A critical conversation on researching for climate justice

May 27, 2021

Claire Adams
MUrb Candidate, SFU Urban Studies

The views and opinions expressed in SFU Public Square's blogs are those of the authors, and they do not necessarily reflect the official position of Simon Fraser University, SFU Public Square or any other affiliated institutions in any way.

A panel of advocates, researchers, policy-makers and solution-seekers gathered virtually on May 19, 2021 for a critical and compelling conversation about researching for climate justice. (Click here to read the full report on this event.)

Rueben George, a member of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, opened the event. George is the manager of Sacred Trust, an initiative of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation mandated to stop the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline and tanker project. He offered a powerful reflection on the fight against the pipeline and the Nation's vision of a better future for their lands, waters and people—and for all people. “If we win, we all win,” noted George.

Moderator Am Johal, the director of SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement and co-director of SFU’s Community-Engaged Research Initiative, then introduced a panel of seven speakers and three respondents who each offered a unique perspective on key questions about climate justice.

What is climate justice?

Climate justice, as explained by panelist Eugene Kung, a staff lawyer at West Coast Environmental Law, is an approach that embeds climate change within social justice and recognizes that the people most negatively impacted by climate change are those least responsible for creating those impacts and those least able to mitigate or adapt to them. Climate justice also requires that climate solutions use the lens of justice and equity. As an example, fellow panelist Marc Lee, a senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (BC Office), pointed out that climate justice requires governments to not aggressively rush towards climate actions without considering the ways those actions may disproportionately impact vulnerable people and groups.

What are the root causes of climate injustice?

Anjali Appadurai, the climate justice lead at Sierra Club BC and sectoral organizer with the newly formed Climate Emergency Unit, drew from her experiences as a climate justice advocate representing Global South climate movements to address the roots of climate injustice. Appadurai highlighted the role of the world’s wealthiest countries in creating the climate crisis, and suggested that issues of “third-world debt” and colonialism cannot be separated from conversations about climate justice. These patterns of inequity, Appadurai pointed out, are reflected at the local level here in B.C. in terms of who is most impacted by climate issues. An effective response to climate injustice must have strong international solidarity, Appadurai concluded, because “climate knows no borders.”

A further root cause of climate injustice is the disparity in who is producing emissions, a point made by Lee who referenced a recent study that indicated the world’s wealthiest 5 per cent of people were responsible for more than a third of the growth in global emissions between 1990 and 2015.

Why should we strive for climate justice?

Panelist Khelsilem, a councillor for the Squamish Nation, went on to highlight that taking the right kind of actions now will benefit our society in a way that creates more equality and dignity for people who are currently most negatively impacted by climate change. This type of just transition must be worker-focused and low-income-focused, and it must prioritize policies and strategies that materially benefit people who have not historically benefitted. This type of outcome cannot be achieved if we focus on solutions that perpetuate the inequality in our society.

Whose voices should researchers and students concerned about climate justice listen to and amplify?

Tesicca Truong drew from her roots as an environmental activist and co-founder of CityHive to speak about the importance of engaging young people and folks from marginalized communities who have previously been excluded from these types of conversations. Young people, Truong noted, are disproportionately affected by the policy decisions made today due to the future impacts of these decisions. Truong also built upon points made by Kung and Lee concerning ethical research. Truong noted the importance of valuing different types of knowledge, including lived experience; ensuring that research is focused on working with communities to their benefit; and sharing the outcomes of research with community partners.

What are some of the barriers towards embracing climate justice in research and policy?

Through her work with municipal governments, panelist Andréanne Doyon, an assistant professor and director of planning in SFU’s School of Resource and Environmental Management, had identified that a key barrier was the difficulty of developing clear evaluation processes and targets to measure climate justice. This challenge was related to an issue raised by all of the panelists: the need for better data to understand and respond to climate injustices. Specifically, disaggregated demographic data is needed to identify how different groups are experiencing the impacts of the climate crisis.

Maya Gislason, an assistant professor in SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences, spoke about her work in attempting to address these “silences” in the data by bringing together transdisciplinary scholars to create processes for gathering equity-informed climate impact data. This work requires a focus on the use of mixed methods, decolonization of research and integrating a population- and place-based approach to understanding data. Gislason highlighted a number of theory-driven tools that have helped with this work, including reconceptualizing intersectionality through an Indigenous lens.

What future areas of focus were identified through this event?

Following the panel discussion, three respondents reflected back on what they heard from the speakers and highlighted areas requiring further consideration. Mumbi Maina, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia and a social planner at the City of Vancouver, spoke about the need to further examine and dismantle the structures and institutions that continue to reproduce climate injustice. Maina also posed the need to ask, “Who are we researching for?”, as well as the importance of analyzing our governance models and developing a shared understanding of belonging and wellness to create targeted approaches to address inequities.

Next, Jonathan Fowlie, chief external relations officer at Vancity, offered his agreement with several of the points made by panelists. Fowlie suggested that COVID-19 has served as a dress rehearsal for the climate crisis, and that this highlights the need to think about how our systems are set up to respond to crises. He reflected on the need for data as emphasized by all the panelists, and suggested that we need to be clear about what we mean by equity, and that rigour now will lead to better outcomes in the future.

Finally, Bentley Allan, an associate director at Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS), reflected that the panel discussion and audience questions had emphasized the importance of co-designing solutions. Allan spoke about PICS’ funding support for co-designed projects, noting that researchers should not come to a community with a fixed idea for a research project but instead ask, “How can we serve and support you?” Allan also addressed the question of whether incremental steps can lead to the more radical changes that are required to address climate injustice, making the case that we need to “sequence policies and actions to build the power and the coalition that we want to affect further change down the line.” This long view, Allan suggested, presents an opportunity to strategically think about how to build movements today that can result in bigger, transformative change in the future.

Future programming

The conversation from this event will inspire the direction of future events and content as part of Towards Equity, SFU Public Square's 2021 Community Summit series. Subscribe to our newsletter for the latest updates.

Funding for new climate solutions

Funding is available through the PICS Opportunity Projects Program for active partnerships between academic researchers and solution-seekers, who may be based in the private sector, government, First Nations, civil society or non-government organizations, that produce co-developed climate solutions.

Applications close August 4, 2021.

Post-event report

Read our full report on Researching for Climate Justice. It goes into further depth about the speakers' remarks, questions and comments from audience participants, and common themes that emerged for future exploration.

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