On Wednesday, February 17, Constance Okollet, Reverend Lennox Yearwood Jr. and Frances Beinecke gathered at Yale to speak about the responsibility to act on climate change, and the intersection between climate change and human rights.
By 2016, the world’s scientists have come to an overwhelming consensus: climate change is real, and immediate steps must be taken to mitigate its worst effects. But in the past decade, conversations surrounding the threat of climate change have begun to evolve. Preserving the earth’s future is not simply about curbing rising sea levels or fixing damaged rainforests or clearing pollution-filled skies—it’s about human rights.
At Yale this winter, three climate change leaders gathered to discuss this idea, and share their insights on strategies to fight for environmental justice.
Constance Okollet is a self-proclaimed “accidental activist.” Her first reckoning with the changing climate came in 2007, when a flood ravaged her small Ugandan town. The flood meant more than just excess water: roads were destroyed; children couldn’t get to school; crops and animals were killed; sickness ravaged the village. People had to travel miles for food. And then, after the flood waters had abated, a drought arrived, bringing with it more hunger, thirst, and disease.
“People have a right to clean air, a right to clean water. Climate change is a civil rights issue.”
For hundreds of years, the town had experienced only two seasons. Crops had been bountiful. Nature had been stable. So when the flood came, Okollet’s neighbors were shocked, and believed God was punishing them or attempting to mediate population growth.
But in the disaster’s aftermath, a group of Oxfam workers visited the village and explained that this flood was not an act of retribution, but a symptom of the changing climate brought upon by the West. When Okollet heard this, she was determined to educate the rest of her friends and neighbors about the dangers that this manmade environmental transition posed.
…the effects of pollution, fossil fuel consumption, drilling, and carbon output aren’t confined within physical borders, and they don’t impact all communities equally.
Though Okollet’s village has a relatively tiny carbon footprint and very little impact on the rising global temperature, it feels the brunt of the impact disproportionately as floods and droughts become more common. Only through Okollet’s on-the-ground education efforts and international advocacy has their story made its way into the media. Okollet works with the non-profit Climate-Wise Women to communicate that the effects of pollution, fossil fuel consumption, drilling, and carbon output aren’t confined within physical borders, and they don’t impact all communities equally.
Bringing a parallel perspective, Reverend Lennox Yearwood Jr., chair of the Hip-Hop Caucus, calls attention to the outsize effects of climate change on minority communities within the United States.
“We don’t want to bring people in with ‘Oh my God, oh my God, the world’s ending!’ … we need to use our cultural expression to shape our political experience.”
When Yearwood visited post-Katrina New Orleans ten years ago, he was inspired by the residents’ resilience in the face of physical destruction. But he realized they were rebuilding houses on streets with nicknames like “Cancer Avenue”—land occupied by power plants and factories that left behind toxic groundwater and diminished air quality. These companies’ legacy of (or continual production of) pollution causes nearby residents to develop health problems like emphysema, cancer, asthma, and bronchitis. And because of exclusionary zoning laws, historical segregation practices, and institutional racism, poor people of color are more likely to live on this toxic land. “People have a right to clean air, a right to clean water.” Yearwood said. “Climate change is a civil rights issue.”
Frances Beinecke, the third speaker, is the former head of the Natural Resources Defense Council and now Mclesky Fellow at Yale School of Forestry. Beinecke noted that for most of the late 20th century, the dialogue around climate change excluded leaders like Okollet and Lennox. Climate was a subject only oil companies, engineers, scientists and public policy advocates discussed; the rhetoric was distant, disconnected, technical. But in the past five or ten years, Beinecke has watched as climate change has become personal; as voices of activists have been lifted through social media and brought to the public arena.
[Climate change] policy is only driven by the power and raised voices of the people.
As someone who works primarily in the policy arena, Beinecke is excited by this trend. Even in a country like the United States, whose political divisions are so polarized, the polls show that the majority of the population supports acting on climate change. But policy is only driven by the power and raised voices of the people—organizations like the NRDC need adequate support from the voting populace to affect the necessary legislation. “It’s people on the ground that will enable organizations to actually put these policies in place,” Beinecke said. “We need muscle. It’s your job, going forward, to make sure we have that muscle.”
Yearwood Jr. works with the Hip-Hop Caucus to lead rallies and use the power of social media to inspire people to flex those muscles. The Hip-Hop Caucus collaborated with musicians and artists to create the “People’s Climate Movement” in an effort to make the heavy topic of earth’s destruction more accessible. “We don’t want to bring people in with ‘Oh my God, oh my God, the world’s ending!’” he laughed. “We decided that we need to use our cultural expression to shape our political experience.”
On September 21, 2014, thousands of people came together in cities across the U.S. to march for climate justice during the People’s Climate March. It became the largest climate movement in history, and a sign that people are beginning to demand political action on environmental issues.
Even so, Yearwood insisted that “demonstration without legislation leads to frustration.”
Yearwood called on the college students who were gathered for the talk to use their education to make a positive impact on the earth’s future, and reminded them to combine these academic pursuits with GOTA— “Genius Outside The Academy.” Experience things, and engage, he told them.
“If we get this one wrong, it’s not just about civil rights,” Yearwood said. “it’s about civil existence.”