Race, Environmental Justice, and Climate Change Syllabus

This class was created by a group* of Earth and Environmental PhD students at Columbia University/the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Summer 2020. The syllabus was created by all of us, while the linked notes are salient points that I’ve taken from the lectures, readings, and discussions; they may or may not be edited. An experiment in learning.

*Kailani Acosta, Lauren Moseley, Roger Creel, Anna Barth, Clara Chang, and me, with input from Mingfang Ting, Maya Tolstoy, Cynthia Thomson, Adam Sobol, and Ben Orlove

Note: if you need access to any of these readings, email or tweet me (see about for contact info)

Week 1: Introduction to Environmental Justice

Speaker: Dr. Robert Bullard


  • Bullard 2001, Environmental Justice in the 21st Century: Race Still Matters
  • Purdy (2015), Environmentalism’s Racist History

Discussion Topics and Questions


  • How do we conceptualize nature, environment, and justice?
  • How do class and race influence the environment in which you live and vice versa?
  • What does wilderness mean to you? Discuss the concept of wilderness. For whom is it wild? What does it contrast? Who created the term? How is it used to “other”?
  • White privilege and environmental justice
  • What does an environmentally just world look like to you? Do you have any examples (from the real world, or stories, or your imagination)?
  • What is the history of racism in earth science?

Bullard 2001

  • Bullard lays out this framework (pp 4-5) for environmental justice almost 20 years ago - is there anything that could be added based on our recent knowledge and technological advancements?
    • How does big data, AI, etc. play into this question of environmental justice? Environmental equity? Who has access to data? What information is collected in the first place? What does prevention look like for this issue?
  • Bullard defines equity in 3 main categories (pp 7): procedural, geographic and social. We often talk about achieving equity (in the context of DEI); What does equity mean to you and how can equity be sustained in our communities (locally, nationally, and globally)? 
  • Environmental racism is still alive and well. Today, there are substantial environmental justice movements to combat racism - how successful have they been? Why/why not?
    • “A form of illegal ‘extraction’ forces people of color to pay costs of environmental benefits for the public at large. The question of who pays, and who benefits, from the current environmental and industrial policies is central…” 
      • What costs have you paid? What benefits have you reaped?
  • Environmental justice is, by definition, grassroots organizing. What role do you play?

Purdy 2015

  • How is nature (and the definition of nature) “constrained, even produced, by an idea of civilization”? 
  • With racism and genocide embedded in the American idea of wilderness, what does environmental justice look like? What does access to the outdoors/the natural world mean? 
  • How does our (choice of) language create the “other”? Think about the words “wilderness”, “purity”, “minority”, etc.
  • If “the natural world that future generations live in will be the one we create for them”, what does it look like?

Week 2: Environmental (In)justice in the U.S.

Speaker - Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha



  • Civil Rights Commission 2017: Michigan Civil Rights Commission report – The Flint Water Crisis: Systemic Racism Through the Lens of Flint
  • Clark 2018: The Poisoned City – Flint’s water and the American Urban Tragedy Chapter 3 and Chapter 8)

Discussion Topics and Questions


  • What has been your relationship with the water you drink?

Civil Rights Commission Report

  • How do we define a “public good” like water? Who gets to decide what sorts of systems should be regulated by local and state governments, and what that regulation should look like?
  • The report argues “that race played a role in the Flint Water Crisis precisely because it was never considered.  That it is so deeply entrenched in the very fiber of society that we have normalized what occurs in communities that are ‘primarily of color’ and poor.”
    • What needs to change in order for this pattern of default racism to be disrupted?
    • How does implicit bias intersect with public policy?
    • What is the difference between individual and systemic racism?
  • How have racialized public policies on local, regional, or national levels affected you?
  • What does a just government, one whose decisions would not have led to the Flint crisis, look like to you?  
  • How should we assign individual responsibility when a public system fails?  

The Poisoned City

  • How do we balance the need for data-driven inquiry and policy-making with the lived realities of people experiencing environmental degradation?
  • Dr. Hanna-Attisha didn’t have to break any laws to whistleblow, but other whistleblowers have had to do so.  At what point is breaking the law for a just cause warranted?
    • What if it involved invasion of patient privacy/violation of HIPAA?
  • What protections should a scientific whistleblower like Dr. Hanna-Attisha receive?

Week 3: Environmental (In)justice in the U.S.

Speaker - J.T. Roane (notes)


Discussion Topics and Questions:


  • Think about your relationship with nature, and how that relationship might differ from someone else’s.
  • When you imagine a map, what does it look like? What do you think these maps leave out? Why?
  • How might someone’s perceived level of safety impact their chosen field of study? For instance, would someone who does not feel welcome or comfortable in nature opt to do field work there? 
  • What are explicit ways people are kept out of a field of study?
  • What are the implicit ways people are shunned or removed from a field?
  • When environmental racism is described as systemic, what systems, institutions, and organizations or corporations come to mind as most relevant? 

Plotting the Black Commons

  • Stewardship through mastery
    • What does stewardship mean?
    • Do you need to be a master to be a steward?
  • Can earth science even operate without the “object-subject” perspective? Because we are scientists and need to look objectively at the earth.
  • Have you been part of efforts / groups that worked to create non-extractive relationships to the environment?

From Extractive Agriculture to Industrial Waste Periphery: Life in a Black-Puerto Rican Ecology

By Hilda Lloréns & Carlos G. García-Quijano

  • How might gender compound with environmental racism? 
  • Why is indigenous knowledge of the environment not considered essential when working in an industry that impacts the environment (i.e. GMOs or agriculture)?
  • How much do you know about Columbia’s racist history? (or the history of your undergrad / previous institutions)? How has Columbia responded to native and Black activism on campus?
  • Moving beyond history and thinking about the present, what affiliations does Columbia maintain with settler-colonial intentions?
  • Where did the descendants of Black-Puerto Ricans in the Southeastern portion of the island come from, why did they locate themselves there, and what were the advantages and disadvantages to settling there?
  • What do you think Lloréns and García-Quijano meant by “an extractive resource periphery becomes a Black-Puerto Rican Ecology?”

What is environmental racism for? Place-based harm and relational development

By Louise Seamster & Danielle Purifoy

  • Seamster and Purifoy discuss the idea of creative extraction: “how white towns catalyze their development with resources from beyond their borders. This occurs through three main mechanisms: theft of resources (land and public finance), gradual erosion (environmental degradation and denial of basic services), and political exclusion (denial of democratic participation or eroding the agency/effectiveness of representatives).”
  • How does your community, or a community close to yours, benefit off of the resources of another community?
  • How is gentrification, as also seen in this article, reflected in Columbia’s current Manhattanville Campus initiative? The Manhattanville Project - NYT (if someone in the group knows about this, please share!)

Mapping Black Ecologies

By J.T Roane and Justin Hosbey

  • “Projecting and transforming a multilayered 3D place onto a 2D digital map necessitates the literal and figurative flattening of that location, producing a colonial, “bird’s eye view” of a landscape. 
  • What does this look like in practice? What do maps leave out? How do maps serve as tools for imperialistic genocide?
  • What could be the capitalist resistance against this? For example, why would Google Maps or Apple Maps be interested or not interested in creating maps based in Black knowledge?
  • “We argue that these Black counter-cartographies are spatial tactics of resistance.”
  • How is this a form of resistance? If you had to create a counter-cartography of your own experience, what would it look like? What would you include?

Notes mentioning this note

Here are all the notes in this garden, along with their links, visualized as a graph.