Panel 4




Panel 4: Creating a Field: Climate Justice Studies

Talking about Some of the Most Important Things We Can as Scholar-Activists:  How Can We Create the New Field of Climate Justice Studies?

 John Foran

What might a sociology of climate justice look like?  This talk focuses on two main areas:  a sociology of the crisis itself, and a sociology of all the movements which are seeking to resolve the crisis.

Here are some of its characteristics:

We are in a state of multiple crises –triple crisis involving capitalist globalization, the fraying limits of formal representative democracy, and the pervasive violence that seeps throughout and into our cultures, bound together by, and in turn exacerbating, the likelihood of climate chaos. The interdependency of the several crises means that holistic, relational analysis and visionary transboundary scholarship will be essential to understand and confront climate change, and to create climate justice

Both the depth of the current crisis, and the central role played by the climate disruption that exacerbates it, suggest that our activism around climate change may open a window to moving beyond capitalism in our lifetime.  It seems evident that only a strong and vigorous climate justice movement on a global scale has the capacity to force governments to stand up to the economic and political forces of carbon capitalism.  Movements become even stronger when to a widely felt culture of opposition and resistance they add a positive vision of a better world, an alternative to strive for that could improve or replace what exists. We might call these positive, alternative visions “political cultures of creation.”

In the long run, the only real systemic “solution” to the crisis is a broad yet at the same time more radical climate justice movement willing to confront the root causes of the crisis, including capitalism, and strong enough to decisively cut emissions in a just way.  Our task is to widen and radicalize climate justice movements everywhere we can, preparing the ground in ourselves and a new generation for the longer anti-capitalist project of deep social transformation in the direction of an ecologically sustainable, socially just, and deeply democratic global future.

My academic specialty is movements for radical social change, both 20th century revolutions my 2005 book Taking Power:  On the Origins of Twentieth Century Revolutions in the Third World is free and 21st century movements for radical social change, from the Zapatistas and the global justice movement to Occupy, the Arab Spring, and now, esp. the global climate justice movement (see “Beyond Insurgency to Radical Social Change:  The New Situation (2014).

I now work passionately as a scholar-activist on, for, and within the global climate justice movement, which I see as at the center of the struggle for any prospect of achieving social justice and radical social change in the 21st century.  A lot of my work is published at  It can also be found on the websites of the International Institute of Climate Action and Theory and the Climate Justice Project.  I am an active member of System Change Not Climate Change, the Green Party of California, and Santa Barbara 350.

Linking Environmental Justice and Climate Justice through Academia and the Prison Industrial Complex

David Pellow

In this chapter, I link the field of Environmental Justice (EJ) studies to the emergent field of Climate Justice (CJ) Studies by examining some links between and among universities, prisons, and EJ/CJ struggles. Because CJ and EJ are tightly interwoven discourses, practices, and visions of social change, I argue that we can illuminate those linkages in practice by connecting the institutions of academia and the prison system to CJ and EJ politics particularly in relation to divestment campaigns, because these institutions are instruments of social oppression and ecological harm. Specifically, I demonstrate that prisons and universities actively contribute to environmental racism and climate change through planning decisions and investments that support fossil fuel economies and place ecosystems and human health at great risk.

David N. Pellow is the Dehlsen Chair and Professor of Environmental Studies and Director of the Global Environmental Justice Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara where he teaches courses on social change movements, environmental justice, human-animal conflicts, sustainability, and social inequality. His teaching and research focus on ecological justice issues in the U.S. and globally. His books include: What is Critical Environmental Justice? (forthcoming); Total Liberation: The Power and Promise of Animal Rights and the Radical Earth Movement; The Slums of Aspen: Immigrants vs. the Environment in America’s Eden (with Lisa Sun-Hee Park); Resisting Global Toxics: Transnational Movements for Environmental Justice; The Silicon Valley of Dreams: Environmental Injustice, Immigrant Workers, and the High-Tech Global Economy (with Lisa Sun-Hee Park); and Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago. He has served on the Boards of Directors for Global Response, The Global Action Research Center, the Center for Urban Transformation, the Santa Clara Center for Occupational Safety and Health, Greenpeace USA, and International Rivers.

For Climate Justice Studies – Focus on the Object — Pedagogical Spectacles of Power Counter-Power —

Richard Widick

Creating the field of Climate Justice Studies will require sustained reflection on what such a discipline should take as its central objects of investigation.  In this talk I argue from theoretical grounds and empirical evidence, derived from years of participatory observation inside the UN climate talks, that one key object of Climate Justice Studies must be the public sphere spectacle of power that is the yearly convocation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conferences of the Parties.  Power understood dialectically always begets resistance, and so we arrive at the yearly rhythm of power and counter-power putting themselves on display … a pedagogy of masses tuning into the hyper-mediated public struggles that I see reproducing and potentially reshaping both globalization and the unfolding climate crisis.  From our temporal vantage point here, early in the 21st century, I see future decades of perpetual public sphere struggle over global climate policy through the historical lens of the preceding decades of struggle over global economic policy.

Richard Widick, Sociologist & Visiting Scholar at the Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara; Director & Co-founder with John Foran, International Institute of Climate Action & Theory (IICAT); CEO & Founder, Metroglobe Productions (MGP).

Indigenous Climate Change Studies: Indigenizing Futures, Decolonizing the Anthropocene

Kyle Powys White

Indigenous and allied scholars, knowledge keepers, scientists, learners, change-makers, and leaders are creating a field to support Indigenous peoples’ capacities to address anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change. Indigenous studies often reflect the memories and knowledges that arise from Indigenous peoples’ living heritages as societies with stories, lessons, and long histories of having to be well-organized to adapt to seasonal and inter-annual environmental changes. At the same time, our societies have been heavily disrupted by colonialism, capitalism, and industrialization. As a Potawatomi scholar-activist working on issues Indigenous people face with the U.S. settler state, I perceive at least three key themes reflected across the field that suggest distinct approaches to inquiries into climate change — which I will discuss in the brief presentation.

Kyle Whyte holds the Timnick Chair in the Humanities at Michigan State University. He is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Community Sustainability, a faculty member of the Environmental Philosophy & Ethics graduate concentration, and a faculty affiliate of the American Indian & Indigenous Studies and Environmental Science & Policy programs. He is Potawatomi and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. His research, teaching, training, and activism address moral and political issues concerning climate policy and Indigenous peoples and the ethics of cooperative relationships between Indigenous peoples and climate science organizations. His work has recently extended to cover issues related to Indigenous food sovereignty.

Q & A

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2 replies
  1. John Foran, UC Santa Barbara says:

    My hope in setting up this part of the conference is to spark discussion of how might we as scholar activists contribute to the making of a new field of inquiry, which we might call Climate Justice Studies?

    I reached out to more than two dozen scholars in anthropology, sociology, politics, the environment humanities, indigenous studies, ethnic studies, geography, feminist studies, queer studies, the sciences, communications, film and media studies, religious studies, politics, development studies, animal studies, vegan studies, languages, and the arts, and it is my hope that many of those who could not commit to sending in a talk will make contributions to the discussion over the next four weeks. And this includes YOU!

    I’d like to open this discussion by inviting questions and comments from or for anyone on any of the talks on this panel, which together constitute the beginning of a multisided exploration of where we might go inside and outside the academy and in the creation of a broad field of climate justice studies at this juncture. Or should we pursue this at all?

    Here’s a question I ask of everyone in the audience: how do you react to the project of creating Climate Justice Studies? What should it be about? What are its theories, methods, pedagogies, practices, commitments? What are the pros and cons of this project? What are the pitfalls and potentials? What are some key sources and resources for it? What would you like to see it become?

  2. David Jones says:

    I think this effort to rouse the academy is timely and necessary. I am convinced a curriculum for young students ( grade 6-12?) is sorely needed, including a more socially engaged pedagogy of natural science. Does this start with challenges to teachers colleges? Then there is the economics department, the age old battleground. Mankiw’s macro-economics need to be discarded.

    Not that it affects your basic argument, but Hansen’s latest paper (July 18) states that “1.5 exceeds Eemian temperatures and is not an appropriate goal.” He is now advocating .5 . As the Situationists had it, we really do need to demand the impossible, including technologies which don’t yet exist.

    As to the “triple crisis” and your point of breaking down boundaries between the various disciplines, I believe an equally potent crisis, not mentioned, is the crisis of meaning, something suffered across class, racial and ethnic lines. To overly generalize I would characterize all fundamentalist and far-right wing, reactionary movements as tragic manifestations of capitalism’s necessity of “turning all that is solid into air” (following Marshal Berman), of hollowing out our cultural guideposts and spiritual moorings, of super-accelerating beyond synaptic capacity and hence pulling the ground out from beneath us on the level of kinship, workplace security, Beavis and Butthead Presidential campaigns etc…
    In this sense, I think an interdisciplinary approach to the psycho-social factors of ( the old categories ) alienation, estrangement but also disavowal and transference should be a priority. We have failing systems and moribund institutions needing change, but we also have multitudes of damaged individuals in need of analysis and healing. Opioids, rising mortality rates, death of the unions, and Trumpism.

    My final point is on the notion of “prefigurative” which I trace back to Holloway (?) I was convinced this was necessary going into OCCUPY but since that experience I am re-thinking it (and reading some different histories) Perhaps we need one strategy for struggle which won’t necessarily apply to how we organize the Next System, whatever it may be. Just another contrarian thought.
    Thanks for all your work on this great conference, Dave

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