Environmental justice challenge awaits

From the President

Kathryn WehrmannHarvey, Irma and Maria — the hurricanes that recently brought such devastation to so many — will fade from regular news coverage while the survivors struggle to recover. Life will not be the same for many, and especially not for the least advantaged. 

I am focusing this column on environmental justice and our role as social workers in fighting for it.  

In exploring the concept of environmental justice, I consulted the United States EPA website and found a definition: Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. 

Further exploration led me to a challenge — a Grand Challenge, in fact —  identified by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare: Create social responses to a changing environment. Climate change and urban development threaten health, undermine coping, and deepen existing social and environmental inequities. 

A changing global environment requires transformative social responses: new partnerships, deep engagement with local communities, and innovations to strengthen individual and collective assets.

Consulting recent writings focused on hurricane disasters brought me to Ilan Kelman, a researcher on risk and disaster reduction, writing for The Conversation, who argues that “weather and climate don’t cause disasters — vulnerability does.

”We have witnessed this as various news reports have documented that the least well off suffered, and will continue to suffer, disproportionately in the aftermath of the hurricanes.

As Kelman notes, a “disaster involving a hurricane cannot happen unless people, infrastructure and communities are vulnerable to it. In his view, vulnerability is born of a lack of knowledge, social connections, support or finances to deal with a hurricane or other environmental event. 

Beyond these contributors, it is also critical to consider the other forces that exacerbate vulnerability. 

For example, privileged groups with business interests can work to block stricter building codes, planning regulations and enforcement procedures in order to advance their financial interests. 

This misuse of influence leads to human-made conditions that contribute to devastation in the event of violent weather. In addition, many individuals and families do not have the means or ability to insure their homes and possessions, and can’t afford to go somewhere else to shelter when the hurricanes hit.

Writing for the Columbia Social Work Review in 2013, Jarvis makes an explicit call for social work to address issues of environmental justice. Added to what Kelman discusses in terms of vulnerabilities, Jarvis points to additional issues such as the location of industrial waste facilities in predominantly minority communities, which can have even more serious consequences during hurricane situations. 

This vulnerability was demonstrated in Houston, where massive leaks from petrochemical companies flowed into floodwaters and highlighted the inadequacy of chemical safety policies, including disclosure of chemicals stored on site. 

Alarmingly, the Trump administration has called for the elimination of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board that is charged to investigate chemical accidents.“Environmental Injustice” is the term Phil McKenna of Slate used in September to describe Puerto Rico’s situation in the aftermath of Maria. As I write this article, efforts to help are still under way, although progress is unknown.

 What is known comes from a 2013 report by the Puerto Rico Climate Change Council made up of researchers, planners, economists, architects, sociologists, health professionals, hydrologists and climate scientists — which found that Puerto Rico is very vulnerable to extreme events due to the creation of “fragile and unstable environmental conditions.” 

The report highlighted the increased numbers of people living in flood-prone areas because of the alteration of natural drainage of water. In addition to living in floodways, more people are also living in areas that are susceptible to landslides. 

Added to all of this is a high poverty rate and an increasing number of elderly who have limited choices about where they reside. Like those in the aftermath of Harvey, communities in Puerto Rico that are next to Superfund sites and petrochemical facilities may face additional hazards in the aftermath of powerful storms.  

So what is social work’s role in advocating for environmental justice?

Jarvis argues that social work needs to include environmental justice as a part of our profession’s social justice framework if it is to maintain relevancy within the field of social justice. 

He further adds that we need to expand our person-in-the environment perspective to include both the physical and natural environment. Are we prepared to take on this challenge? What do you think? 

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