Bloomsbury Publishing, 176 pages
Reviewed by Susan G. De George
Mary Robinson’s “Climate Justice” is in many ways the book I’ve been trying to find for a very long time. Filled with firsthand accounts of communities whose lives have been drastically changed because of arctic ice melt, hurricanes, drought, crop failure, starvation and other types of climate change impact, the book makes the grim statistics of reports like the recent United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change less abstract through its engaging, and often heartbreaking, stories. It holds up the experiences of one ordinary person after another who, despite the injustice of the situation being faced, decided to produce positive change by organizing at the grassroots level to help their communities, and through the communities, the larger global situation.
Robinson brings a diverse background to climate justice work, having been Ireland’s first female president, a UN secretary general’s special envoy on climate change, and the UN high commissioner for human rights. Robinson provides a setting for the disempowered who have been most affected by climate change to narrate what’s happened to their communities in dignified, clear ways. Among those we meet is Sharon Hanshaw, a salon owner in East Biloxi, Mississippi, who draws attention to the unfairness of how low-income survivors of Hurricane Katrina were treated and why that made her an “accidental activist” and founder of Coastal Women for Change. Constance Okollet, a small-scale farmer from eastern Uganda, recounts how families in her community first believed that the alternating drought and severe flooding they experienced were first understood as God’s punishments for some mysterious wrongdoing and how she eventually came to realize that it “was not God, but the rich people in the West who are doing this to us.” Jannie Staffansson, who grew up as a member of the nomadic Saami people of Sweden, explains that although herders in her community who were intimately connected with the land recognized alarming shifts in the weather years before scientists understood the scale of climate change, they were ignored because they were not educated in the Western system. Ken Smith, a mine worker in New Brunswick in eastern Canada, and Sharan Burrow, head of the International Trade Union Confederation, call us to remember the millions of fossil fuel workers around the world who are also victims of climate change and who deserve to be treated with dignity as we shift to more eco-friendly systems. These and other beautifully told, powerful accounts are presented in a way that’s largely free from political rhetoric. They provide both hope and suggestions of concrete ways we might yet respond with empathy and support to those who are suffering most in this global crisis.
If I could wave a magic wand, I’d have all Presbyterians read this book. As denominational discussion continues around whether to divest from or use focused engagement with fossil fuel companies, it would be good for all participating to be able to call up stories of those from the frontline communities most strongly impacted by our decisions. The book is also perfect for a church wanting to learn more about the impact of climate change and environmental racism on the marginalized or for those looking for role models who are out in the community doing new things to make the world a bit more just.
Susan G. De George is stated clerk of Hudson River Presbytery and professor of religious studies (with a concentration in religion and the environment) at Pace University in New York City.