NAI News

Symposium highlights social justice aspects of climate change

More than 130 people attended the international symposium “People and Climate Change: Vulnerability, Adaptation, Social Justice” on November 18 at Washington University in St. Louis.

The event, led by Washington University in St. Louis, National University of Singapore and the University of Tennessee–Knoxville, was created to sharpen the focus on climate change as a social, economic and environmental justice challenge – and to work toward solutions.

In his welcoming remarks, Washington University Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton said one of the most important challenges of this century is how to provide the energy people need at an affordable cost without harming the environment.

“Climate change is a serious threat to the future of the planet, and people everywhere are going to be adversely affected if we are not able to address this problem,” Wrighton said. The symposium “touches upon a very important theme, and that is the unevenness with which we are going to see adversity as climate change unfolds,” he said.

A common theme during the symposium was that poor communities bear the social and economic brunt of losses during environmental disasters brought on by climate change. Margaret Arnold, senior social development specialist at the World Bank, spoke about building “social resilience,” the ability for people to thrive despite crises. Climate change and disaster risk management are inseparable from poverty reduction, she said, and she laid out three operational approaches to increase resilience:

social protection and safety nets to help build resilience to natural hazards and climate change;
community-driven development that gives control over planning decisions and investment resources to community groups and local governments;
and investing in women as resilience champions.
Women are disproportionally vulnerable to the impacts of natural hazards and climate change, Arnold said, especially where their rights are not equal to those of men. In 1991 when Cyclone Gorky hit Bangladesh, for example, women’s deaths outnumbered men’s by 14 to one, she said. Women were reluctant to use cyclone shelters for cultural reasons. The country “made some very easy and low- to no-cost adjustments like making safe spaces for women in the cyclone shelters and training women as the deliverers of the message” to take shelter, Arnold said. “If they heard a woman’s voice coming out of the bullhorn, they would go” to a shelter. When Cyclone Sidr hit in 2007, the gender gap in mortality rates had shrunk to a ratio of five women to one man.

‘Dangerous vulnerabilities’
Local, national and international experts delivered presentations during four panels moderated by Lisa Reyes Mason, assistant professor at the College of Social Work at the University of Tennessee, Michael Sherraden, director of the Next Age Institute, and Himadri Pakrasi, director of the International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability (I-CARES).

NAI is a co-organizer of the symposium. The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare also provided support for the symposium. One of the Academy’s 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work is “Create social responses to a changing environment.

In addition to the panels, Brant Walker, the mayor of Alton, Illinois, and a representative of the Mississippi Rivers and Towns Initiative, provided a regional spotlight called “Food and water: Our two most dangerous vulnerabilities to climate change.”

“Climate change can no longer just be brushed off,” Walker said. Dealing with it “is absolutely critical not only for a quality of life issue for our citizens, but also for our rivers, also for our food supply.” Sixty percent of Americans get their drinking water from rivers, and the effects on the Mississippi River alone could impact at least 10 states, he pointed out. And the Mississippi isn’t the only river facing problems. “All the river basins are being impacted by climate change,” Walker said.

In closing, Sherraden said he sees climate change as more than a technical issue “that we have to solve and then figure out how to get people to behave the right way.”

Instead, “this is a social, environmental, technical system that has to be solved together,” he said.

“We need to get beyond ‘We need to help these people’ to ‘How can we all develop a different way of living that’s much more constructive for everybody?’” Sherraden said. “That’s a big agenda.”