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IGU Presents Monmouth Faculty Panels on Human Rights and the Environment in Biennial Symposium

By Madison Hanrahan and Emily O’Sullivan

On Friday, March 26, the Monmouth University Institute for Global Understanding (IGU) hosted faculty panels discussing human rights and the environment as part of its biennial symposium. Dr. Catherine Duckett, Associate Dean of the School of Science, moderated a panel featuring Dr. Melissa Alvaré, Dr. Kathleen Grant, Dr. Eric Fesselmeyer, and Dr. Abha Sood. Tony MacDonald, Esq., Director of the Urban Coast Institute, moderated a panel featuring Dr. John Comiskey, Dr. Tom Herrington, and Dr. Robin Mama. The presenters covered a wide variety of informative and engaging topics, ranging from climate gentrification to sustainable development goals.

Dr. Alvaré, a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Sociology, was the first panelist of the afternoon. She discussed how sea level rise brought on by climate change has led to challenges for coastal communities, such as flooding. As a result, wealthier coastal communities relocate inland to escape the flooding into low-income and minority communities. This process is known as climate change gentrification. As it is impossible for everyone to move inland, one proposed method to alleviate the risk of flooding in coastal areas is to create green infrastructure such as wetlands and rain gardens to hold stormwater. Dr. Alvaré explained that utilizing green infrastructure in areas prone to flooding can actually cause more gentrification in these areas because this infrastructure, which contributes to the utilities and aesthetics of an area, raises property values, further gentrifying the area and displacing existing communities from their homes. Some examples of cities that are currently affected by climate change gentrification include Southbridge in Wilmington, Delaware; Philadelphia; and Boston. Dr. Alvaré proposed a variety of ways to prevent climate change gentrification, such as utilizing organizations focused on environmental resilience, sustainability, and clean energy initiatives; enforcing rent control and tax freezes; preserving and building affordable housing; and most importantly, organizing within local communities to address gentrification.

Next, Dr. Kathleen Grant, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Counseling, gave a presentation on the link between advocacy for climate change and social justice. She explained white people’s domination of resources and belief that the Earth itself is a resource to be extracted, utilized, sold, and discarded. She compared this view to how groups treat people of color. Dr. Grant provided an example of this issue with a description of the Flint, Michigan water crisis and the construction of pipelines through Indigenous communities. Both examples show how society has neglected to fund and invest in basic life-sustaining infrastructure in many communities of color. This lack of basic human rights toward people of color is evident throughout the United States; from the lead water crisis in Newark, New Jersey to the higher frequency of flooding and natural disasters in low-income communities, and to the industrial and waste sites that are primarily located in poorer neighborhoods. Dr. Grant explained that dominant groups typically have more political and economic power, and since older white males are the dominant demographic in positions of authority in the United States, they protect themselves against these harms, which leads to institutional racism.

Dr. Eric Fesselmeyer, an Associate Professor of Economics, followed Dr. Grant, and presented his work on whether heat affects certain populations disproportionately. His theory is that people trade environmental quality for lower housing costs, which puts many people of color in neighborhoods with more concrete and less nature, thereby increasing the temperature in those communities. Using the 2000 and 2010 U.S. Census data, Dr. Fesselmeyer provided multiple maps and graphs outlining the connection between higher temperatures and factors that define lower-income neighborhoods. He concluded his presentation with substantial evidence that shows a connection between race/origin, rent, income, and college education.

The last speaker on the first Monmouth faculty panel, Dr. Abha Sood, who is a Lecturer in the Department of English, gave her presentation on the displaced community of the Isle de Jean Charles. This island used to be part of the marshes of southern Louisiana, but due to sea level rise and the effects of drilling and infrastructure along the Mississippi River, it is now no more than 320 square acres. The inhabitants were primarily Native Americans who integrated with a small French community. According to Dr. Sood, “Since the inhabitants are a mix of Indian and French Acadians, the government did not recognize them as Native Americans,” which led to the loss of the state government’s financial assistance. In the 1900s, communities along the Mississippi River began to flood, so engineers installed infrastructure such as dams, locks, levees, and floodwalls to protect them. As a result, however, the flow of freshwater and rich sediment that traveled down the Mississippi River to the marshes where the Isle de Jean Charles is located was interrupted which turned the marshes into saltwater and prevented crop cultivation. In 1950, oil companies appeared around the marshes and destroyed the land in search of oil. Additionally, multiple hurricanes in Louisiana further damaged the region, leaving the marshes unrepaired. Due to the Isle de Jean Charles’ poor condition, almost all the residents of the island have left. Louisiana is more focused on the residents who still reside on the island rather than on the tribe. This case study of the Isle de Jean Charles seems to parallel the tribe of Kivalina, Alaska, as both struggled to secure the government’s assistance. As Chief Naquin stated, “The plan is no longer meeting the goals and objectives set out by the residents and IDIC tribe.” The Isle de Jean Charles is just one example of many that show how detrimental climate change can be, especially when multiple parties disregard human involvement’s consequences on the surrounding environment.

Leading off the second Monmouth faculty panel, Dr. John Comiskey, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice, presented a talk titled “Climate Insecurity: An Anthropocene Security Approach to a Sustainable Global Future.” A professor in the Criminal Justice Department, Dr. Comiskey offered a perspective that linked climate inaction to “systemic security risks,” explaining that environmental degradation “undermines our security ecosystems.” Citing Hurricane Katrina as an example, Dr. Comiskey illustrated that natural disasters pose as significant a threat to the nation’s security. Accordingly, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security must “securitize” climate change and consider it of the highest priority. In doing so, the U.S. could achieve climate security, a term Dr. Comiskey defines as the “sustained implementation of prevention, mitigation, and resilience measures necessary to permit the responsible management of climate change risks.”

Dr. Comiskey constructed climate models in which he created several scenarios based on the climate change realities experienced today. He provided attendees with the long-term consequences of such models, which include but are not limited to hospitals stretched beyond capacity; food and water shortages, instigating looting and violence; soaring unemployment; and a nationwide increase in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety. Since the United States’ current policies are insufficient to prevent these outcomes, Dr. Comiskey underscored the urgency of bringing the climate crisis to the forefront of security discussions.

Following Dr. Comiskey, Dr. Tom Herrington, the Associate Director of the Urban Coast Institute (UCI), shared his research titled “Climate Change-driven Coastal Migration: State of Our Knowledge and Required Research Questions that Need to Be Answered.” Dr. Herrington began by identifying coastal populations as the most vulnerable to climate change due to sea level rise. Indeed, it is estimated that, by 2100, 13.1 million people in the United States “may be displaced from the coast due to up to six feet of sea level rise.”

With this in mind, Dr. Herrington asked three core questions: Where will this population relocate to, when will the relocation process begin, and what resources are necessary to prepare? First, he found that people will likely move to an area in close proximity to their original home given relocation’s difficulty. Similarly, he concluded that there is a class component for internal migration: those who come from well-resourced communities have an advantage over those from under-resourced neighborhoods. “Where we have highly resourced or privileged populations, they have a lot of capacity to move or to affect their own outcomes whereas, where we have marginalized, under-resourced communities, they are vulnerable and left with few options,” Dr. Herrington explained, echoing Dr. Grant’s presentation. Furthermore, there is minimal data on the whereabouts of those whom natural disasters have displaced. For example, little is known about what happened to the people who Hurricane Katrina devastated, underscoring the need for further research in this area. Thus, Dr. Herrington encouraged increased research on the matter and emphasized the value of learning from past experiences.

Finally, Dr. Robin Mama, the Dean of the School of Social Work, offered a perspective from her field through her work titled “Sustainable Development Goals: Action Comes Alive!” As an International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) Representative to the United Nations, Dr. Mama discussed the IFSW’s efforts toward sustainable development. The IFSW represents over half a million social workers spanning 141 countries, and the federation possesses special consultative status with the UN. According to Dr. Mama, the IFSW’s focus as an international organization is to “promote social work to achieve social development, to advocate for social justice globally, and to facilitate international cooperation.” As a representative, Dr. Mama advocates for the social work profession and assists the UN in attaining its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that social workers are critical components of the latter due to their holistic, interdisciplinary skill sets. For example, social workers are always present in natural disasters and conversant in the discipline of disaster mental health. Therefore, it is clear that social workers are essential combatants in the war against the climate crisis.

To view the recording of the faculty panels, enter the following passcode: @?N0$sY