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Environmental Justice Conference Explores a Just Recovery

Change is not just a physical process, says Gerald Torres, professor of environmental justice at the Yale School of the Environment.

“It creates hope.”

“Hope” of a just, equitable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic was the theme of this year’s Global Environmental Justice Conference, an annual gathering that brings together scholars, practitioners, and activists from around the world and across disciplines to discuss how scholarship, social justice, and environmental management can be effectively integrated.

The conference, organized by the Yale Center for Environmental Justice and held October 29, focused on theories of change in energy and food justice. With the world building back economically from the global pandemic, many experts see an opportunity for leaders in government, NGOs, academia, and the private sector to rethink how we live — potentially creating a blueprint for how to address the urgent issue of climate change. But how we invest in the face of our changing climate — in energy and food systems, specifically — needs to be rooted in justice.

“Injustice is not a result of climate change — it’s a root cause,” said climate expert Graciela Chichilnisky. “It cannot only be a just recovery. Without a just system, the catastrophes we are witnessing will continue and will have a devastating effect on the survival our species.”

The first panel of the conference, moderated by Laura Bozzi of the Yale Center on Climate Change and Health, focused on energy, with panelists touching upon a range of issues that included retrofitting affordable housing, discriminatory energy policies on Indigenous lands, and the energy insecurity of households with children.

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Dr. Dorceta Taylor (right) and Gerald Torres discussed theories of change in a just recovery during the conference's second panel. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

The panelists also discussed the Biden Administration’s historic climate and infrastructure package, which they agreed had positives and drawbacks. Daniel Aldana Cohen, a professor at University of California, Berkeley, applauded a major investment in public housing written into the bill but questioned the scale of the investment, while Shannon Baker Branstetter of the Center for American Progress described how President Biden’s Justice40 initiative pushes for 40% of climate-related funds to be earmarked for underserved communities.

Torres, who is faculty director of the Center for Environmental Justice, moderated the second panel on theories of change, which featured Dorceta Taylor, senior associate dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion and professor of environmental justice at YSE.

“More and more we will have to connect the political with the environmental to solve vexing and emerging environmental justice issues,’’ Taylor told the panel. “Climate disasters are turning millions of people into climate refugees as entire countries are underwater, vast regions are being swallowed by sand, and many areas are becoming uninhabitable. Yet we do not have effective international mechanisms to deal with refugees who have to migrate because they have lost their homes and countries.”

The final panel, moderated by Mark Bomford of the Yale Sustainable Food Program, focused on the global food system, with remarks from experts in agricultural policy, food justice, and food sovereignty, including Debbie Humphries of the Yale School of Public Health; Naya Jones, an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz; YSE lecturer Kristin Reynolds, and YSE doctoral student Samara Brock.

Jones, who specializes in Black geographies of health, ecologies, and healing,  said a critical part of her work is challenging people's assumptions.

"There is such a deep assumption of Black lack of knowledge, black lack of food, black lack of life," Jones said, "that it becomes challenging to even move in a way that is just and that does promote recovery." For a truly just recovery, she said, it will require "inner work" and a "willingness" to understand the inequities in food systems.

The conference was established in 2019 by Chichilnisky, in honor of her daughter Natasha Chichilnisky-Heal, a PhD candidate in political science at Yale University who died in 2014. Natasha focused her doctoral research on environmental justice issues related to natural resource extraction in the developing world. This year’s conference was co-sponsored by the Yale Sustainable Food Program and the Center on Climate Change and Health at the Yale School of Public Health.