Climate Change and Communities
A DISCUSSION OFA Climate Equity Agenda Informed by Community Brilliance
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In “A Climate Equity Agenda Informed by Community Brilliance” (Issues, Fall 2021), Jalonne L. White-Newsom discusses the predictability of climate change-related health challenges in communities whose primary residents are low-income and people of color. She points to the compounding effects of failing infrastructure, structural racism, and climate change as a primary culprit in adverse health outcomes in these communities. The evidence is certainly compelling.
In 2016, the Detroit area saw an outbreak of hepatitis A, culminating in 907 cases, 728 hospitalizations, and 28 deaths by 2018, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s no wonder that after the city underwent major water shutoffs, impacting thousands of Detroit residents, we would see such a widespread public health crisis. However, just as White-Newsom mentioned, this outcome was not unpredictable.
In the 1970s, the Clean Water Act prompted the dismantling of the Detroit Water and Sewage Department, making it prime for bankruptcy. The subsequent reallocation of the department’s assets significantly contributed to the failing infrastructure, leading to the water shutoffs in a failed attempt to recoup losses. The massive shutoffs negatively impacted the city’s water infrastructure, causing much less movement through the pipes; these factors have created the perfect environment for the overwhelming flooding we’ve seen in residential homes in recent years. The water shutoffs and residential flooding together create a petri dish for infectious diseases, such as hepatitis A and COVID-19.
As White-Newsom indicates, there is a solution. Community-led and community-based research can create more positive outcomes if our government would invest more in partnering with community scientists. It must be noted that the water crisis in the Michigan cities of Flint, Benton Harbor, and Detroit were brought to the forefront by community members who identified the water contamination. That is why we practice community-first research at We The People of Detroit.
Community-first research puts people before data. This represents a dramatic shift in perspective. One of the most significant issues researchers face is providing the public with data that offer actionable value to the communities they are working in. Our group’s Community Research Coalition’s community-first research framework helps address this issue, advocating that researchers begin their work with the end result in mind, asking what research questions are most relevant, timely, and useful to residents.
President & CEO
We The People of Detroit
Jalonne L. White-Newsome argues that climate agendas will fail if they are not focused on the lived experience of people most vulnerable to climate change and environmental hazards. She advocates for more equitable approaches to addressing and governing climate change.
Throughout my years of research for my book Climate Change from the Streets, I witnessed environmental justice (EJ) activists being motivated by their lived and embodied experiences. They are increasingly debating with experts over issues of truth and method in science. They are also demanding a greater role in environmental health decisionmaking that impacts their lives and bodies. EJ groups are not only challenging the political use and control of science and expertise by claiming to speak credibly as experts in their own right, they are also challenging the process by which technical knowledge is produced. Conventional climate change policy often overlooks the ways in which scientific knowledge and notions of expertise develop, become institutionalized, and tend to exclude from their cognitive domain other ways of knowing and doing.
By extending the arena of legitimate climate change knowledge to include embodied knowledge, regulators and policymakers can better understand the insights that EJ advocates can offer to environmental problem-solving. In settings where there is high uncertainty, embodied approaches can uncover new hypotheses rather than test predetermined ones. Embodied approaches, moreover, can provide a complex (or thick) description of the environmental condition that is faithful to the lived experience of residents. Such accounts provide a cultural consciousness that the environment can invoke multiple harms to human bodies and that the combining of knowledge and action for social change can ultimately help improve health in the most disadvantaged communities.
In this context, EJ groups are both pushing new hypotheses and evaluating existing ones around climate problems and solutions. They are calling for multiple ways of learning and knowing about climate change. In my research and practice, I have observed how EJ groups have centered their work on telling stories of how their bodies bear the marks of environmental interactions. They framed their work on the human embodiment of climate change and carbon’s associated co-pollutants. For them, the body is where diverse points of pollution, social stratification, and poverty intersect. I call this way of knowing and learning “climate embodiment”—a concept that draws on eco-feminist studies and the field of public health.
For example, EJ advocates in Richmond, California (home to one of the world’s largest oil companies, the Chevron Corporation, and California’s single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions) argue for a holistic understanding of the links between the infrastructural body (that is, the extraction of raw materials to support a fossil fuel economy) and the contaminated human body. In other words, we begin to imagine a form of climate embodiment that represents a continuum, where the human body cannot be divorced from its environment, and environmental solutions cannot be isolated from the human body. Climate embodiment represents new models of engagement with climate change that makes space for alternative paradigms of environmental protection.
Assistant Professor of Environmental Planning and Policy
University of California, Irvine
He previously served as a gubernatorial appointee and senior consultant during California’s passage of its climate change laws.