Addressing climate justice through systemic change

By Julia Berkman-Hill 

Growing up in New Haven, Conn., I was always reminded that we lived in a state with one of the highest rates of income inequality in the country. I also grew up in a family thoroughly engaged in sustainability—my dad made a compost bin for our backyard and installed storm windows to save energy.

I absorbed those values, committing myself to both social justice and mitigating climate change, but I saw them as separate issues. Caring about the environment was always sold to me as buying more efficient light bulbs, not as systemic change. It’s easy to feel that there is no way to take action beyond personal behavior, so I focused on what I could do. I recycled, turned off lights and ate less meat.

I missed the larger picture. I missed the fact that the coal plant in Bridgeport, Conn. has been ranked the fifth most environmentally unjust in the country. I left Connecticut to major in environmental studies, thinking it was about improving sustainability, but I learned the field is completely intertwined with social justice, and that systemic change is necessary.

I chose to come to Bowdoin because I believed, and continue to believe, that it is a place full of people who care very deeply about bettering society. Bowdoin’s commitment to the common good was something that resonated with me.

Two years later, I am still inspired by this College, by the conversations we are able to have, and by my peers working so hard for causes they are so passionate about. But for me, there is a difference between being proud and being complacent. I joined the divestment campaign led by Bowdoin Climate Action (BCA) last year because I know Bowdoin can do better and I wanted to take concrete action.

Two weeks ago, we did. Over 200 Bowdoin students gathered in Smith Union to reflect on and listen to the experiences of their fellow students and how they relate to five themes of justice: race, gender, class, sexuality and climate. We heard one student’s story of how the fossil fuel industry is polluting her home and how it is antithetical to Bowdoin’s values to continue to profit off an industry that is perpetuating injustice.

We have a responsibility to act because the fossil fuel industry is negatively impacting our own classmates. The fight is about real people, some of whom you may know. It’s about more than carbon—it’s about a common fight against larger systems of oppression. As Claudia Villar ’15 closed the series of speeches with her story, she reminded us, “It’s impossible to choose just one issue to care about.”

I, for one, needed that reminder. Every day, a group of us meet at 4 p.m. in front of the polar bear statue outside of the David Saul Smith Union for the climate justice minute. For me, this is a time to reflect on climate justice and how it is linked to other issues I care about.

However, it is also a time to emphasize the continued silence from our administration. At the kick-off panel of Intersections: People, Planet, and Power, several professors affirmed that action for climate justice must be demanded from the grassroots.

Since BCA met with the Board of Trustees in October, there have been 131 days of silence. In that time eight schools have committed to some form of divestment from fossil fuels, bringing the total to 26 worldwide. Divesting is both morally imperative and entirely possible. Bowdoin, with its dedication to the common good, is at risk of falling behind. But right now, we have the opportunity to lead and show our peer schools what climate justice and the common good look like.

Among other calls to action at the Meeting in the Union, BCA reiterated its call for divestment and asked for a Trustee to be appointed as divestment liaison to BCA by March 6. We also pledged to escalate our action this spring to show the College that if it won’t act, we will. Bowdoin must choose by March 6—it’s students fighting for climate justice or the industry hell-bent on stopping us. Whose side are you on?

Julia Berkman-Hill is a member of the Class of 2017.

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