“When we started to look at environmental injustice, it just made total sense that we would work in this area,” says Rose Wall, CEO of Community Law & Mediation, a charity that offers free legal expertise to people experiencing homelessness.
Wall, who is trained as a solicitor oversees the charity as it runs clinics all over Dublin in conjunction with partner organisations including Clondalkin Travellers Development Group and Citizens Information Centres.
The centre was founded in 1975 to offer free legal advice, mediation and advocacy to people in disadvantaged communities.
Today, the organisation is in the process of expanding to tackle environmental injustice by recruiting a solicitor to take legal cases on behalf of disadvantaged people and communities, says Wall.
Wall thinks it will be the first time that a law centre in Ireland will specialise in environmental justice and join the legal fight for a just transition.
“Because of the intersectional nature of it, I suppose in some ways, we have been working in this area without even really realising it,” she says.
They also plan to use their legal expertise to assist their many partner organisations to tackle environmental injustice and feed into policy, she says.
What is Environmental Injustice?
Community Law & Mediation provides legal advice, mediation, education services, and also lobbies for law reform.
“So we would normally work in, for example, employment, equality, housing, social welfare, access to services,” she says.
“Those issues often intersect with environmental justice,” she says, but the person experiencing it probably wouldn’t frame it that way.
Wall thinks that issues such as climate change and pollution disproportionately harm disadvantaged communities.
“Poor air quality and pollution tends to impact on, for example, minority groups more because it’s where they live and where they can afford to live,” she says.
She points to urban heat waves in the US, where the leafy suburbs are protected by trees. But people living in disadvantaged urban areas, with little or no tree cover, can actually die as a result of those heat waves, she says.
In Ireland an example of a family badly impacted by environmental injustice might be a Traveller family living in a substandard caravan, in winter time, she says. They will have to spend a massive proportion of their income to heat their home.
“The whole issue of fuel poverty is a big one here,” says Wall. Renters cannot control their insulation levels either so they too are unfairly impacted by hikes in fuel prices.
A lot of people are using gas and electricity ‘top up’ systems, while this helps with budgeting it can be more expensive and can run out at crucial times, says Wall.
An estimated one in six Irish households suffer from energy poverty, says a spokesperson for the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP) which spends around €4.5m each year helping people with their energy costs.
The Public Services Obligation (PSO) Levy is a tax introduced 15 years ago which allows the government to invest in renewable energy but the SVP says the tax is unfair on people on lower incomes, because it is a flat-rate tax.
“The levy is imposed on electricity customers at a flat rate, creating a disproportionate burden on low income customers and those with existing debt,” says the SVP spokesperson.
Wall says that environmental injustice is everywhere, look at the green areas, and the number of trees, in affluent areas compared to in disadvantaged areas. “There is energy poverty, coastal erosion, things like air quality is a really classic one,” says Wall.
Take a parent of an asthmatic child living in a part of Dublin that has really poor air quality, she says. “They might consider that a health issue, but it is also an environmental issue.”
The problem is that people aren’t making that connection that their health and housing issues might also be environmental issues.
“Everything about the environment affects us and affects our lives,” says Wall.
A Just Transition?
“We are operating in a way that needs to change in terms of the climate and the environmental reality,” says Green Party TD Patrick Costello who is part of the Just Transition Greens group.
“A just transition means changing how we do things in terms of the environment, but without abandoning communities or creating poverty,” he says.
He uses changes taking place at Bord na Móna as an example. “We shouldn’t be putting state money into digging up bogs and burning peat,” he says. “But we cannot abandon the people whose livelihoods rely on those industries either.”
There will be jobs in renewable energy in retrofitting homes, building wind farms, servicing solar panels, he says. In that context, ensuring a just transition might mean offering the Bord na Móna workers the training they need to take up those new jobs, says Costello.
Looking at surveys and opinion polls, including the exit polls from the last general election, it is clear that environmental justice is not high on most people’s list of priorities, says Wall.
But that is part of the danger, she says. “One of the big things for me is that our communities, because they’re not engaged in it, they don’t have a voice,” says Wall.
“And if they don’t have a voice in how the policy should be shaped, to take their needs into account, then the real danger is that they’ll be forgotten in policy,” she says.
Most people in disadvantaged communities are primarily concerned with making it to the end of the week or the end of the month, says Wall.
So when Community Law & Mediation go out and deliver talks about environmental issues they plan to link them with issues that do concern people, such as debt, housing, transport or the fact that they don’t have a decent local playground.
“We know there’s massive changes needed in the next 10 years, like we’ve committed to serious emissions reductions,” says Wall.
To achieve those targets we need to change the entire way we do business, both at an individual level and at community and state level, she says.
“To bring people with you, you are going to have to talk to them in a way that is meaningful for them,” says Wall. “You are going to have to make sure you take their needs into account and they don’t feel worse off in the process.”