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Why environmental hazards hit disadvantaged communities hardest

1 November 2017
20th anniversary of global environmental justice conference

Australia's national energy crisis is forcing disadvantaged families to make impossible decisions. International experts will gather at the University of Sydney to discuss other challenges to achieving environmental justice.

As Australia grapples with the national energy crisis and the Trump administration prepares to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, international experts from across the globe will discuss the key challenges of environmental justice at the University of Sydney.

The US Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment of all people regardless of race, colour, or income,” with respect to environmental laws, regulations and policies. 

“It is shocking that 30 years after the very first study documenting the relationship between toxic waste and race was published in the US, we still have brand new instances of poisoning of African-American communities such as in Flint, Michigan,” said Professor of Environmental Politics, and Co-Director of the University’s Sydney Environment Institute (SEI), David Schlosberg.

The percentage of children with elevated blood levels of lead increased from 2.3 percent to 4.9 percent in that time.
Professor David Schlosberg

“This more than doubled their at-risk exposure in a city where the population is 57 percent African-American and the household income is half that of Michigan state’s median.

“Environmental justice is an issue here as well. Australia’s soaring energy prices are forcing many socio-economically disadvantaged families to make impossible decisions between, for example, turning on air-conditioning – if they have it – or suffering through increasing heatwaves,” said Professor Schlosberg.

Hosted by the SEI, the Environmental Justice 2017 conference will be held on 6-8 November, marking 20 years since its first Australian conference, held in Melbourne.

“Communities that are already vulnerable to racism and other forms of disadvantage also have to deal with the threats posed by hurricanes, floods, droughts and heatwaves. These environmental hazards have only been exacerbated by climate change,” said Professor Schlosberg.

Highlights of the conference include:

‘Father’ of environmental justice, Professor Robert Bullard (Texas Southern University) on lessons of the past 20 years of environmental injustice

  • Associate Professor Kyle Powys-Whyte (Michigan State University) on what environmental justice means for indigenous communities
  • Professor Amita Baviskar (University of Delhi) on the impacts to culture, food, and health
  • Dr Sherilyn MacGregor (University of Manchester) on crucial place of gender in discussions of environment and justice.

Even in a grim reality, there are some inspiring trends in environmental justice activism, Professor Schlosberg reflects. One of these trends is in food justice and the development of more local and sustainable food systems.

Experts such as Devita Davison, Co-Director of FoodLab Detroit, and Professor Julian Agyeman, who developed the idea of ‘just sustainability’, will discuss the future of food justice in cities.

Another positive story for environmental justice is that of fashion activism, on which Lisa Heinze recently completely her postdoctoral thesis at the University of Sydney. But the future of environmental justice also brings many challenges.

“In a climate where the US president attempts to roll back environmental regulations implemented by the previous administration and Adani pursues the world’s largest coal mine in north Queensland, environmental justice has never been more urgent,” said Professor Schlosberg.

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