Monday, October 26, 2015

Climate Injustices

A single hour that changed my life came in 2012, when I had the honor of being present in a hotel conference room with Dr. Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former UN Commissioner for Human Rights. It was for her pioneering work in these roles -- and for her even greater contributions after leaving government service -- that my professional organization was presenting her with our highest award. As with many such awards, she was really doing us a greater favor by accepting the Atlas Award than we were doing her by presenting it. Nonetheless, it was an important moment for our entire discipline, and I hope others in the audience were as affected as I was.

It was from her acceptance speech that I learned of the concept of Climate Justice, as she challenged the geography profession to rise to the challenges presented by global injustices related to climate change. Specifically, she pointed out that we have the tools to understand and explain the geographies of responsbility, vulnerability, and power that lead to profoundly unfair relationships  between the causes and effects of climate change.

I was so moved by her presentation that I now offer an entire course on the topic, and more importantly her admonition to my colleagues and me infuses much of what I do in all of my academic work.
Haze obscuring skyscrapers and Ferris wheel in Singapore.
Just after a very productive session of my Climate Justice course this afternoon, two of the stories I heard on PRI's The World struck me as particularly relevant. From opposite sides of the world, listeners learned of two very different stories of injustice with complicated relationships to climate change.

The first was the story of indigenous Mexican farm workers who have been displaced from work because of drought in California, and their inability to collect any kind of unemployment insurance because of their status as essential but undocumented workers. What makes this especially complicated is that many were in California precisely because they had been displaced by drought -- and the pernicious effects of NAFTA (not mentioned in the story) -- in their home regions of Oaxaca, Puebla, and Guerrero.

Then, from the other side of the world and the other side of the climate coin came the story of toxic wildfires in Indonesia causing severe respiratory illnesses throughout Southeast Asia. In addition to the severe health consequences and fatalities in the short run, in just a few days the fires have rivaled major economic powers in their unwelcome contribution of greenhouse gases.

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