On September 28, a day after Thomas F. Stocker, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, called climate change ÔÇ£the greatest challenge of our time,ÔÇØ more than 220 people gathered at a United Methodist Church in Springfield for the Second Annual Climate Action Now Conference. Welcomed by reggae music and rap, an unusually diverse group of people from different cultural, class and ethnic backgrounds gathered to organize around climate change and environmental justice. Forty groups co-sponsored the event, including Greening Grace, of Grace Church, Amherst.
[Photo: This march took place from DGI-Byen, the venue of Klimaforum09, to the Parliament Square on 12 December 2009, in Copenhagen, Denmark.]
Conference organizer Susan Theberge spoke of the ÔÇ£unfolding catastropheÔÇØ of climate change and the urgent need to ÔÇ£build a united, unstoppable peopleÔÇÖs movement for climate justice.ÔÇØ Michaelann Bewsee of Arise for Social Justice described the particular vulnerability of the poor to extreme weather and other effects of climate change. Still, she said, global warming affects everyone. ÔÇ£If we donÔÇÖt get it together,ÔÇØ she observed, ÔÇ£we will all be homeless. This planet is our home.ÔÇØ
In her keynote speech, Jacqui Patterson, the Environmental Justice Director for the national NAACP, argued that when society puts profits before people and turns natural resources into commodities, the result is economic and environmental injustice. Front-line communities affected by climate change need to be at the table where decisions are made, asserted Ms. Patterson, and she urged justice-based, not just economic-based, decisions. Workshops led by different community groups covered a variety of topics, such as waste, recycling and composting; transportation and climate change; food and agriculture; military industrial pollution and climate change; and clean energy. Each workshop was designed to end with concrete action plans that participants would pursue further.
What made this conference so unusual ÔÇô even pioneering ÔÇô was that it brought together climate activists and social justice advocates in a shared venture to help a struggling city become more resilient in the face of climate change. Springfield faces a host of economic and environmental challenges. For instance, the median household income is 20 percent lower than the national median. Most Springfield neighborhoods have been designated ÔÇ£food desertsÔÇØ by the USDA, with a lack of access to fresh vegetables, meat, fish and dairy products. The city has more than 987 identified hazardous waste sites ÔÇô one for every 150 residents.
Anthropologist Tom Taffe pointed out in his workshop, ÔÇ£Building Sustainable, Livable and Equitable Communities,ÔÇØ that more than 80 percent of the areaÔÇÖs African Americans and Latinos live in Springfield and Holyoke. The Pioneer Valley is one of the most racially segregated areas in the U.S. Dr. Taffe expressed appreciation for this groundbreaking conference, remarking that people from Amherst, Northampton and the northern half of the Valley ordinarily come to Springfield as self-proclaimed experts. ÔÇ£This is the first time IÔÇÖve seen the northern half of the Valley sit down with the southern half of the Valley as equals,ÔÇØ he said.
This day-long collaboration across lines of culture, race and class for the sake of the common good was energizing. Connections were made between people of different backgrounds, with very dynamic information and ideas coming from all the parties in the discussions. The conference conveyed a clear message: environmental justice is a necessary component of addressing the problem of climate change.
The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas serves as Priest Associate of Grace Church, Amherst, where parishioner Lucy Robinson convenes the parishÔÇÖs faith and environment group, Greening Grace.
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