Fossil Free NU students demonstrated that climate change impacts far more than the environment during their climate justice teach-in in Harris Hall Thursday night. “Climate justice is the idea that climate change is going to affect everyone on earth,” said Christina Cilento, community outreach coordinator for Fossil Free NU. “We think that climate change is very much a human rights issue, a social justice issue.”
The event was a part of the month-long Green Cup sustainability effort at Northwestern, challenging students to conserve energy. The teach-in was focused on climate justice rather than the broader environmental impacts of coal divestment that the group is calling for. During the teach-in, Fossil Free NU challenged students to consider how the use of fossil fuels can impact individuals throughout the world.
“Climate change is about more than just politics or just the environment, it’s about people,” said Alex Kirschner, an organizer of the event. “People are being affected by this today, tomorrow, very far into the future.” Citing studies about coal plants and fossil fuel corporations and showing pictures of polluted regions, members of Fossil Free NU shared specific examples of groups experiencing climate change first-hand.
Presentations ranged from stories of the Ogoni tribe dealing with oil spills in Nigeria to data collected on communities struggling with health problems resulting from pollutants. For many of the instances mentioned by Fossil Free NU, those most negatively affected were already disadvantaged. “The most important thing I learned was how powerfully these issues of climate change affect communities of lower socio-economic status,” said Noah Becker, a 19-year-old student attending the teach-in.
Laila Hayani, a Weinberg senior, presented information on the demographics of the populations living near coal plants emitting pollutants known to cause asthma and other lung problems. “Often Latino, African American and Native American communities are the worst hit by coal pollution,” Hayani said. “These populations are already at a disadvantage and they are clearly not privileged by society…they are kind of forced to live in these areas because the land [is cheaper].”
Fellow presenter Kerry McFadden noted the way climate change, particularly it’s role in creating water and fuel scarcities, can challenge women in developing societies. “Women in developing countries are usually expected to provide water for their households,” McFadden said. “As water scarcity increases they can only expect to have longer walks to water which leads to longer stretches of time where they can be sexually assaulted, and less time in school which leads to greater inequalities in education and further poverty.”
Jessica Baloga said she was surprised by such examples of inequalities exacerbated by pollution from fossil fuels. The McCormick senior says the tie between human rights issues and climate change may be the best way to get more students interested in sustainability. “It wasn’t really something I learned about 'til college,” Bolaga said. “I think that it can really rope in a lot of people who wouldn’t have cared about the environment, but who do care about social justice.”
Following the teach-in, audience members were encouraged to attend Fossil Free NU’s upcoming march to protest Northwestern’s continued investment in fossil fuel companies. “What we’re saying is that these corporations have massive amounts of power so it’s really unfair that they are profiting off the degradation of the planet and people,” said Cilento. “We think that it is irresponsible for Northwestern to say that it wants to be a leader in sustainability while it’s funding these industries that are causing climate change.”