Environmental Law Symposium highlights growing intersection between humans, environment
On March 9, authorities from a number of professional sectors filled the seats of the Kalmanovitz Appellate Courtroom at the UC Davis School of Law. This annual event is known as the Environmental Law Symposium and focuses on bringing people together to listen, learn and discuss environmental hot topics.
“Each year as a team we are in charge of picking the theme of the event, and traditionally the event will feature four panelists that are centered around the event,” said Bridget McDonald, a second-year student at the UC Davis School of Law. “The goal is essentially to bring together practitioners, policymakers, students, academics, [practicing attorneys], any sort of professional authority that is interested in learning more about the subject matter.”
In the past, the symposium’s themes have covered topics like climate change, the future of the California Environmental Quality Act, sustainability and agriculture and the changing California coastline. This year, McDonald and her co-organizers, second-year law students Ellen Simmons and Coral Walker, selected a theme that explored the growing intersection between humans and the world around us. The event was titled Humans and their Environment: Protecting our Planet and Its Inhabitants.
“In choosing the theme, we really wanted to broaden the scope to look at the ways that humans interact with the environment and the environmental crises actually impacting human communities,” said Ellen Simmons, a second-year student at the UC Davis School of Law and a co-organizer of the symposium. “It wasn’t completely narrowed down to environmental justice in particular, that’s just an important facet of the way that humans relate to the environment [and] the legal challenges that have been emerging in the last couple decades.”
The event featured four panels that addressed diverse topics, including public health effects in the era of climate change, environmental justice in the Central Valley, the lessons learned from the recent California wildfires and Native American land restoration.
Two of the panels were organized by the symposium’s co-sponsor, the Aoki Center for Critical Race and Nation Studies at King Hall. According to director Mary Louise Frampton, the multi-disciplinary research center partnered with the Environmental Law Society to provide programming related to environmental justice at the 2018 symposium. One of these panels was that for environmental justice in the Central Valley, whose low-income communities of color face environmental and health burdens as a result of agriculture, topography and politics.
“California’s San Joaquin Valley is a study in contrasts,” Frampton said. “It generates a great deal of wealth but is one of the poorest regions in the country. Its history is one of inequality and discrimination. It is also one of the most polluted regions in the country — it has the worst air quality, the most severe drinking water problems, and is home to the majority of the state’s prisons, hazardous waste dumps and garbage facilities. Not everyone in the CV experiences the effects of those environmental harms. Research shows that low-income communities of color are more likely to live near and be harmed by environmental pollution, with some studies indicating that low-income people of color die 20 years earlier than white people in the CV.”
According to Frampton, many decision makers and lawyers do not know about those inequalities and their racialized impacts. This symposium is one avenue for these pressing issues to come to the forefront of environmental conversations within the state.
The other panel organized by the Aoki Center concerned environmental justice for Native people, entitled “Restoring the Balance in Indian Country.” According to the student organizers, there are many legal implications tied to Native American affairs and other impoverished communities, including property rights, water rights, land-use rights and more, which is why it was important to include in this year’s symposium.
“My impression is that it really was important to focus on a group of people that doesn’t usually have their problems explored, in the media that’s not really a subject that gets a lot of attention,” Simmons said. “[The symposium was about] going to the deepest roots of how humans interact with their environment, it made a lot of sense to have a panel that looked at Natives, who have been interacting with the environment for a really long time, and had had the way that they did so completely changed by development and colonization, and just their struggles moving forward as they’re adjacent to completely different kinds of development.”
The law school has a number of avenues that aim to steer the conversation toward that of the human influence and impact on the integrity of the environment as well as related social justice issues. For example, the Aoki Center hosts a Seminar Series every Tuesday that brings scholars from across campus to discuss issues of racial and environmental justice. There are a number of other programs as well, according to Frampton. And on April 12, the Center will launch a Tribal Justice Project to enhance the sovereignty and capacity of tribes by training tribal court judges.
Another resource provided by the Aoki Center is the Water Justice clinic, the first of its kind in the country. The clinic aims to combine law, policy advocacy and research to aid in the security of clean, safe and affordable drinking water for low-income California communities.
“I’ve been participating in [the Water Justice Clinic] for the past year,” Simmons said. “It’s really a great opportunity to help disadvantaged communities use their technical assistance funding that they have received from the state to do water supply and quality projects. This is a new and substantial way the school is involved in environmental justice. It’s been awesome to be involved in it.”
The Environmental Law Society itself is a long-standing student organization that helps students pursue environmental matters, the symposium being one of several events the society hosts throughout the year that bring under-discussed topics to the forefront of political and scientific conversations. The 2018 Environmental Law Symposium was specifically designed to help bring attention to a number of relevant but under-discussed topics, ultimately with the intent to highlight the significance of the blurred lines between human activity and the natural world.
“Now more than ever, we need to keep environmental justice at the forefront of our policy discussions,” Frampton said. “As the federal government abdicates its responsibility to protect the environment, it’s important for Californians to address environmental injustices. We hope that the symposium encouraged environmental lawyers, law students, and policy-makers to integrate racial justice into environmental conversations and helped them understand the serious impacts of environmental policies on vulnerable communities.”
Written by: Marlys Jeane — firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article did not include McDonald’s co-organizer Coral Walker. The article has been updated to reflect this change.