FACULTY PROFILE Carmen G. Gonzalez
Professor Carmen G. Gonzalez shares why climate change is a social justice matter and why every lawyer should care
Carmen G. Gonzalez is a world-renowned expert in international environmental law, human rights and the environment, environmental justice, and food security. She has taught at numerous prestigious academic institutions around the globe and has participated in environmental law capacity-building projects in Asia, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union. Gonzalez has written more than 30 law review articles and published five books, including Energy Justice: U.S. and International Perspectives. At Loyola University Chicago School of Law, she is a Morris I. Leibman Professor of Law. Here, Gonzalez discusses her New Jersey roots, the origins of the environmental justice movement, and why climate change is a social justice issue that can no longer be ignored.
How did you become interested in environmental law?
I grew up in northern New Jersey. Although New Jersey is nicknamed the Garden State, that particular region is anything but. If you’ve ever driven on the New Jersey Turnpike and smelled the air, you know what I’m talking about. It was apparent to me from an early age that something was terribly wrong. I remember, as a child, a number of football players came down with cancer because they played at the Meadowlands complex, which was constructed on lands where toxic chemicals had been dumped.
As an undergraduate, I took an economic anthropology course that had a huge influence on how I think about the environment. A lightbulb went off when I understood that resources that were, in theory, renewable—such as land—could be made nonrenewable by reckless exploitation, and that this could be irreversible. Loss of biodiversity is occurring at unprecedented rates, and extinction is irreversible. Climate change, if it’s not addressed promptly, will also be irreversible. When I first studied climate change, I thought only future generations would be affected. But here we are today—facing catastrophic wildfires, heat waves, and hurricanes, even though people have known about climate change for decades.
That economic anthropology class changed the way that I thought about the world. Even though I then went on to do other things, it was always in the back of my mind that there was a huge disconnect between how most people thought about the world and the way that I understood the world to be.
Then I had an opportunity to practice environmental law straight after law school, which was pure, pure chance. As a law clerk, I worked on environmental cases. I clerked at the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, and then I started working at a large law firm. I wound up doing environmental litigation, representing banks that had foreclosed on contaminated property, had borne the costs of the cleanup, and were then suing all of the companies that had contaminated the property.
“When you look at climate change and who’s disproportionally affected all over the world, it’s low‑income communities, indigenous peoples, racial and ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities, those who are older, and also women.”
What are the origins of the environmental justice movement?
It started with protests by low-income communities of color over the disproportionate concentration of polluting facilities, hazardous waste disposal sites, and contaminated land in their neighborhoods. Study after study demonstrated that noxious industries were overwhelmingly located in Black and Latinx communities and on tribal lands. But it soon became clear that environmental amenities, such as open space and park lands, are also inaccessible to communities of color. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, we saw that disaster preparation and response was structured in a way that excluded poor people and people of color. We saw this again when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico.
The environmental justice movement gave birth to the climate justice movement. When you look at climate change and who’s disproportionally affected all over the world, it’s low‑income communities, indigenous peoples, racial and ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities, those who are older, and also women.
Your work addresses multiple interconnected issues related to climate change. What are some issues that may not be apparent to the general public?
There’s a growing awareness that climate change and white supremacy are interconnected in ways that are not immediately obvious. That is, the fossil fuel industry requires sacrifice zones for its existence, such as the places where petroleum is drilled. That includes the United States—in parts of Texas, for example. It also includes Nigeria, Ecuador, and other petroleum-rich regions, where the land becomes utterly contaminated, the air unbreathable, the water undrinkable. Places that are forgotten and excluded from moral concern—often because the people who live there are poor, indigenous, or members of racial and ethnic minorities.
The transportation of petroleum is something that the Standing Rock protests helped us understand. Pipelines that travel near or through indigenous lands threaten to contaminate and desecrate the land and water of people who have been colonized, killed, and forcibly evicted from their ancestral territories. But they continue to rise up and demand justice, attracting national and international attention.
Petroleum refineries and chemical plants are likewise located in low‑income communities and communities of color, including the region in Louisiana known as Cancer Alley. And when carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels wind up in the atmosphere, those who are most exposed to the consequences of climate change are marginalized communities all over the world who live in areas susceptible to drought, hurricanes, wildfires, and sea level rise.
Climate denial, like COVID-19 denial, is based, at least in part, on lack of concern for populations that are deemed expendable and disposable and on the illusion that those who identify as white can somehow escape its impacts.
The people who are being displaced by the petroleum wars in the Middle East are racialized and denied entry into the United States and Europe. The communities of color subjected to police violence in the United States are often the same communities who have long borne the burden of polluting industry. These injustices are linked, but the links are not always well understood.
As we undertake a transition to renewable energy, there is a risk that the green energy economy will replicate the injustices of the fossil fuel economy. For example, wind farms are being constructed in Oaxaca, Mexico—one of the windiest places in the world. These windmills have been built on indigenous lands, but the energy is going to Walmart, Heineken, some Mexican corporations. The indigenous communities are bearing the damage to their land—without adequate compensation or access to energy.
Climate change is often narrowly positioned as only an environmental problem. You present climate change as a critical social justice issue. What can the legal community do to make people more aware of this?
Climate change, like every other social justice issue, intersects with absolutely every area of law. We tend to put it in a silo and relegate it to environmental law experts. However, it will have a huge impact on lawyers who practice in a wide variety of areas, including land use, real estate, energy, food and agriculture, transportation, construction, aviation, immigration, insurance, banking, civil rights, and securities, as well as those who specialize in international human rights law and trade and investment law. This means that every law student and every practicing lawyer should familiarize themselves with the ways that climate change reinforces social and economic inequality in order to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Law will play a major role in climate change adaptation and disaster preparation and response as well as the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.
“Law will play a major role in climate change adaptation and disaster preparation and response as well as the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.”
You talk about how the most affluent countries in the North are the most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, but yet not taking responsibility. You assert that there’s an obligation of the responsible countries to assist people who are fleeing their home countries or otherwise being displaced. Have you seen any changes that are moving in the right direction regarding policy?
Change has been very gradual. We are experiencing a planetary emergency, but governments are failing to treat it as such. For example, the Paris Agreement seeks to mitigate climate change by relying on voluntarily undertaken greenhouse gas reduction commitments by countries that are parties to the treaty. However, even if all countries comply with their commitments, this will not be sufficient to avert climate catastrophe. The commitments are not sufficiently ambitious. Without grassroots mobilization all over the world to demand immediate climate action, we will cross irreversible tipping points, if we have not done so already.
People are already being displaced by climate change. Indigenous communities have had to relocate with little or no external assistance. The small island states in the Pacific are experiencing rising sea levels as well as saltwater contamination of drinking water and agricultural lands. They will lose access to food and water before their lands are inundated.
There is currently no binding legal framework to address climate displacement. Instead, the prospect of climate change-induced displacement is producing militarized, xenophobic responses, such as the construction of border walls. The United States bears a disproportionate responsibility for climate change due to its prodigious current and historic greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. government should be taking a leadership role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, providing financial assistance to climate-vulnerable states, and facilitating the resettlement of displaced persons. Sadly, as with COVID-19, one of the reasons for inaction is that the most immediate impacts of climate change, and of the fossil fuel-based world economy, are borne by communities that are regarded as disposable and expendable.
What gives me optimism is the activism of younger generations whose futures have been compromised by climate change, growing economic inequality, and the pandemic of racism. They are waking up, protesting, and demanding justice. In the environmental field, all progress at the national and international level can be attributed to grassroots and transnational mobilization. If social movements converge and work in alliance, rapid policy shifts are possible.
Which organizations are at the forefront of treating climate change as a social justice problem?
I’m on the board of trustees of Earthjustice, the largest public interest environmental law firm in the United States. In the recent decade, I would say, that organization has been transformed. A major part of its work involves representing low‑income communities and communities of color in significant environmental battles, including the Standing Rock litigation. The NAACP has a very solid platform on environmental justice and climate change because they perceive the linkages that I’ve just articulated very, very clearly. There are also many environmental justice organizations, such as UPROSE in New York City and the Indigenous Environmental Network, that are doing significant work on climate justice.
For budding environmental lawyers, where are the best places for them to work?
There are so many places. You could work for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or the state attorney general’s office. You could work for any city; every city does some sort of urban planning. In Washington state, where I taught for many years, many of my former students are working for tribal governments. You can do civil rights/environmental work with organizations like the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment. You can work for major environmental organizations, such as Earthjustice or the Natural Resources Defense Council. You can do international environmental work at the Center for International Environmental Law. But environmental issues arise in all areas of practice. I would recommend getting a well-rounded legal education in order to understand the environmental issues that arise in different areas of law. No matter what you do, it’s going to be next to impossible to ignore climate change. –Kristi Turnbaugh
For more information, see Gonzalez’s article “Climate Change, Race, and Migration” in the Journal of Law and Political Economy. The article examines the relationship among climate change, racial subordination, and the capitalist world economy through the framework of racial capitalism.