April 3, 2018—Talia Buford, reporter for ProPublica, discussed environmental justice, the complexities of covering the environment, how environmental policy is changing in the Trump administration, and more during a visit to the Shorenstein Center. Below are some highlights of her conversation with Shorenstein Center Director Nicco Mele, as well as the full audio. The Shorenstein Center’s podcast is also available on iTunes, Google Play, iHeartRadio, and Stitcher.
An overview of environmental justice
“It came to the fore toward the end of the Civil Rights movement. In North Carolina, there were a number of [black] people who were protesting the disposal of waste in their community, and that was kind of the catalyst. After that, the words environmental justice, environmental racism, those became more well known. The EPA eventually also started paying attention and saying hey, we need to have an office of environmental justice…in short, environmental justice is basically ensuring that people are not unduly burdened or targeted for certain pollution because of their race, income, class. It also means that they have a say in what happens in their communities. That participation part and listening to the community is also a very big part of environmental justice.”
Climate change and communities of color
“Maybe there are low lying areas, maybe there are swampy areas, maybe there are areas that are just not as fortified as other places in your town. The people who are normally pushed into these more vulnerable areas are poor, they are people of color, they may be immigrants, and so those areas are the places that will experience climate change, possibly first, depending on the effects we’re looking at. Flooding, for example, could be an issue.”
“I’m very interested right now in urban planning, how we build our cities, and how we rebuild our cities…think about Houston after Harvey, and the areas that got flooded. Where you decide to rebuild, who is allowed to build in certain places, the money that we put [into fortifying] certain neighborhoods versus others. Those are all decisions that have the potential to have inherent biases in them…we’re thinking a lot about resilience and how we make sure that cities and towns can survive climate change, but it’s also who survives? And what are we sacrificing? Are we going to save this part of town because this is where all the businesses are? Does that make that area more valuable than this area that just has people? And why?”
Environmental protections under the Trump administration
“Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, has been very effective in his mandate to roll back a lot of environmental protections, and a lot of the rules that the Obama administration put into place…even just best practices, they are no longer happening. And to be fair to the Trump administration, that’s not to say that everything the Obama administration did was great, or that it wasn’t maybe sometimes cumbersome, or maybe there was a better way to do it. But I know that a lot of people who I’ve spoken to have been more alarmed at the speed with which the regulations are being rolled back, and the lack of evidence for rolling those things back, whereas the EPA is a very slow-moving bureaucracy that takes years and years to study something often before producing a rule.”
Humanizing environmental stories
The same as we can look at disparities in treatment by police, or treatment of immigrants, you can also apply that same lens to the environment.
“We feel like we have heard everything about climate change or the environment. ‘Oh we know about that—I’m supposed to recycle, turn my water off when I brush my teeth’…or you think climate change and the environment and you think polar bears, as opposed to it being something right in your backyard. One of the biggest challenges in covering the environment or climate change is getting those stories to actually resonate with people…race and climate change is one frame to get people to pay attention to it. I think especially at this moment in America, we are paying a lot more attention to race, we are paying a lot more attention to civil rights, we are paying a lot more attention to disparities across groups. The same as we can look at disparities in treatment by police, or treatment of immigrants, you can also apply that same lens to the environment.”
“Think back 20, 30 years…the conversations that you got out of the big green environmental groups were not necessarily about people. It was about conservation, it was about your national park, or recycling. And that was a big tension in the [environmental justice] community…low income people or people of color didn’t have the bandwidth to think about climate change or to think about the environment because they had to deal with low income jobs, or having to put food on their table, or other issues that people assigned to certain groups. What I think you’re seeing now is that people are connecting all of those things. They’re saying ‘ok, if we’re going to talk about parks, let’s not just talk about people who can go out to Yosemite. Let’s talk about having access to green space in urban communities, in places like Harlem’…that is also a climate change issue, how much green space and how much green cover you have. The way you build the physical community changes how people actually experience climate change, like the urban heat island effect.”
“I think drawing those connections to people, so they can see it actually does impact their daily lives is a way to make sure that they understand it. And also telling stories in different ways, as opposed to just ‘this is an environmental story and if you read this, you are caring about the environment.’ This is a story I’ve charted out as a way to do this—but hey, my wine is gonna get mad expensive because of climate change… People are like, ‘oh my Malbec is going to be impacted? Let’s talk about this’…they’re still reading about the environment, and they’re still understanding that the environment will impact them, but it’s not like I’m going to beat you over the head with climate change and CO2.”
On the line between journalism and advocacy
“I am a journalist, period. I am at an organization that allows me to do stories with moral force, and I don’t take that lightly. It’s not that we have an agenda; as people in the world, we understand that there are some things that are not OK. And there are some things that people are doing, or that have existed for a long time that deserve more scrutiny…I’m not an advocate. To me there is no spectrum.”
Article by Nilagia McCoy; photo by Allie Olympius.