Dr. Daniel Faber is a co-founding Senior Research Fellow with the Global Center for Climate Justice, and on the Governing Board of Coming Clean and the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow. He is the author of numerous works on environmental justice in the United States and globally.
What drives you to work in the climate justice movement? Was there a particular event that precipitated your engagement?
I grew up in the South, and my father was very active in the Civil Rights Movement and as a consultant to school desegregation efforts. I vividly remember the death threats my father and the family received on the phone when I was a little boy. But he stood firm, and instilled in us a deep respect and commitment to racial/social justice and American democracy. I became involved in struggles for racial justice at a very young age.
As a teenager I would visit my older sister in eastern Kentucky. She worked as a legal aid attorney in Harlan County, the heart of coal country. She would often represent families and communities suffering at the hands of the coal companies, challenging them in the courts when a strip mining operation would cause a landslide that would wipe out a home in the valley below. She too received death threats, her dog was shot, and a coal truck tried to run her off the road one evening coming home from work. It was like the Wild West. I was struck by the repression used against ordinary working people in Appalachia. The massive destruction caused by strip mining and mountaintop removal methods of the coal companies in my home state left nothing but poverty and a devastated moonscape in its wake.
In college, I had the good fortune of studying with Harry Caudill at the University of Kentucky, who was the most celebrated, authentic voice on the exploitation of Appalachia and its people. All of this left a deep impression. I left college with a deep commitment to fighting the economic exploitation of working class families in Appalachia and throughout America.
Then, after moving to California in the early 1980s (when I was in my early 20s) to pursue my Ph.D. in Sociology, Josh Karliner and I started the Environmental Project On Central America (EPOCA). Based at Earth Island Institute, our goal was to help build bridges between U.S. and Central American environmentalists, the solidarity and human rights communities, peasant and farmworker associations, and other popular movements to oppose U.S. foreign policy and support a more just and sustainable development path in the region. We especially wanted to build international support for new experiments in revolutionary ecology in Nicaragua that were proving to be so promising and successful in the 1980s. Many of our Central American colleagues were killed during the U.S-Contra war against Nicaragua. Two of our staff members were once arrested by the Honduran military. I had guns pointed at me in El Salvador. It was difficult work. But we were one of the very few organizations that drew the connections between U.S. imperialism, poverty, and environmental injustice in the global South. Josh later founded CorpWatch, and wrote the first ever reports on climate justice in the early 1990s. I feel that our work helped build an internationalist environmental justice framework that would serve the environmental movement for years to come.
I moved to Boston in 1990 and started the Northeastern Environmental Justice Research Collaborative (NEJRC). Our goal was to do research work of strategic importance in advancing the cause of the movement. For instance, we did a report that demonstrated that the environmental justice (EJ) movement was the most underfunded major social movement in the country. Working with leadership of the EJ movement, we highlighted challenges and accomplishments, and provided a framework for how the philanthropic community could engage in more democratic and effective grantmaking practices that supported environmental justice. I believe our work was instrumental in moving foundation money to the movement. NEJRC continues to this day.
And now, in this new chapter in my life, I turn my efforts to help building the new Global Center for Climate Justice. In doing this work, I draw upon my own personal experiences and struggles against racial oppression, class exploitation, imperialism, and the political domination of the global South by the North to create a more holistic climate justice politics. Arresting the existential threat to the future of humanity that is climate change, and doing so through a justice lens, is now the most important work I can do.
What differentiates the Center's work in climate justice from others who work to address the climate crisis?
I think there are a number of points that, when taken together, differentiate our emancipatory climate justice politics from much of the current climate justice movement.
First, we take an intersectional approach in our work that looks at the links and interconnections between class exploitation and corporate power, racism and racial injustice, sexism and patriarchy, and caste and neo-colonial status. Our view is that there are overlapping and mutually-reinforcing systems of power and domination in the world capitalist system that are based upon class, race and ethnicity, gender, citizenship, and colonial status in the global South. The specific intersections of these systems of power shape our own social position (positionality), lived experiences, personal identity, and vulnerability to climate change. Thus, it would make sense that the peoples of the world that experience multiple forms of injustice experience the greatest hardships related to climate change. They are the least powerful, and subject to the greatest abuses by the state and corporate capital. We must respect the different hardships that exist among these peoples. But in order to build a mass-based, multi-class, multi-racial, international climate justice movement capable of taking on the most powerful governments and corporate polluters on the planet, we have to build solidarity across the social boundaries that have traditionally divided us from one another. We have to demonstrate how and why people from different walks of life must make common cause with one another if we are to save ourselves and the planet.
Second, we must also take an intersectional approach that looks at the links between issues such as affordable housing, transportation justice, pollution and toxic wastes, energy, public health, jobs that pay a living wage, community development, and so on. Too often the discussion of these issues remains locked in narrow policy silos, and neglects the manner in which a proposed solution to one problem (say the expansion of public transportation) can make another problem worse (such as affordable housing) by promoting gentrification and higher housing costs. We need more holistic solutions that understand the interconnections between issues, including climate change, democracy, human rights, and community empowerment.
Instead, we advocate for a more transformative climate justice politics that addresses the root causes of the climate crisis. In other words, we seek to transform political and economic structures so that these problems are not produced in the first place. For instance, the goal of the EJ movement is not to have all people polluted equally (distributive justice), but rather to transform the economy so that no pollution is produced at all (transformative justice). The difference is a politics of “not-in-my-backyard” vs.“not-in–anyone’s-backyard. This requires that we move towards clean production, the precautionary principle (do no harm), safer substitutes for toxic substances, etc. In Europe, the burden is now largely placed upon industry to prove that a chemical is safe before it can be introduced into the marketplace. In the U.S. and other countries, the burden is placed upon the public to prove that a chemical is dangerous after it has been introduced into the marketplace. Only after a major human health disaster – when the dangers of the toxic chemical have been realized – is the government likely to react in the face of public outrage. Clearly, a climate-just future requires that we adopt more holistic, precautionary, and prevention-oriented approaches.
Finally, we advocate for an emancipatory climate justice politics that locates the solution to the climate crisis in wholesale transformation of unjust political-economic structures, particularly systems of corporate power. There is much discussion these days on behalf of policy makers around how we can “climate proof” our communities and nations: how to build resilience in the face of the stresses posed by climate change. But if these communities (or nations) in their current form are predicated on profound economic inequalities and social injustices, then climate change can be used as an excuse for maintaining the status quo. Our view at the Center is that true resilience to climate change, both in terms of mitigation and adaptation, can only be achieved by challenging and transforming the fundamental social injustices and economic inequalities that underlie that society. The intersectionality of economic exploitation, cultural oppression, and political domination in all forms must be fought in a unified fashion if we are to achieve a level of democratic social transformation necessary to address the climate crisis.
This is the essence of an emancipatory climate justice politics — to use climate change as a catalyst for creating the best world that humanity has ever seen, one that meets the needs of all people throughout the world. An emancipatory climate justice politics can help people move beyond feelings of fear and despair and instead become inspired by the vision of a better way of living for themselves and future generations, to create an exciting new society worth fighting for. This is the mission of the Center.