Environmental Law Society Hosts Environmental Justice Conference

Twenty years after former United States President Bill Clinton passed the Executive Order on Environmental Justice, students from the Harvard Law School Environmental Law Society hosted the 26th Annual National Association of Environmental Law Societies conference this past weekend.

The conference, entitled “Environmental Justice: Where Are We Now?”, covered topics ranging from the history of environmental justice and progress to social justice to useful strategies for ensuring the prioritization of environmental work.

Two hundred and ninety-five people registered for the conference, with 150 to 200 people attending the various events throughout the weekend, according to Genevieve S. Parshalle, the co-president of Environmental Law Society.

Panel discussions throughout the weekend focused on topics such as food justice in Massachusetts and access to clean energy. Speakers included Robert D. Bullard, the dean of the Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, who is often cited as the father of the environmental justice movement, and Harvard Law School professor Richard J. Lazarus, as well as a host of academics and activists from around the country.

Cecilia D. Segal, the co-president of the Environmental Law Society, said after the conference that the idea for environmental justice was something that she and her co-president thought would have a broad appeal to the student body and “resonate well” with the community.

When asked about the role race plays in environmental issues during the breakout discussions, Parshalle said that racial justice was a theme throughout the entire conference and is an important element of the environmental justice movement.

“We couldn’t have possibly had a conference about environmental justice without talking a lot about race,” Parshalle said.

In addition to emphasizing the importance of racial justice, conference organizers and participants cited the role that generational changes play in the conference and the environmental justice movement as a whole.

While several conference speakers have had experience in social protests like the civil rights movement, Segal said that the older leaders appeared to be turning to younger speakers to bring the environmental justice movement into the 21st century by using tools like social media and big data.

“It felt like a changing of the guard,” Segal said of the conference. “The older leaders have laid a great groundwork, and [now] they’re counting on us.”

H. Curtis "Curt" Spalding, the New England regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, echoed this sentiment.

“I think what we’re seeing is a new generation of leadership in the environmental movement that [is] focused holistically on how a community can be sustained," Spalding said.

In moving forward with the environmental justice movement, Spalding said that adapting to climate change is going to be one of the most significant challenges the country has ever faced.

—Staff writer Kristina D. Lorch can be reached at klorch@college.harvard.edu.

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