Rose Wall on environmental justice

We wanted to find out more about environmental justice in Ireland, so we called up Rose Wall, the Chief Executive Officer of Community Law & Mediation (CLM). 

CLM are opening their very own Centre for Environmental Justice, which will focus on working with communities experiencing poverty, social exclusion or inequality in relation to their environmental rights. 

We got into what environmental justice is all about, what it looks like in Ireland, how the idea for a centre dedicated exclusively to it came about, and much more. Check it out. 

(Note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity). 

First off, how would you define environmental justice? 

There’s lots of different ways of looking at it. For me, it’s the intersection between environmental issues and social justice and equality issues. 

It’s about how environmental hazards, such as climate change, poor air quality and water quality disproportionately impact groups that are experiencing social exclusion, inequality and disadvantage.

But it’s also about making sure climate mitigation and adaptation don’t impact negatively on those groups and making sure their needs are taken into account. 

Right. Can you give us some examples of what environmental injustice looks like in Ireland right now? 

Well a lot of the issues we’ll be working on will be ground up, so we’ll see what’s coming in our door. 

But we know even with the lead-up of setting up the centre that there are issues around air and water quality affecting groups around the country and how some people are less equipped to deal with it. 

For example, air quality affects people depending on where they live and where they can afford to live. We’ve seen this internationally as well in regards to how people living in inter-city areas and very urban areas are more impacted by poor air quality and there are legal avenues for that.

We’re also seeing the impacts of flooding. Families who are affected every year by coastal and fluvial flooding can’t get insurance for their homes, which are being damaged and destroyed, and becoming uninhabitable frankly because of it. They can’t afford to move anywhere else and they can’t get insurance for their home.

Energy poverty is an issue as well, and how it impacts low-income groups and members of the Travelling community.  

There’s also the fact that changing weather, poor air and water quality impact people differently depending on their age, health status and access to services. 

It’s interesting – when we started looking at opening up the centre, we realised we’ve actually been doing work in this area for quite some time. We just weren’t looking at it with that environmental lens. 

So for a long time we’ve been working with the Travelling community and looking at issues of energy poverty. 

We’ve been working on issues of poor standard of accommodation, on flood issues and we were looking at it with a narrower lens of housing legislation for example, without looking at it more broadly. 

Speaking of the centre, how did you come to the decision to open it and how has the process been of setting it up?

It’s taken a little bit of time, partly because of Covid. That kind of hit us sideways, but I suppose I had a personal interest around environmental matters and I wanted to look at how and if Community Law & Mediation (CLM) should have a role around that. 

One of our strategic objectives and one of our aims in our mission is to look at unmet legal need and how we might meet it. 

About 15 months ago, I started thinking about this area. For me, climate change is the biggest crisis of our time and it’s getting worse as time goes on, but it’s hugely intersectional.

When I started looking at it I saw that looking at environmental issues in a narrow way – seeing it as purely environmental – that can be alienating for the groups that we work with.  

The climate crisis threatens all sorts of human rights, like the right to life, health, food, water, property, education, adequate standard of living, adequate housing, and adequate environment. It has this intersectional impact and I think that’s where our role should be. 

But also it had to do with our model of service. We have various strands of services – community education and engagement, legal advice and representation and law reform, and they are all critical for the centre. The communities that we work with regularly don’t think that they’re engaged with environmental issues because of how they’ve been framed. 

As a result, their voice isn’t part of the discussion in terms of developing policy responses.

So part of what we’ll be doing is going out and talking to communities about making that connection between end-of-the-world and end-of-the-month. We’ll be talking about jobs, health, fuel costs, food costs, poor transport, poor housing standards and making the link between all of those matters and environmental policy. 

And we’ll also be informing people of their rights. We’ll be informing them of the practical things they can do, like using the Aarhus Convention, to find out what’s going on and to make sure their voice is heard. 

We’ll also be running legal clinics, which we run in other areas of law, where people can make appointments to get advice in these particular areas, and then subject to capacity, we’ll be taking on cases. 

Climate Case Ireland has opened the door somewhat to rights-based claims on environmental issues, so I think it’ll be intesting to explore what’s coming in. 

All of that informs our law reform work, which is very much about connecting with what’s happening on the ground. 

And how does Just Transition fit into environmental justice? 

I see them as overlapping. A key element of environmental justice for me is to ensure that climate action takes into account the needs of the communities that we work with. Which essentially is Just Transition. 

Just Transition is to ensure that climate policies and environmental policies don’t make life worse for people, and there are all sorts of reasons why we should ensure that. From a fairness and equity perspective, we obviously want to make sure that everyone is protected and brought along, but also from a practical and pragmatic perspective, we need to talk to communities. 

Community engagement is critical, and I think Covid has been really interesting around that and it’s thrown in sharp relief that a project like this is needed. 

We’ve seen in our clinics that there’s been a real inequality of experience with Covid. That’s because of the vulnerability of certain groups because of their health, their precarious employment situation, or because of unequal access to environmental benefits like green space. 

But equally, at the start of this pandemic, I was heartened to see the ambitious response from the government with some of the policies like rent freezes, eviction bans, and policies in the health system and in childcare. There was this real recognition to protect more vulnerable groups who were going to be more impacted by the crisis. 

I think there are lessons to be learned around that in terms of how we look at the climate crisis going forward. 

For someone with an interest in environmental justice, what sort of policy developments should they be looking out for?

I think the one at the moment is the Climate Bill. It’s been through pre-legislative scrutiny and recommendations from the Joint Oireachtas Committee have been published, but as it currently stands, there is no definition of climate justice, and it says that the government “may have regard to” to climate justice, rather than shall or must have regard to it. 

There’s no reference to Just Transition in the Bill and the public participation measures and accountability provisions in it are very weak, and that’s really worrying. 

If Ireland doesn’t meet its targets and if that accountability piece is missing, that’s going to cause more problems for the communities we work with. They’re going to be more impacted by the climate crisis and they’re least equipped to deal with its effects. 

But at the moment, in terms of law reform, the Climate Bill is the biggest thing for us to be looking at. 

You can stay up-to-date with Rose and all the work done at Community Law & Mediation on their website and on Twitter