Wednesday, October 25, 2017

CUNY Law's Climate Change, Environmental Justice, and Urban Resilience symposium: Proceedings of Panel 4: Lessons Learned and the Path Forward

[This is the last in a series of four blog posts detailing the proceedings of CUNY Law's recent symposium.  Previous posts in this series are available here:  Post 1 | Post 2 | Post 3]

Recently City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law and its Center for Urban Environmental Reform (CUER) hosted a conference, Climate Change, Environmental Justice, and Urban Resilience: Incorporating Community Voices, to reflect on the impact of Superstorm Sandy, which struck New York and other parts of the Northeast five years ago, and to confront the increasingly severe impact of more recent climate-related weather along the Gulf Coast, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean. CUNY Land Use Law Professor Andrea McArdle, who organized the conference with CUNY colleague, Rebecca Bratspies, director of CUER, shares some post-conference thoughts:

My colleague Rebecca Bratspies and I organized the program with the hope that we could engage a range of voices and perspectives on the challenges of governance for climate risk in densely populated urban areas.  We began with an appreciation that government policymakers and the research and science sector have embraced the concept of resilience as a policy response to the catastrophic consequences of climate-related weather disasters.

We set out to analyze and unpack that term, and consider how resilience is implicated in governance in such strategies as rebuilding, restoring, and retreat from the waterfront.  Although these strategies have sometimes been framed as alternatives, even as mutually exclusive, we hoped the conference discussions would illuminate ways in which, we believed, these aspects of resilience could be compatible and complementary.

We also wanted to examine how policy making on climate resilience could access community-based knowledge, and incorporate community voices. We invited conference participants to approach climate resilience governance through an equity lens that accounted for impacts on climate-burdened communities. We considered “climate-burdened” to include those living in the floodplain in at-risk housing, from wood frame bungalows to high-rise public housing, and those whose life circumstances in relation to race, poverty, disability, or social isolation compound vulnerability to the effects of severe weather.

Further, we asked panelists to consider the intersections between climate-burdened communities and environmental justice communities, united by their shared location on the urban periphery, where land values traditionally have been lower, municipal services and amenities less accessible, and environmentally noxious uses more prevalent.

With a mix of speakers drawn from government, community-based organizations, and academe, the program comprised four panel discussions and a conversation with New York City’s Chief Resilience Officer.

Panel # 4, on Lessons Learned and the Path Forward, offered a spectrum of perspectives and strategies for addressing climate change and highlighted links between climate change, environmental justice, and energy reform. Moderated by conference co-organizer Rebecca Bratspies, the panel was encouraged to consider developments from which we might draw some hope.

Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, discussed three U.S. lawsuits advancing theories of climate-based-rights: (1) Juliana v. United States, a probably doomed Oregon federal district court ruling recognizing standing to compel the government to reduce carbon emissions on constitutional and public trust theories; (2) law suits brought by California cities and counties on a common law state public nuisance theory to hold manufacturers of fossil fuel products accountable for sea level rise and resulting costs for climate change adaptation; and (3) a district court ruling that Conservation Law Foundation has standing to pursue statutory claims against oil companies for inadequate planning for climate change impacts with respect to imminent but not remote-in-time risks of sea level rise and surges. Recognizing that litigation is not a panacea, Michael concluded that it is a way to “hold the line” against efforts to chip away at legal protections.

Shalanda Baker, Professor of Law, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs, Northeastern University, and an affiliate faculty member in Northeastern’s Global Resilience Institute, discussed Mexico’s planned transition to clean energy, and current inequitable impacts of the planned reform on Mexico’s indigenous population. Using the lens of an energy justice framework, grounded in principles of environmental justice and remediation, climate justice, energy democracy, and economic justice, she predicted the framework would structurally transform global energy consumption and equitably distribute the benefits of clean energy.

Peggy Shepard, Executive Director and co-founder of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, further developed the connections between climate change, environmental justice, and energy reform. She argued that the climate justice and environmental justice movements are mutually implicated and must act on a shared advocacy platform. Reviewing some key moments in the coming together of these advocacy movements, she highlighted WE ACT’s role in the Environmental Justice Leadership Forum on Climate Change, concerned with reducing greenhouse gas emissions without amplifying the disproportionate environmental burden on communities of color and low-income people.

The panel culminated in presentations by two representatives of GlobalKids, a nonprofit youth leadership organization that empowers underserved youth across New York City. Highlighting the needs, aspirations, and capabilities of young people to address the risks posed by climate change, both eloquently addressed the capacity of youth to speak for themselves and to participate in shaping public policy.

Munsura Tanha, a high school junior, described her early years growing up in Bangladesh and her concern at witnessing the effects of extreme weather on that country from her vantage point in the U.S. She spoke of the importance of gaining knowledge through involvement in social justice projects, and argued that youth should represent youth because “we are the ones we are waiting for.”  

Annie Willis, a junior at Baruch College (CUNY), and a graduate of GlobalKids’ Youth Leadership program, shared her experience of homelessness after Superstorm Sandy extensively flooded her family home in the Rockaways. Seeking to overcome the trauma of that experience, Annie joined GlobalKids, and has since participated in two climate marches, added her story to the Congressional National Archive, and testified before the New York City Council. Because she believes in the ability of youth to influence public policy, youth “need to be included in the conversation.”                                                                                    

After a day of searching and invigorating discussion for which we thank our deeply engaged panelists and audience, we did conclude on a note of hope, buoyed by the energy and insights of our youth representatives. We pledged to keep up the connections we’d made during the course of the conference, pursue collaborations, and continue the work that needed to be done on an issue of critical urgency for all of us.

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