Environmental Justice: the issue or the goal? How cross-disciplinary research approaches equip environmental leaders to advance intersectional environmental justice with frontline communities.

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Environmental Justice: the issue or the goal? How cross-disciplinary research approaches equip environmental leaders to advance intersectional environmental justice with frontline communities.

If environmental injustice is the issue, then environmental justice must be the goal—and it cannot be achieved without positioning Black, Indigenous, and People of Color as principal authorities on environmental impacts. Through legal frameworks like climate dominance and social science methods like feminist critical participatory action research (CPAR), communities most impacted by systemic environmental injustices are given credence and power as experts to subvert afterlives of colonialism and advocate for environmental justice.

Cannon, C., Bonnell, J., Padilla, M., & Sulca, D. (2023). Along the energy justice continuum: An examination of energy disposal through the lens of feminist community based participatory action research. Energy Research & Social Science96, 102948. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2023.102948.

Hirokawa, K. H., & Carlarne, C. P. (2023). Climate Dominance. Forthcoming, Georgetown Environmental Law Review (GELR)35(3).

Environmental authorities, including researchers, organizers, and analysts, invest significant energy in discussing environmental justice as if it is an issue, when instead it should be the goal. That’s the approach that A.J. Hudson, an Environmental Justice Fellow at Yale Law School and community organizer, adopts in the environmental sector. He argues that communities most subject to environmental harms are the most salient orators of environmental justice outcomes. Labeling environmental justice as an issue rather than a goal not only mis-characterizes the root causes of environmental injustice like colonization, racist policies, and market capitalism, but detracts from energy to interrupt these systemic problems and organize for solutions.

Environmental injustices have legal and social consequences. Both the Equal Protection Clause and the Due Process Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment provide constitutional protection against environmental injustices. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as the “fundamental right” for all persons, regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, or economic status, to access distributive and procedural justice. This includes equal protection from environmental hazards and equal access to decision-making processes which shape the spaces where communities live, breathe, and make meaning. It is crucial when environmental authorities design environmental justice research and policy that the systemic, infrastructural, and temporal features which initiate and sustain environmental injustices are not side-stepped; when such concessions are made, the scholarship and interventions intended to accelerate communities towards environmental justice outcomes ironically embed the roots of environmental oppression and the inequities that drive unequal distributions of environmental burdens. Environmental justice outcomes cannot be secured through discussions that blur goals with the injustices that impede them.

As such, new research frames and methods are needed to help practitioners critically examine risks that obstruct environmental justice outcomes. Researchers in both environmental and legal sectors are working towards intersectional analyses of environmental injustices led by colonized communities. One effective method in the social sciences used to identify root causes of environmental injustices with communities is feminist critical participatory action research (CPAR), which centers the perspective of community-based environmental organizers, culture-bearers, and scholar activists. Although CPAR was originally developed in the social sciences for communities and researchers to co-identify how social and political factors have ecological consequences, it can be extended to legal frames like climate dominance to address environmental injustices.

In a recent article published in Georgetown Environmental Law Review, legal scholars Keith H. Hirokawa and Cinnamon P. Carlarne present climate dominance as an interpretive frame for articulating how social location, culture, and socioeconomic status shape the ways environmental injustices are experienced. They suggest a three-fold analysis of environmental injustices: racial, spatial, and temporal. They argue that spatial dominance informs how resources are managed, land is valued, and spaces of racial dominance are created and maintained. Their research team also identified patterns of spatial dominance as extensions of control which preserve white spaces by redlining, zoning, and limiting direct access to ecosystem services and property rights. Temporal dominance addresses how environmental laws shaped inside dominant perspectives subsume local, culturally specific environmental differences under a conglomerate of environmental problems, an abstraction which perpetuates environmental hegemonies over time.  Without addressing the particularities of these interconnected systems of dominance, environmental interventions will only escalate and compound historical, social, and ecological infrastructures of patriarchal colonial violence.

Additionally, Hirokawa and Carlarne assert that it is important to recognize climate dominance as an institutionalized system that can skew environmental adaptation policies. These policies will only perpetuate environmental inequities within frontline communities if underlying drivers like racial and spatial dominance are not addressed. Hirokawa and Carlarne propose a new paradigm of environmental justice that is built on “equitable access,” which they define as colonized communities participating equally in environmental benefits and decision-making in policies designed to redress environmental injustices.

From there, this new paradigm may be operationalized by social scientists with methods like feminist CPAR to analyze how power and social systems inform environmental outcomes in dispossessed communities. Social science methods, though not typically integrated in the legal sector, may strengthen and clarify recommendations for interventions in environmental systems. Coined by Cannon et al. in a recent edition of Energy Research & Social Science, feminist CPAR is presented as a boots-on-the-ground method that operationalizes legal frameworks like climate dominance. Applied in tandem, these frames could effectively and justly analyze regional, cultural, and racialized nuances of environmental injustices in communities with individuals across Africana, Latina, Asian, and Native American Diasporas (ALANDs). The feminist character of Cannon et al.’s approach sets it apart from other CPAR research methods because it centers the lived experiences of racial and sexual minorities in environmental justice communities as primary sources of environmental knowledge. In feminist CPAR, environmental justice communities are positioned as experts of environmental justice analysis who partner with scientific researchers to reciprocally identify environmental injustices and propose environmental justice intervention strategies.

In their analysis of feminist CPAR, Cannon et al. interrogate the meaning of dominance and its consequences for environmental justice communities in the energy sector. They assert that feminist CPAR data collection and analysis is grounded in four pillars: acknowledging, embedded co-circulating, reflexivity, and centering. Together, these pillars acknowledge the ongoing impacts of colonialism and oppression; circulate power within communities as experts and advocates; reflexively critique and leverage the privilege of academics and researchers; distribute power and resources to under-resourced and marginalized communities; and establish mutualistic partnerships which center the needs and visions of residents in environmental justice communities who most acutely bear the burdens and risks of environmental harm.

Cannon et al. argue that operationalizing these pillars in environmental research and planning checks the biases of political, environmental, and legal analysts against the lived experiences of frontline communities. As a case study, their research examines the local impacts of toxic waste disposal after fossil fuel extraction in Kettlemen City, CA. There, Cannon et al. conducted qualitative interviews with informed consent in Spanish and English. Community members were given culturally appropriate pseudonyms to protect their identities and were invited to reflect on how installation of the Kettlemen Hills Facility has impacted their exposure to climate hazards. Inductive analysis of interviews, field journals, and field visits conducted by the research team and community partners concluded that residents of Kettleman City are treated as sacrificial people in a sacrificial zone suffering from health disparities, social marginalization, and systematic economic disinvestment. 

Therefore, climate dominance, as a legal frame, and feminist CPAR, as a method of social science, should be applied in environmental justice research by working to destabilize the dominance of environmental colonialism in these fields. When applied in tandem, these tools center difference and diversity in the lived experiences of environmental justice communities by presenting them as primary sources for environmental adaptation interventions. Environmental practitioners can jointly apply this legal frame and social science method to draft interventions and environmental policies that directly include and benefit environmental justice communities.

By systematically interrupting environmental injustices, climate dominance and feminist CPAR commit in both method and practice to a futurity of environmental justice co-led by dispossessed, under-resourced, and overlooked populations. This is critical to climate resilience in the long-term because, like biodiversity, heterogeneity makes communities more adaptive to climate change impacts. An example of this can be found in an article by the American Public Health Association where they outline how populations with diverse identities, including transgender and LGBTQ+ identifying persons, are disproportionately vulnerable to climate change impacts—but, if positioned as experts on environmental injustices by lawyers and social scientists, these communities can contribute to increased resilience and effectiveness of environmental interventions with their first-hand accounts of environmental injustices in their communities of practice.

Colonized communities have been excluded from research analysis and policymaking processes in environmental sectors. If environmental policymakers are to draft equitable interventions, it is imperative that the lived realities and experiences of communities dispossessed and displaced by colonialism are given credence by those deemed as environmental experts like scientists and activists. Leading with the expertise of communities oppressed by systemic environmental injustices is the ground floor of reparative environmental action. To do so, environmental analysts and strategists must be specific in their assessment of environmental injustices by first clarifying which injustices their research addresses and how. Who does the research benefit and who could it put at risk? Even though most environmental impacts resulting from environmental injustices are felt both locally and globally, productive research acknowledges its limits. Research cannot make an equitable impact without community input shaping its method and units of analysis.

To subvert environmental dominance, it is essential to examine the biases and histories that inform environmental justice research, policymaking, and activism. Climate dominance as a frame and feminist CPAR as a method need each other. A legal framework like climate dominance, when paired with a social science method of feminist CPAR, has the potential to strengthen ethical research in environmental justice sectors because, when integrated, they recognize the legal, social, and environmental injustices that concentrate environmental impacts in communities of color. In contrast to other social science methods, feminist CPAR highlights the ways that even within communities of color, environmental risk is not evenly distributed, and is in fact felt most acutely by women and those who occupy further marginalized gender or sexual identities. Climate dominance and feminist CPAR give legal and scientific credence to the lived experience of the communities most impacted by environmental risk and position them as linchpin actors in moving towards environmental justice outcomes.

Frames like climate dominance and methods like feminist CPAR come from complementary disciplines and, if adopted, could support environmental and legal research in community-based organizations. When these tools are exercised and interpreted in partnership with communities most subject to environmental racism, environmental injustices are less likely to be equivocated as environmental justice issues. Rather, when feminist CPAR and climate dominance approaches are practiced in collaboration with powerful Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) groups targeted for oppression, they can provide appropriate analyses of the differentiated histories, identities, and priorities of populations most encumbered by environmental burdens and risks. Such an approach improves the accuracy, equity, and sustainability of any proposed environmental interventions because it is not the environmental policymakers, social scientists, or environmental lawyers that carry out climate adaptation solutions, but the communities themselves.

Synthesizing frames like climate dominance and methods like feminist CPAR adds further nuance to analyses of historical, political, cultural, and social dynamics that shape environmental landscapes. Employing such approaches grounds the analysis of climate injustices in a sociopolitical, sociocultural, and socioeconomic context. When environmental decision-makers listen to environmental justice communities and authorize their eco-cultural experience as expert knowledge through adopting approaches like climate dominance and feminist CPAR, it is less likely that environmental interventions will further embed institutionalized inequalities. An effective example of an organization adopting this integrated approach is UPROSE. Based in Brooklyn, NY, UPROSE is a multi-racial and international non-profit organization whose campaigns for climate justice and transitioning to a just economy are organized around participatory community decision-making processes and bottom-up planning. They view the communities most impacted by environmental hazards as those more equipped in organizing for environmental justice outcomes.

Environmental authorities positioned to offer environmental justice recommendations have a responsibility to not do so isolated from the communities most impacted by infrastructures of environmental oppression and risk. Environmental issues are systemic and intersectional. Social, racial, and environmental factors all contribute to environmental injustices. They also have consequences as drivers of inequitable, divergent distributions of environmental burdens in low-income communities of color. Environmental justice cannot be achieved without identifying the diversified features of environmental injustices and carefully assessing the relationships that exist between the factors that drive them. When communities most impacted by environmental injustices have sovereignty and power to choose the methods, syntax, and strategies to describe and achieve environmental justices for themselves, there is less risk that an environmental intervention will perpetuate systemic environmental burdens. Achieving environmental justice outcomes for frontline communities begins with listening to their testimonies as authorities on environmental injustices and justices alike. Only in sustained partnership with BIPOC communities that goes beyond tokenism and lip service and advocates for subaltern survivance can systemic environmental injustices that drive environmental harms be assessed and redressed—and environmental justice secured.

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