lost their citizenship rights that night. From the perspective of civil rights and social justice, the entire Hurricane Katrina fiasco was one enormous abrogation of citizenship resulting in death and displacement.  A complete betrayal. I remember the shock I felt when I heard news reporters actually refer to the residents of New Orleans as “refugees.”

What Will Happen when the Levees Break Again?

Fast forward four years to the present. Already, Pacific Island nations face the destruction and inundation of their lands caused by rising sea levels. There are over 7 million Pacific Islanders who live live in 22 nations. In June 2007 the Prime Minister of Tuvalu explained that his nation is being destroyed by climate change, which represents an unprecedented threat to Tuvalu’s “fundamental rights to nationality and statehood, as constituted under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other national conventions.”[iii] After a long fight against slavery and imperialism, after finally gaining their sovereignty in 1978, the first world’s consumptions of fossil fuels will take their country away again. [iv] It is enough to make a grown woman cry.

Human-caused global warming has already caused the melting of 42% of the Arctic Ice Cap, parts of Greenland and Antarctica,  and has melted mountain snowpack in places where people depend on its water for agriculture and drinking water.[v] 95% of the world’s glaciers are in retreat.[vi] Storms are getting fiercer. Sea levels are rising,

And already Pacific Islanders are preparing to relocate, to leave their countries underwater and be cast on the mercy of other nations. Who will take them in? So far New Zealand is willing, Australia is hedging.[vii] As one citizen of  the Carteret Islands put it so well:  “If these people can spend millions and millions on sending troops to fight other countries, why can’t they spend maybe a couple of billions just to save people, like ourselves; the marginalized, poorest of the poor. Why? Because we are taking the brunt, we are the victims of these green[house] gas emissions, the pollution made by industrialized countries.”[viii]

Fast forward another five to ten years.  In 2005 we saw how, within days, African Americans in New Orleans lost their citizenship, as if some Frankenstein-like Chief justice Taney rose from the dead declaring a new Dred Scott decision.  What will our world look like in 2015? Some scientists estimate that all of the world’s mountain snowpack will be gone by 2030. What will happen when 7 million Pacific Islanders, along with the millions of citizens of the low lying river deltas throughout the world, lose their citizenship along with their nationhood? Will we watch the flags of country after country lowered in front of the United Nations? What will these people be when they are stateless? What will the first world do with all of these stateless people of color from other lands? They won’t even have the paltry legal status of “refugee,” which is reserved for those who are displaced because of state persecution or violent conflict. There is no legal concept of a “climate refugee,” who is entitled to UN support and protection. [ix]

It will be a world-wide Dred Scott, as the first world proclaims that the people of the global South have no rights “which the white man is bound to respect.” [x]

What can we do?  It is not too late to preserve a livable future for humans on this planet, but our window of opportunity is closing. NASA’a top climatologist, James Hansen, explains that if we stop the use of coal within the next two decades, phase out the use of conventional petroleum and ban the use of high-carbon fuels like shale and tar sands, we have a chance to bring greenhouse gasses back down to safe levels.[xi] We may not be able to reverse the extensive damage already done, but we can prevent it from getting any worse.

How do we do it? We need more Scientists like Hanson, who has been arrested using his body to block mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia.  environmentalists need  to reframe this whole issue as one of social, economic and racial justice. And those of us who are social justice activists need to understand that the problem of climate chaos is the most urgent and deadly issue facing poor people and communities of color today. We must understand that “the environment” is not something “out there” that we can think about after we deal with poverty, racism, institutionalized male dominance and heterosexism. The environment is where we live and breathe, it is literally the ground on which we stand and fight. As Bernice Johnson Reagon put it so eloquently, “I’m not talking about my particular cause. Racism, sexism, class, they all need to fall. But if we want to live to struggle another day, we better wake up to this common cause we face.”[xii]

The movement for climate justice unites environmentalists and social justice advocates in common cause for our survival. When we demand that our leaders bring carbon emissions back to safe levels, we are requiring them to put the interests of people before the richest corporations in the world. And this eliminates the pseudo-path of “gradual reform.”  It will require a drastic restructuring of our economy, and provide an opportunity to recreate it in a more just and equitable way.  As Tim DeChristopher explains so eloquently, “this can be a truly transformative moment for our democracy and for all of us in the struggle for social justice. We need to let our leaders know that we will not stand idly by while they take ultimately useless half-measures and make symbolic gestures, while our chance for a livable future is at stake. “

It is time for a Peaceful Uprising

Rebecca Hall, J.D.; PhD

Rebecca is a professor of law and history and a life long activist.

[i] For more discussion of this, see my essay •“Hurricane Katrina: The New Dred Scott, “in Hurricane Katrina: Response and Responsibilities, John Brown Childs, ed. New Pacific Press, January, 2005.


[iii] Apisai Ielemia, “A Threat to Our Human Rights: Tuvalu’s Perspective on Climate Change,” June 2007 (;col1)  For up to date information on Tuvalu and it’s people’s forced relocation to New Zealand, see

[iv] According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) the Pacific Island nations contribute 0.06 percent to global greenhouse gas emissions but are three times more vulnerable to climate change than countries of the global North.

[v], p8.

[vi] Jim Balog, Extreme Ice Survey



[ix] [t]he term “climate refugee” enjoys no legal authority. The 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is the core treaty of international refugee law. Article 1 defines a refugee as any person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” The definition does not afford binding legal protection to environmentally displaced persons, and focuses instead on political refugees and refugees of violent conflict.

[x] Scott v. Sanford,  60 U.S. 393 (1857)


[xii] Title track from the album “Believe I’ll Run On… see What The End’s Gonna Be” Sweet Honey and the Rock (1978)