A focus on environmental inequities

A Penn symposium will draw expertise from a variety of fields and stakeholders on environmental justice.

People across Philadelphia have heard the grim statistic that this is one of the nation’s poorest big cities, with more than a quarter of its residents living in poverty. According to a 2018 Pew Charitable Trusts study, this hardship takes a toll on health, with 41% of impoverished residents reporting to be in poor health, compared to 18% of residents with higher incomes.

Philadelphia city street, abandoned factory in background, housing behind sidewalk fence.

At the Penn Symposium on Environmental Justice and Health Disparities in the U.S., to be held Oct. 25 at Convene CityView near 17th and Market streets, the issues that undergird these and similar inequities will take center stage. The organizing committee, which included faculty from the School of Arts and Sciences, Law School, and Perelman School of Medicine, also wanted to capitalize on the 25th anniversary of former President Clinton’s signing of an executive order requiring each federal agency to make “environmental justice part of its mission.”

“One thing we’re hoping to address is to take stock of where we are 25 years later,” says Trevor Penning, Molinoff Professor at the Perelman School of Medicine, who helped organize and will speak on a panel at the symposium.

Another goal is to raise awareness about what environmental justice actually is. In short, it encompasses the idea that environmental ills are disproportionately faced by those who already bear the burden of discrimination, often due to their socioeconomic status or race. To take a local example, blood lead levels of young children tend to be higher in areas of Philadelphia where residents have lower incomes, with exposure coming from lead paint in homes, residual lead in soils, or lead introduced into water flowing through older pipes.

These issues have obvious ties to health and also require the input of a vast range of stakeholders.

“Environmental justice involves a blend of science and environmental science, of course,” says Regina Austin, the William A. Schnader Professor of Law at Penn and a co-organizer of the symposium. “But it also involves political science, medicine, anthropology, urban design. You’re talking about a grassroots movement which aims to impact not only the academy and its researchers but also politicians, policy makers, and bureaucrats who carry out the regulatory schemes that reinforce or counteract the impacts felt by communities experiencing and protesting against environmental injustice.”

The symposium intentionally welcomed players from across this spectrum. The event will open with remarks from Provost Wendell Pritchett followed by a welcome from Reto Gieré, professor and chair of the School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Earth and Environmental Science

The symposium’s keynote talk will feature Paul Mohai, founder of the University of Michigan’s Environmental Justice Program, who also served on the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 2007 to 2013.

From there, participants will have a chance to dive deeper in three panel discussions. Penning will serve as a panelist in the first, “Science, Technology, and Engineering for the Environmentally Disadvantaged,” moderated by Michael Weisberg, a philosophy professor at Penn. 

“I’m going to be talking about hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale,” says Penning, noting that those living in and around the region where fracking is taking place “are exposed to all the risk of the practice, but the question is, Are they getting any benefit?”

The second panel, “How Economics, Law, and Politics Assess Who Wins and Loses from Environmental Exploitation,” moderated by Austin, will feature panelists from various academic backgrounds and universities, concerning themselves with the regulatory and political aspects of environmental justice.

“I think we need to understand the equities and the inequities,” says Austin. “When we have extraction of certain natural resources in one place, and the exportation of those resources to some other place where people are richer and enjoying the benefits of those natural resources without bearing any of the costs, then we have a disparity between who wins and who loses that must be acknowledged and addressed through the involvement of the adversely affected communities.”

Moderated by sociology faculty member Daniel Aldana Cohen, a final session, “Environmental Justice Organizing and the Promise of a Green New Deal,” will bring together academics with practitioners including Jacqueline Patterson, director of the Environmental and Climate Justice Program for the NAACP, and Jerome Shabazz, executive director of the Overbrook Environmental Education Center, to consider the ways that climate change and pollution’s outsize impact on disadvantaged communities have already been felt and how those impacts might be ameliorated with new policy.

A poster session held during breaks between panels will give Penn students engaged with environmental justice research an opportunity to share their work and engage with others interested in related topics. Howard Neukrug of the Water Center at Penn and Joseph Francisco, an atmospheric chemist at Penn, will close out the meeting with final words.

The organizers are hopeful the gathering will serve as a springboard for more discussion and for action around environmental justice. 

“Having been at Penn for many years, one thing that always amazes me is the richness we have,” says Penning. “We have so many stars in the sky that can be brought together to start thinking about solutions.”

Adds Austin, “I think this is really a great moment to think about these issues because climate-related ‘natural disasters’ are exposing the economic, social and political disparities that produce environmental injustice.”

More information about the event can be found on the Environmental Justice website