Earlier this year, an interdisciplinary group of researchers from the natural and social sciences reported on the inequitable distribution of natural gas pipelines in the United States. They found that socially vulnerable populations, including Indigenous communities and rural and low-income people, bear a disproportionate environmental and public health burden. In the team’s words, this discovery is perhaps not so surprising given the systemic inequities entrenched in U.S. society. But by codeveloping the project with affected communities and going beyond quantitative analyses to understand the root causes of the problem, the researchers demonstrated a way that geoscientists can place environmental justice at the heart of their work.
“One of the tenets of environmental justice is the question, Who is participating?” said Ryan Emanuel, an ecohydrologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh and lead researcher on the project. That applies not just to who is conducting the research, but also to where the research questions come from and how the research is disseminated, he added. Emanuel presented his reflections on this process on 14 December at AGU’s Fall Meeting 2021 in New Orleans.
Who’s Asking the Question?
The initial idea to explore the distribution of natural gas pipelines in the United States grew out of conversations the researchers had with communities affected by gas infrastructure. Emanuel had been working with representatives of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, whereas coauthor Martina Caretta had been working with communities across Appalachia to document the everyday, real-life impacts of hydraulic fracturing and gas pipelines.
Their separate conversations with these communities led them to the same conclusion: Some communities in the United States are overburdened by gas infrastructure. Professional networking then brought the scientists and their colleagues together to investigate the inequitable distribution of pipelines across the nation. “Sometimes you need a team full of seismologists or hydrologists to tackle a very focused question and solve a problem,” Emanuel said. “But there are some questions that have to be answered at the breadth of an interdisciplinary collaboration. Absolutely, this is one.”
“We always came in wanting to learn from each other and realizing that our approach, whether from a qualitative perspective or quantitative perspective, wasn’t sufficient to fully grasp the phenomenon that we were studying,” said Caretta, a geographer researching human-environment interactions at Lund University in Sweden. “Neither me nor my collaborators on the social science sides, nor colleagues in the natural sciences, were coming in from a standpoint of epistemic authority.”
The lived experiences that the people in those communities shared with the researchers shaped the central research question of the project: Who bears the burdens associated with the existing pipeline infrastructure?
“When we are looking at various environmental phenomena—from climate change, to air pollution, to issues of flooding, to issues of fossil gas infrastructure, in the case of this paper—you want to engage those who are most impacted by the problem and those who experience it every day because they’re the contextual experts,” said Sacoby Wilson, an environmental health scientist and director of the Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health Initiative at the University of Maryland in College Park. Wilson was not involved with the research.
By working with communities to develop research questions, Wilson said, scientists can ensure that their questions are relevant and that their research will serve the community’s needs. “When you engage communities, you get the best questions and the best data so you can get to the best solutions.”
The key to engaging with communities to develop research that will serve their needs is to develop trusting relationships without any preconceived research goals. “I think the most important thing that we can do as geoscientists is to start showing up and acknowledge that we don’t have the answers to every question,” Emanuel advised. “But it’s important that we listen because sometimes we don’t even know what the questions are.”
Think about community-based research as service, Wilson added. “Build relationships, do science that serves, and focus on action and solutions…. Connect what you’re trying to work on to things that are important to folks: food, faith, family, health, and jobs. If you do science that serves to address those needs, then you’ll be a good partner.”
From Problems to Action
By cross-correlating maps of social vulnerability broken down by county with maps that trace pipelines, the researchers found that U.S. counties with high levels of social vulnerability have a significantly higher density of gas pipeline infrastructure than counties with low levels of social vulnerability. That is, socially vulnerable populations disproportionately bear the burden of fossil fuel infrastructure. What then?
“It challenged me as a natural scientist to go a step beyond the place where we usually wrap up the discussions of our papers,” Emanuel said. “We’ll say, ‘Here are the quantitative results. Now, all you decisionmakers or “society” go and do something with it.’ We don’t always carry it further than that.” He explained that the social scientists on the team helped push them beyond the typical stopping point of natural science research and explore the underlying societal causes that led to the inequity, for example, the long-standing exclusion of Indigenous peoples from decisionmaking about their own lands and the systemic disenfranchisement of low-income and rural communities.
To further environmental justice, Wilson said, the next steps for this project should go beyond identifying the problem and its causes and use the results to develop solutions. For this particular project, he noted that many of the Biden administration’s recent climate policy actions, like Executive Order 14008: Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the proposed Build Back Better Act, include proposals to compensate communities disproportionately affected by climate change.
That should include those who are overburdened by gas infrastructure, Wilson noted, and research like this can help direct where funds should go. “As you think about a just transition, they should be receiving their fair share of our transition to a clean energy economy and to clean energy infrastructure.”
“As scientists,” Caretta said, “we can facilitate a process where these communities gain the scientific tools to be able to go out to policymakers and stop them from continuing to take advantage of people and putting them in a detrimental position when it comes to their health and their environment.”
—Kimberly M. S. Cartier (@AstroKimCartier), Staff Writer