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Toward an Abolitionist Critique of Climate Justice


The climate and environmental justice (CJ/EJ) movements have provided a voice to those suffering from environmental hazards and initiated policy change. However, geographer Laura Pulido et al. (2016) criticizes the EJ movement’s reliance on state solutionism and argues that the neoliberal political structure of the United States has stunted the necessary progress needed to address systemic injustices like racism and income inequity, both of which result in “limited gains in improving the physical environments of vulnerable communities'' (p.21). This shortcoming extends to the more recent climate justice movement. Responses to climate injustices include current mainstream regulatory actions which tend to focus on pro-market solutions of mitigation and adaptation; some popular examples include carbon reductionism, green infrastructure, and technological fixes. While this progress is sensible, it ignores the fundamental drivers of structural inequities that make certain communities more vulnerable to climate impacts in the first place. In this paper, I will extend Pulido et al.’s critique of the reliance on the democratic orientation of neoliberal policy structures to solve environmental injustices to the CJ movement. I argue that an abolitionist framework that addresses communities’ root causes of vulnerability, community history, and current social and environmental challenges could be a useful approach to the CJ movement in order to equitably and holistically address climate impacts. I use a case study of the historically disinvested neighborhood of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles County, California to explore how historic urban and social inequities play a role in community vulnerability to climate impacts. This analysis will be done by examining the spatial compounding crisis of extreme heat risk and housing vulnerabilities, while critiquing municipal governmental response to climate injustices through an abolitionist lens. The results shed light on notable gaps in current urban climate research and CJ movements on the ground, and open up opportunities for radically reimagining climate interventions through abolition. This research suggests that the field of abolitionist studies can provide a new framework that ultimately demands the unveiling of root causes of vulnerability in communities facing increasingly severe climate extremes. This research can provide a more holistic roadmap to reparations and adaptations for communities experiencing climate crisis.

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