The nexus between climate justice, racism, and a collective consciousness

By Kelly Gillespie

Universities have long wielded the allure of cross-cultural exchange to promote study abroad programs, nudging students to leave the country in pursuit of the unknown, whilst enticing international students to board 747s and join their global community. Quite rarely does this conversation concern itself with environmental repercussions exacerbated by this migratory body. What’s more, past multicultural initiatives have failed to connect students’ climate footprint with inequalities produced by structural racism; a link that must be integrated into modern day discourse in order to inspire sustainable results. The Climate Action Network for International Educators (CAN-IE) recently hosted a webinar with guests Andrew Gordon (founder and CEO of Diversity Abroad), Melissa Lee (founder and CEO of The Green Program), and Robin Shields (Professor of Education at the University of Bristol). Together, the panelists engaged in a critical reflection of their roles as educators and responsibilities of the international community in hopes of identifying the gaps between higher education, global movement and greenhouse gases.

It’s first crucial to demarcate the difference between climate change and climate justice, acknowledging these terms as two related, yet distinct concepts. As Professor Shields describes: climate change relates the physical change, whilst climate justice refers to the sociological implications that are embedded in and compounded by centuries of colonial, racist, and indigenous forms of oppressions. The irony remains that those who contribute least to climate change are affected the most. The Global South is scapegoated for their inability to transition to clean/renewable energy (most likely due to the economic constraints imposed by an ambivalent history with the Global North), yet the Global North contributes the most to climate change. Professor Shields has estimated the carbon footprint of international students to be around 30 million tons per year, the equivalent to that of a small country such as Croatia or Ireland. International and study abroad students are given a free pass in the name of active, global citizenship, yet it is those who are rendered unable to carve out a space to participate who are experiencing the effects first hand. Environmental justice always advocates for reducing carbon emissions as a panacea, yet tends to shy away from undertaking the monumental, yet necessary task of transforming society, using a social justice framework to initiate a reparative praxis.

The Green Program and Diversity Abroad have approached such a task perfervidly and without trepidation. The two organisations have dedicated themselves to imbuing students with the knowledge to confront the undeniable truth: racial justice is inextricable from climate justice. The Green Program offers study abroad opportunities which expose students to sustainable, alternative ways to travel. Supported by an endonormative curriculum that relies and draws upon local contexts, traditional, rote learning methods are supplanted by storytelling. This is a key element of the program, the importance of ‘passing the mic,’ as Lee says, to local women or indigenous communities who can bestow invaluable wisdom to participants. In conversation about the global, academic community, Lee wants all organizations and institutions to use environmentalism as a metric, whilst considering partnerships and travel. She has proudly noted that 75% of the students who returned from participation have now switched their majors to environmentalism.

Diversity Abroad gives marginalised communities the chance to be a part of global programs, equipping them with the necessary skills to thrive as competitive applicants within our interconnected world. Gordon, a self-proclaimed neophyte when it comes to climate justice (yet eager to do better), has begun to think of ways in which study abroad programs can reduce their carbon footprint. His cogitations have led to the awareness of a rather tricky conundrum; that extra costs are required to offset carbon emissions, yet charging more fees further silos students already on the periphery of accessing these programs. This is one of many instances in which knowledge of such predicaments is not sufficient: action must take precedence. Gordon emphasizes that, while literacy of these pertinent issues is indeed a crucial component to tackling them, this must be transferred into tangible, structural change which uplifts and supports the communities impacted. Our knowledge of the Flint water crisis, the oil refineries that constellate Richmond, California, and Hurricane Katrina will wane and waste away if this is not reconstructed into meaning, concrete action.

At the end of the webinar, the question was posed of whether or not climate justice can be achieved without addressing historical injustices of the past, yet the answer remains clear: why would we not seize such a transformative opportunity? Professor Shields stressed the importance of building an international coalition that is grounded in solidarity and recognition, one that will use the voices of the oppressed to create a new future. He argues that ‘we must end our naïve approach and transition to a socially progressive approach that challenges the power paradigm.’ Rather, we must transition to a collective consciousness, reimagining what it means to be a part of a global community that is migrating on the tailwinds of racial and environmental injustice.


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