Saying "yes" to climate justice


It’s Sunday morning and I’m on my way home from the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference in Eugene, Ore., the annual convergence of lefty lawyers, scientists, and policy advocates on the frontlines of the fight to preserve the earth.  As usual, the conference afforded a tremendous array of opportunities to learn and be inspired; every year, courageous environmental legal advocates report on their creative and innovative responses to the ever-increasing complexity of the dire environmental problems we face.

One of the panels I attended, “Reinventing the Grid, Protecting the Land: Renewable Energy in the West,” addressed the challenges and opportunities for environmental organizations working in collaboration with renewable energy developers on solar and wind energy projects in the West. One panelist reflected that the experience of partnering with major energy enterprises, under the rubric of state-sponsored initiatives like California’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, is new and unfamiliar terrain for groups accustomed to going head to head with coal mines, coal-fired power plants, and other fossil fuel operations on Western lands.  The consensus on the panel, however, was that these kinds of partnerships – however unfamiliar – are the new norm, and that advocates play a vital role in ensuring that the land is adequately protected while renewable projects are installed and operated.

Exactly a week prior to this panel discussion, I was in Flagstaff, Ariz. for a meeting with the Navajo Green Economy Coalition.  This consortium of grassroots Navajo environmental justice leaders, both young and elder, works for a just transition away from the Navajo Nation’s historical reliance on the coal industry, with all its attendant destructive impacts on land, culture and real economic sovereignty.  After successfully lobbying the Navajo Nation to pass last summer’s unprecedented legislation establishing a Green Economic Commission and Fund, the Coalition now turns its attention to the practical work of building partnerships and testing strategies for incubating tribal-owned green businesses, promoting alternative forms of economic development based on traditional tribal activities, and encouraging renewable energy projects on tribal lands, particularly brownfields – lands exploited and abandoned by the coal companies.  The Coalition is forging partnerships with allies and advocates holding a wide range of necessary expertise, so that the vision of a just transition can be fully realized.

Fast forward: back in Eugene, the last panel I attended yesterday was a discussion of climate-justice-based tort litigation on behalf of the community of Kivalina, Alaska.  A group of environmental lawyers, including the Center on Race, Poverty and Environment, represents this small indigenous village in a tortuous and groundbreaking public nuisance litigation against major greenhouse gas emitters like ExxonMobil, as the community fights a losing battle against insidious climate change impacts such as erosion and melting sea ice.  The Army Corps of Engineers reports that the centuries-old community can only feasibly remain on its land for another 10 to 15 years before total evacuation becomes unavoidable.

As we watch the Kivalina story and similar greenhouse gas-induced crises of cultural disintegration unfold before us, where so often such crises most directly impact the world’s economically-disadvantaged and indigenous peoples, the climate justice movement calls on all of us to be smarter, more inclusive, and more determined in our work towards climate stabilization.  Earth advocates can take our cues from indigenous leaders as they issue their clear “no” to the destructive impacts of climate change, while saying “yes” to creative and workable solutions like the Navajo Green Economy Coalition’s support for alternative energy and economic development opportunities.

Legal advocates will always go to court.  However, as advocates engage with renewable energy corporation CEOs and other unlikely allies to ensure that climate-neutral energy projects are protective of lands and species, advocates must also work with grassroots leaders to ensure that opportunity to participate in the new energy economy is equitably distributed across all communities.  From the northernmost to the southernmost points of the Americas, indigenous peoples stand on the frontlines while the seasons slip; concomitantly, personal health, economic prosperity and cultural survival are slipping, too.  As advocates work diligently to restore balance, we must incorporate a commitment to justice at every step along the way.

Caitlin Sislin, Esq. is the Advocacy Director for Women’s Earth Alliance, where she coordinates the Sacred Earth Advocacy Network — a network of pro bono legal and policy advocates in collaboration with indigenous women environmental justice leaders.  For more information about participating in the Advocacy Network as a pro bono advocate, or our three 2010 Advocacy Delegations, please contact Caitlin at