Nationally Recognized Climate-Researcher-Turned-Activist Addresses Environmental Justice in Rhode Island

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Nicole Hernandez Hammer, a nationally recognized climate researcher and community organizer, now lives and works in Rhode Island and is helping the state address environmental justice in communities most threatened by climate change.

Hernandez Hammer found success as a biologist and educator in Miami, helping communities of color suffering from the relatively new phenomena of nuisance flooding, also called “sunny-day flooding,” caused by frequent and extreme high tides. Merging her science background with cutting-edge tidal flood maps, she identified the most at-risk neighborhoods. At public meetings residents told stories of their struggles with flooding. They met with politicians, invited the media to events, and even received assistance from the Netherlands to design parks and build flood-control systems to manage the intrusive water.

“We can take a situation that is an example of environmental racism and we can turn it into an example of how you can have effective environmental justice in an area that's dealing with climate change and be an example for other coastal communities,” Hernandez Hammer said during her keynote address at the Jan. 19 annual meeting of the Rhode Island Environmental Education Association.

Hernandez Hammer’s efforts expanded to include the problem of heat in urban communities. She moved from academia to environmental justice advocacy and joined the Union of Concerned Scientists, where she replicated her scientist-activist model in Galveston, Texas; Charlotte, S.C.; and Newark, N.J.

Her work gained attention, earning her accolades, media appearances, speaking invitations, and a seat next to Michelle Obama during the 2015 State of the Union address.

In Rhode Island, Hernandez Hammer’s activist model is being embraced by the Department of Health for its work with at-risk communities in so-called health equity zones. She is working with the environmental youth organization Groundwork Rhode Island and the Office of Energy Resources on education and outreach for shared solar (community-shared ownership of solar systems).

Hernandez Hammer, a Guatemalan immigrant with Cuban heritage, noted that Rhode Island’s grassroots environmental justice efforts suffer from a lack of diversity.

“It’s a lot harder actually to do (environmental justice) work in the Northeast,” she said. “There’s a lot less diversity in environmental organizations and in the faculty at the universities that are addressing environmental issues than there are in Miami or in Texas. And so that makes it difficult to be able to have discussions where the community feels like they are being represented by the people that are addressing these issues.”

Hernandez Hammer said Rhode Island has a great network of environmental groups that present career opportunities for aspiring environmentalists.

In other parts of the country with larger minority groups and outside the United States, there is less skepticism about climate change, she said.

“If you look at the polls, Latinos are more onboard than any ethnic group in the country,” Hernandez Hammer said. “Not just in terms of believing in climate change but wanting to do something about it and willing to make sacrifices, financial sacrifices to do something about it.”

Her scientist-activist model doesn’t rely on protests and rallies to work. And not every community wants the help. Environmental groups, she said, can succeed by being sensitive to community needs and not trying to force solutions where they may not be welcome.

“If they are not wanting to recognize or feel like that is an issue for them and there are other greater issues, that’s really the need of the community and it’s not a fit,” she said.

In those situations, she said, it’s best to provide information on climate issue so that the outreach can occur if the opportunity presents itself later.