New Horizons Conference Highlights Challenges, Emerging Voices, and Reasons for Optimism in Environmental Justice

YSE3 210421 New Horizons
When Professor of Environmental Justice Dr. Dorceta Taylor ’85 MFS, ’91 PhD returned to the Yale School of the Environment (YSE) last summer, she arrived as an authority on environmental justice, bringing experience and expertise that energized the entire YSE community. 
That momentum continued this week at the New Horizons in Conservation Conference, an annual gathering of emerging environmental leaders who are historically underrepresented in the environmental field and/or committed to diversity, equity and inclusion in the field. The conference, organized by Yale’s Justice, Equity, Diversity and Sustainability Initiative, provided an opportunity to network, attend workshops, and learn from leaders in the environmental field. 
"This is a space that provides an opportunity, for once, to be in the majority when talking about conservation,” said Taylor, who founded the conference as a faculty member at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability. 
More than 880 people attended the conference, which celebrated the work of people of color across the fields of environmentalism and conservation, while also exploring how justice, inequality and environment are connected. Panel discussions and workshops covered a wide range of topics, including climate justice, policymaking, community engagement, public health, food system and energy. 
Gerald Torres, professor of environmental justice, who holds a joint faculty appointment at YSE and Yale Law School, delved into the roots and successes of the environmental justice movement during a plenary session Tuesday on research, policy and community mobilization. He noted that generations of work have pushed the issue of environmental justice before policy makers and expanded the debate on what it entails. The environmental justice movement  has also helped link health issues with environmental policy in housing, transit, land use, and green space in marginalized communities, he said.
The same communities that have borne the burden of environmental degradation, such as pollutions and lack of clean water, will also be vulnerable to the effects of climate change, said Torres, who served as deputy assistant general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice during the Clinton Administration.
Panelist Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, who was named to President Biden’s White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, discussed the importance of recognizing how pollution and air toxins have played a role in high COVID-19 rates in communities of color and a need for a fresh look at the Clean Air Act.
The creation of the White House advisory council and Biden’s Justice 40 initiative, which requires 40 percent of the benefits from federal climate action go to disadvantaged communities is a sign of how much progress the movement has made, panelists said.
The goal now is to keep moving forward, they said.
“The challenge now is to hold policy makers feet to the fire as they develop metrics for determining whether goals that have been articulated have been met specifically,” Torres said. “We need to continue to listen to communities.”
At the plenary session on Food, Energy, and Sustainability, YSE Associate Professor Narasimha Rao spoke about the multidimensional nature of poverty, the connection between food insecurity and climate change, and the opportunities for poverty alleviation in a green recovery. Rao said that although the circumstances weren’t exactly the same, there were parallels between South Asia and the U.S. in terms of multidimensional poverty and climate change. In South Asia, over 800 million people suffer micronutrient deficiencies, and 1 billion people lack clean cooking sources, leading to significant damage to people’s health and the climate. In the U.S., food and mobility poverty rates were much higher for BIPOC than whites. Mobility poverty, Rao said, often means not having access to a personal vehicle, which can translate to limited employment options, longer commute times, or not being able to access better food/grocery options. In addition, Rao said a higher percentage of BIPOC were unable to afford air conditioning to help combat the effects of climate change and a higher percentage of BIPOC were subject to “heat or eat” distress which means they reduce the amount of food they buy in order to heat their homes. Although climate change was going to acerbate the risks of multidimensional poverty, Rao said he saw reason for optimism in Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan with initiatives, such as electrification of transport and energy-efficient, upgrades to buildings in public housing. Be he called for deep stakeholder engagement rather than broad surveys in order to determine the way to move forward.
“We need to talk to people and really understand the nature of energy and food insecurities that people have today, and on that basis, develop analyses and recommendations for policies for a green recovery that can really further social justice,” Rao said.