Unequal Is Not an Option –Kirin Kennedy Uses Science and a Conscience as Her Guide to Climate Justice

By Guest Blogger Deborah McKinney     with CJI Partner Women of Color United

Take a lifelong fascination with the weather, course loads in geography and climatology, and a compassionate drive for justice and you will then begin to understand environmental activist, Kirin Kennedy. I had the pleasure of talking with the Pennsylvania State University senior about some of her thoughts on climate change, especially during this pivotal time of the Climate Conference in Copenhagen.

Kirin only has to look fifteen minutes away from where she lives to the neighborhoods along the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers in South and Southwest Philadelphia to see the realities of climate change and environmental injustice. Kirin described how those communities are increasingly prone to flooding and there’s a lack of water quality, affordable food or grocery stores. According to Kirin if the flooding trend continues where there is already a serious deficit in jobs, good healthcare, and education, “…that lack of food justice and access will tighten up and more issues of violence will happen. It’ll be like crabs in a barrel.” She also knows that the numerous industrial plants in these communities are contributing toxins to the rivers.

The environmental justice divide continues when Kirin observes how people of color and low-income people lack the resources to adapt or ease the challenges of climate change. Kirin has noticed that the neighborhood where her university is located offers options to residents so that they can switch energy sources, like going from coal to electric, geothermal, or wind. Those energy options aren’t as easily accessible in South and Southwest Philadelphia communities. Kirin, was drawn to the environmental justice movement because she wanted to understand the human side of environmental issues. She says, ”I feel that as we address climate change, we begin to address jobs, food security, and healthcare because they’re all inter-related.”

Kirin isn’t afraid to say that the potent trinity of consumerism, capitalism, and competition are the key causes of climate change. She explains that capitalism and competition have “…taught us to be major consumers and to want more than we need…and it’s failed us. We’ve kind of reached the tipping point, to where there’s nothing left to consume.” Kirin believes if we continue on this path of capitalism, especially with little regulation, we won’t resolve climate change. Kirin also thinks that we can educate people to avoid mass consumption, eat seasonally, and eat locally–which can create more local jobs. She says we have to look at how we are working and living now and develop grassroots solutions that include everyone.

Kirin offers that same message to wealthy nations, like the U.S.:  We should “…take care of countries where we’ve taken their resources, so people aren’t dying from a drought we caused.” The same responsibility belongs to corporations that pollute. They need to pay fines and care for the communities they benefit from.

When asked what she’d love to say to those policymakers meeting in Copenhagen, Kirin simply gives this advice: “Start including people who aren’t typically at the table. Open your minds to real solutions.” For example, she says the cap & trade proposals aren’t truly helping resolve the problem of emissions.  Kirin asks policymakers to make solutions that don’t negatively impact poor communities already suffering (such as damming a waterway that prevents salmon from spawning and cutting off access to those salmon that a community depends on). The solutions should be based on the greater good of everyone.  Kirin additionally urges policymakers to conclude the Copenhagen conference with a binding agreement that reduces emissions much higher than 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

In the meantime, Kirin is going to continue her environmental justice work regardless of the outcome of Copenhagen. She participates in academic climate projects with her professors and has already started an environmental, education program with the Pennsylvania State Youth Conference NAACP, and works to mobilizes youth around just climate solutions with the Energy Justice Network.  Lucky for us, it seems this woman is just getting warmed up!

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