By Laurie Laker ’12
“This class did the nitty gritty, sure, but it also told us what that nitty gritty was, and what needs to be done and done justly,” says Westly Joseph ’20, of her Colorado College Block A Summer Session class, Contesting Climate Justice.
The class dealt with issues at the intersection of philosophy and science, at the very forefront of the whole world’s most pressing and vital issue — combating global climate change. Engaging with the human responses, from the local to the international, the class tackled the often-forgotten questions of climate change that went beyond the science into how to develop planet-saving responses that consider fairness, justice, and equity.
“Discussions of climate justice have changed over the years,” explains Marion Hourdequin, professor of philosophy, who specializes in environmental philosophy.
“The early years of climate justice and philosophy had a huge focus on nation states, and their dividing up of responsibilities for CO2 emissions. The conversation has grown more complex over time, especially as the science has grown and improved.”
Speaking of conversation, this class continues the recent trend of online and distance learning at CC as a result of Coronavirus. It’s not the normal for any student who arrives at CC, geared and ready for in-depth classroom debates, in-person lab work, field study, and so on.
“It’s been really strange having online classes,” says Brita Mackey ’22, a political science major who’s also considering a philosophy minor.
“Our conversations were really productive, and the setup that our professor provided was really well thought out. We used Slack daily — an interesting experience, but I can definitely see the appeal.”
Westly Joseph ’20, who is a chemistry major and environmental issues minor, had similar feelings regarding distance learning — especially with a class like this, lodged between the STEM and social science realms.
“I can only compare it to my 7th and 8th block classes, Energy and Physics II, and both of those were very science heavy,” she says.
“This class was really different for me, mostly reading and discussion based, but it was really enjoyable. The daily conversations and responses in Slack, it gives you more time than you’d normally have in class. There’s less being on your toes and that’s maybe a bit more inviting to students who are normally quieter in class, as well.”
The idea of broadening the conversation brings to bear one of the main focal points of the class, the importance of Indigenous voices in the local, national, and global discussions regarding climate change and climate justice.
“Many philosophical accounts of fairness point in a similar direction —i.e., wealthy, high-emitting countries should take the lead in emissions reductions — but power dynamics and our contemporary structures of power complicate this, drastically,” says Hourdequin. “With that in mind, we made a concerted effort to center Indigenous voices in the climate justice conversations we had.”
That centering was the heart of the class, and the takeaways from the class, for Hourdequin’s students.
“A huge part of this class was the acceptance and application of Indigenous and traditional knowledge, and how we can combine that with Western science,” says Joseph.
“There are generations of Indigenous interactions with the land and their local ecology, which is essentially decades of data, just not expressed in the ways of Western science. Ecological knowledge is not always ‘science heavy,’ it far more reflects how climate changes impact people, and their relationship to land. It’s really effective as a tool for science communication, because it humanizes the data,” she adds.
One example of those interactions comes from one of the texts the class read, Sheila Watt-Cloutier's book, “The Right to be Cold.”
That book “describes how many Inuit have deep, experiential knowledge of the weather, and the ability to read the condition of the snow and ice — knowledge that enables hunters to travel safely through the Arctic and successfully procure food for their communities. The Inuit are also highly attuned to the effects of climate change: they have been observing changes in snow, ice, and animal migration patterns for decades. For a long time, many Western scientists failed to recognize Indigenous knowledge as genuine knowledge,” explains Hourdequin.
“Partnerships between non-Indigenous scientists and Indigenous knowledge holders can be fruitful and can foster mutual learning, but respectful partnerships are critical and can be challenging, given the ways in which the knowledges, lands, and cultures of Indigenous peoples have been and continue to be appropriated by others,” she adds.
That focus on human collaboration and impact marked a shift in class focus for Mackey.
“It was really different from a lot of the philosophy classes I’ve taken. There was a focus on personal accounts, case studies, and real-world impacts, rather that philosophical theories. The theory components supplemented the personal, not the other way around.”
Those personal accounts and case studies, especially around discussions of justice “can easily be colonized by Western thought,” explains Mackey. “The way we conceive of these fundamental issues of self-interest and ownership, and how they relate to future generations, as well as to our environment and community — these are not as universal or single-dimensional as how Western societies usually conceive of them.”
Flexibility is yet another core takeaway from this class for all involved.
“Climate justice, as we learned, truly is an intersectional space,” says Joseph. “Climate justice is racial justice, it’s gender justice, and so on. Addressing one area impacts all of these others; they’re intrinsically linked.”
“I designed the course to include a variety of components of the climate change discussion,” explains Hourdequin. “We talked about cultural, ecological, and economic issues, and how they are all bound up with questions of justice. For example, we considered how to develop fair processes for making decisions about climate adaptation, and how responsibility for emissions cuts might be fairly divided among nations. These discussions revealed that there are multiple ways to think about fairness, and that climate justice is important, but deeply contested."
Climate change and climate justice concerns “don’t just play out internationally and between countries,” adds Mackey, “they’re also subnational, and operate in pre-existing power relationships of culture, race, heritage and so on.”