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UW scholar says the latest climate report highlights connections to justice and inequality

Giniw Collective
Giniw Collective

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report this month, detailing the actions humanity must take to stave off the worst effects of climate change. University of Wyoming Environmental Justice scholar Matt Henry was pleased to see that the report raised and highlighted issues of justice. Wyoming Public Radio's Jeff Victor asked Henry about the connection between climate change and issues of justice or inequality.

Matt Henry: Really, there's been a lot of scholarly work and activist work drawing a direct line between colonization and the exploitation of people and resources for profit, and the extent to which colonization has either led to climate change through economic models that favor natural resource extraction and profit over stewardship of the land - but also at the expense of indigenous peoples, people of color, low-income communities. Those types of communities are especially vulnerable to climate change. So, you're much more likely to, for example, be displaced from your home on the Gulf Coast when a hurricane hits if you're a person of color, if you're indigenous, and so forth. And so there's a lot of correlation between vulnerability, climate change, and socioeconomic status, race, and gender. And so, social justice issues are really, really intertwined with climate justice issues. On the other hand, those correlations are not always spoken about in the mainstream, which is why it's really interesting to see some of those issues be foregrounded in the last week or so.

Jeff Victor: Just to set the scene with that: with the latest IPCC assessment, we actually got three reports. The first details the physical science underpinning our understanding of climate change. The second report looked at the effects climate change will have, and the third report details what we need to do to diminish or address those effects. And I want to ask you, basically, what we've learned about climate change this year. What is climate change going to hand us? And how will that interact with these global or local issues of justice and inequality?

MH: Well, I think the first thing to note is that the authorship of the reports this time around - during these last three reports and especially the last two - included far more social scientists than it ever has in the past. And that means that the reports have done an unprecedented job linking social justice and environmental justice issues with the impacts of climate change. The message is more or less the same as it has been in terms of the urgency: we have little time to act, we must act quickly to prevent warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But the reports, more or less, did a really interesting job linking social justice issues and climate impacts, especially the most recent one. But the working group II report that came out in February, actually used the word colonialism as a reference as to one of the causes of climate change, which is a really big deal. And, of course, it doesn't necessarily mean anything if governments don't buy into that rhetoric and heed that link and take action accordingly. But the very fact that these reports are including more social scientists - who are more equipped to talk about justice issues and the historical injustices related to climate change is a big deal.

And then the report that came out this week is 3,000 pages long, more or less, and it's actually quite radical. At every stop, it sort of accuses the fossil fuel industry of obstructing climate action. It proposes some pretty radical solutions and maintains, for example, that we can literally cut our energy consumption in half and still, in many ways, maintain our current standard of living - which is a pretty radical thing for a report like this to include.

But on the other hand, what most people read is the summary for policymakers, which is a high-level summary of the report and that's a little bit different because that has to be approved by the hundred and seventy-odd governments in the world. Which means certain things that are in the longer report don't make it into the summary for policymakers. The accusations toward the fossil fuel industry - which is pretty biting in the main report - is mostly cut from the summary for policymakers. A lot of what's included in the report about how to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change with regard to social justice are a little bit more watered-down, perhaps, in the summary for policymakers. So, a lot more could be included in the reports, but it should still be noted that there's been a lot of progress on that front anyway.

JV: As we go about making these sorts of drastic changes, or demanding these drastic changes from our leaders, how can we bring that environmental justice or that social justice perspective to those changes, or to those demands?

MH: I think what we need more of is more social scientists and different forms of expertise included in the drafting of reports and studies that are seen by policymakers. So, more of what we just saw by the IPCC, I think, is one really important area. And the other is expanding what we consider to be valid climate science, valid knowledge of the environment. There's a diverse array of knowledges out there, especially indigenous climate science, which has a different assumption about human relations with nature and human interconnection with nature. And I think more perspectives like that can really help policy become more responsive to environmental justice communities. So those are a couple of areas I think that can really help elevate justice even further. But we have made a lot of progress in that area for sure.

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.

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