Robert Bullard has watched the concept of environmental justice grow from an obscure notion in Houston in the 1970s into a high-profile global movement aimed at abetting pollution and climate change.
Bullard, a former dean and professor at Texas Southern University, has authored 18 books on environmental justice, and has attended 18 United Nations climate change summits since 2000.
This year he led a robust delegation of community leaders from Texas and the Gulf South to the 27th U.N. Council of the Parties in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
Bullard, who has been called the “father of environmental justice,” answered questions from ICN about his thoughts on COP27. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why do they call you the “father of environmental justice?”
In the 1970s I was drafted into collecting data in support of the nation’s first lawsuit challenging environmental racism, Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corp. My wife at the time [Linda McKeever Bullard] was the lawyer for the case. My job was to design a study and develop the research protocol for mapping out which communities got dumped on and which communities didn’t.
The study showed that five of five city-owned landfills were in Black communities. Six of eight incinerators the city operated were in Black neighborhoods. Black Houstonians made up 25 percent of the city but received 82 percent of its trash.
The idea of challenging environmental racism using civil rights law was novel. It was seen as: Why are you doing that? That’s the way it’s always been, that garbage pollution and waste has always been dumped on Black communities. That’s the natural order of things.
When I presented the study in court, the federal judge was calling the plaintiffs “negros.” This was Houston, Texas. Racism was just in-your-face blatant. We lost the case, but I was able to get my reports published.
I wanted to know: How unique was Houston? So I expanded the effort to study the whole southern U.S.
The 18 books I’ve written over these 40 years show that it’s not accidental or coincidental; there are structural factors that create the environmental inequality and race is the most potent predictor.
I guess that’s how the name was given to me, the “father of environmental justice.”
What is environmental justice?
Environmental justice would mean that the people who benefit most from industrial growth also share in the burdens of its hazards and health impacts.
Today, one group is producing most of the waste and another group is being the recipient of most of that waste. Some communities get development that makes them healthy and some communities get development that makes them unsafe.
When we look across the globe, the damage from climate change is mostly affecting communities that have contributed least to the problem. Not only are people losing their homes and their lives, they are losing their culture, they are being wiped off the face of the planet.
There’s been a lot of pessimistic coverage of COP after so many years of accords still haven’t managed to stop growth in fossil fuel consumption. However this year, many climate activists from the Global South saw the agreement to compensate poorer nations for the “loss and damage” they have suffered from climate change as a major step forward. What gave you hope at COP this year? Tell us something good.
The U.S. went in initially with the idea that we’re not going to talk about “loss and damage,” because it opens the door for liability. In the end there was an agreement, which was a bright spot of this COP. They kicked the can forward until COP29 to talk about details, but the fact is, that is a victory. You’ve got these countries now agreeing to a concept that “loss and damage” is a legitimate plan.
Many of us that came to this COP brought lots of individuals who for the first time attended a COP and from places that are on the frontline and ground zero for climate change and the climate crisis, particularly from the Gulf Coast.
Three organizations in the U.S. launched this “climate justice pavilion” as a platform for any group or nation that wanted to voice the issue of justice. Even if we get ignored, it won’t be for the lack of our voices shouted out to the highest levels that it’s time for ‘loss and damage” climate finance, reparations and energy justice.
Tell me more about the climate justice pavilion.
Our communities historically have been invisible, so we wanted to make this a COP of visibility for the most vulnerable communities.
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So three Black-led organizations—the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice in Houston, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans and WE ACT for Environmental Justice in Harlem—came together, raised the money and worked in conjunction with international and U.S. partners to have this pavilion.
We knew that this was novel, having this large contingency to say it’s time for climate justice.
Why is it important to include frontline communities in conversations about climate change?
Because this is not theory with them. When we get communities who are on the fenceline of the fossil fuel sector—get them to the table and get their voices into the formulation of policies—then we can get real action.
The first principle of environmental justice is: People who are most impacted must be in the room and at the table to speak for themselves. That’s the core of our movement, whether at COP, the legislatures or public hearings. It’s common sense that you would get those individuals and institutions to talk about how we’re going to go forward as opposed to planning with some diplomats who have never lived close to the problem.
Texas is perhaps better known for its oil sector than its environmental movement. Were other attendees at COP surprised to see such a large Texas delegation?
They shouldn’t be. Texas has always played a major role in the formulation of environmental justice research and theory. We had a huge delegation from Texas, a place where oil and gas rule the day.
Our Gulf Coast is basically ground zero for a lot of this and we had delegates from Houston, Odessa, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Corpus Christi.
It’s our frontline communities that are playing a major role and our organizations now are starting to receive resources and build capacity so they can begin to move fast and furious.
Our network has become much more visible and much more powerful even though we are from an oil and gas state. So we are moving forward in a way that’s moving against the grain, we just have to step it up and keep the pressure.