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From Urban Resilience to Abolitionist Climate Justice in Washington, DC

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A mural of iconic people of Black culture at the East River Park Shopping Center.

Climate change is already making an observable impact on the environment. Glaciers have shrunk, polar bears are migrating, and precipitation has increased in different regions of the world. Hurricanes are projected to intensify as climate change continues, and they pose dangerous threats to communities living in areas vulnerable to extreme weather. One of those areas is Washington, DC’s Ward 7, a majority Black community located beside the Anacostia river.

SIS professor Malini Ranganathan and Eve Bratman, a professor at Franklin and Marshall College, recently published an article in Antipode titled “From Urban Resilience to Abolitionist Climate Justice in Washington, DC,” which investigates the history of environmental racism, DC’s responses to climate change vulnerability, and opportunities for climate justice in the District. We spoke with Professor Ranganathan to learn more about the article.

Read Ranganathan’s and Bratman’s full original article with access provided by American University Library.

Q: In this article, you outline how DC’s current response to climate change vulnerability is climate “resilience,” which is a solution that focuses on adapting to future threats brought on by climate change. This includes damage from extreme weather, unemployment, and even terrorism. You argue that only certain stakeholders benefit from this response and that there is a disconnect between climate resilience and the lived experiences of some of DC’s residents. Why is the DC climate resilience response limited in who it would help?

The idea of resilience isn't inherently problematic, but it depends on the content invested in it and the political and economic agendas associated with it. In the ways in which it has been used in environmental policy, resilience tends to focus on future threats rather than looking at historical causes of harm. Worse still, scholarly research has shown that in the aftermath of major weather-related disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Hurricane Harvey in Texas, or the 2017 hurricanes that tore through Florida and the Caribbean islands, "resilience" and efforts to "build back better" often benefit private contractors, real estate agents, and wealthier, more powerful groups rather than longtime, lower-income, and people of color (POC) residents. Washington, DC's "Climate Ready" plan and other plans related to climate resilience are recent, so we cannot yet gauge the full ramifications. Some early signs show that efforts to "green" the city and make it more "sustainable" may inadvertently precipitate gentrification. In our research, we wanted to make sure that resilience does not neglect the voices, experiences, and needs of groups that have long been marginalized in the District.

Q: You researched majority Black communities in Washington, DC, that are vulnerable to extreme weather events. How did you conduct the research, and why did you choose this methodology?

Washington, DC, is a starkly divided city. The average household income of Ward 3 in northwest, where American University is located, is more than four times higher than in Wards 7 and 8, which are east of the Anacostia River. This socioeconomic divide also translates to a broad racial divide, with wealthy white residents being concentrated in the upper northwest of the city and poorer African American residents being concentrated in the far northeast and southwest. Climate modeling shows that the latter are areas likely to be vulnerable to heat waves, flooding, and storms, since these are not only low-lying areas, but also areas where residents may not have as much capacity to deal with such emergencies, including access to personal transport, healthy food, and other robust services. They face myriad forms of racial, political, and social discrimination. This is why we chose to focus our climate vulnerability survey, ethnographic interviews, oral history, and archival research in Ward 7.

Q: Your surveys showed that the residents of Ward 7 face daily struggles such as lack of transportation access, poverty, and food insecurity, and that these struggles are made worse by sudden weather events. How do such struggles intersect with climate change vulnerability?

In the past few years, we have seen that those without personal transport, the elderly, the young, and those with underlying health conditions or disabilities are all groups who find it more difficult to weather disruptions of any kind, including weather-related events. For instance, we interviewed an elderly woman whose husband is on dialysis. When the power goes out because of a storm, this could mean a life or death situation for someone dependent on electricity for their basic health needs. Similarly, poorer groups who don't have access to cooling during times of extreme heat or can't get to a grocery store to stock up on food or medicine are vulnerable during a weather-related emergency.

Q: You argue that “abolitionist climate justice” is a response that takes DC’s history of racism into account, whereas climate resilience does not. What is abolitionist climate justice, and why does it serve as a more comprehensive response for Washington, DC, communities vulnerable to climate change?

In the critical social sciences and humanities, scholars have long used the trope of abolition, drawing from the works of WEB DuBois, Angela Davis, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, to think about substantive human freedoms not-as-yet won. Most notably, abolitionist thought is prominent in Black radical thought, especially in discussions around prisons and policing. Geographer Nik Heynen, who is one of the editors of the Antipode special issue in which our article appears, along with geographer Megan Ybarra, has recently written about "abolition ecologies," calling for environments free from white supremacist logics. So we sought to apply this idea of abolitionism to climate change praxis, especially in the context of Washington, DC, a city built by slave labor, where activists congregating from around the country fought for the abolition of slavery, and later, civil rights. Abolitionist climate justice, we argue, centers history, intersectional experiences, and forms of care, healing, and solidarity already practiced by grassroots groups rather than imposing expert plans from the outside.

Q: In this article, you make four suggestions that can be applied to climate justice, even beyond the Washington area. What are they?

First, history is always present. Our study connected the dots between settler colonialism, plantation slavery, housing segregation, urban renewal, and disproportionate toxicity in the Anacostia region with myriad sources of present-day climate precarity. Indeed, there is no other way to understand contemporary climate change—either in its cause or manifestations—than to conduct such deep historical analysis.

Second, climate justice is not just about climate. The simplicity and power of this conclusion cannot be overstated. Just as national conversations in the US have started to link climate change mitigation with labor rights and job creation, so too do conversations about climate vulnerability need to be linked with other social, political, and economic arenas.

Third, we have to think about the ethics of research. Neighborhood leaders are cautious about outside researchers; it was not easy for us, as outside academic researchers from a private university in DC’s wealthiest ward, to gain access to Ward 7’s residents. And for good reason. Offering information and data that we had gathered first, rather than conducting research as a one-way street, helped to build trust, as did offering compensation for survey participation and profiling the abolitionist work of activists via public writing, as I've done recently.

A broader understanding of the environment and climate through abolitionist praxis can be leveraged to extend financial and infrastructural support for non-traditionally “environmental” (and, often, by extension, non-white) organizations. This impulse may ultimately be of greater import to environmental and social well-being than narrow conservation or greening efforts.