Center for Progressive Reform

CPR Perspective: International Environmental Justice and Climate Change


The Issue
What should be the United States’ role in addressing global environmental problems and their impacts, particularly on vulnerable populations? In particular, what should be the U.S. role in addressing climate change?

Environmental justice has become an increasingly important ethical and policy consideration in domestic environmental matters. Environmental hazards (for example, chemical plants, hazardous waste landfills, and diesel bus terminals) and environmental amenities (for example, open space, parkland, and protected waterways) are inequitably distributed in the United States, threatening the health and safety of poor communities and communities of color. These inequities result from policy choices reflected in current environmental laws and regulations, as well as the effects of larger social and economic forces.

There is a similarly inequitable distribution of environmental hazards and amenities around the world. The rise of economic globalization, marked by liberalized trade rules and the dominance of multinational corporations, has played a key role in shifting environmental pollution from industrialized to developing countries. This distributional shift can be seen most prominently in the export of polluting industries and hazardous wastes from developed countries to poor, developing countries in Africa, South America, and Asia. Weak environmental regulations and lax enforcement of laws foster this shift, supported by trade rules that force developing countries to make trade-offs between environmental protection and economic prosperity. Notwithstanding attempts to regulate the international waste trade by treaty, illegal exportation of hazardous wastes to developing countries continues to flourish.

Moreover, the negative effects of widely recognized environmental degradation (ozone depletion, climate change, declining biodiversity, deforestation) are borne disproportionately by developing countries and poor populations across the globe. The United States is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, even though it constitutes only 4 percent of the world’s population. In contrast, developing countries have only recently begun down the path to industrialization, and their per capita emissions of greenhouse gases are comparatively low. Developing countries are especially vulnerable to climate change and other adverse impacts. They also have fewer resources to respond to these problems, and stand to lose the most ground in their development efforts, threatening to entrench existing global economic and social inequalities.

Policy choices are being made in the international context that have the potential to either aggravate or ameliorate global environmental injustices. This Perspective focuses on one of many global environmental problems, climate change, and suggests ways to incorporate concerns about environmental justice into regulatory approaches to this problem.


What People Are Fighting About


What’s At Stake?
The impacts of environmental problems—like climate change from global warming—are most devastating to poor, developing populations and people of color across the world. While the United States government demands that developing countries share in pollution reduction efforts, it has refused to make concrete commitments to stem its own contributions to global environmental problems, including, most prominently, climate change. As one of the main contributors to global warming, the United States should be at the forefront, with the rest of the industrialized world, of efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

The most pressing policy choice currently on the international environmental agenda is global warming, or climate change, which results from the burning of coal and oil for cars and industry. Oil and coal are the primary sources of carbon dioxide, one of the main gases responsible for trapping heat in the atmosphere. Most experts agree that atmospheric levels of heat-trapping “greenhouse” gases have increased more than a third since the start of the Industrial Revolution, which began roughly in the middle of the nineteenth century. These releases are expected to double by the end of the century, driven by increasing energy consumption in developing countries. Releases of greenhouse gases will substantially disrupt ecosystems and water supplies across the globe, intensifying dangerous weather patterns and causing a host of other health, environmental, economic, and social problems. Only significant and sustained reduction of these gases will slow and, eventually, reverse their accumulation in the atmosphere.

The effects of climate change are, and will continue to be, most devastating to populations in urban centers, coastal regions and those dependent upon subsistence fishing. These populations, in the United States and across the globe, are overwhelmingly people of color. (For a discussion of environmental justice in America, see CPR’s Environmental Justice Perspective.) These communities are often already burdened with poor air quality and the corresponding health effects, including asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Moreover, the extremes of weather produced by climate change (heavy rains, floods, hurricanes) occur over a short period of time (a few days) and can severely affect health. Poorer communities are much more vulnerable to the health impact of climate variability than rich ones. According to the World Health Organization, of the approximately 80,000 deaths world-wide each year resulting from natural disasters, about 95 percent are in poor countries. In weather-triggered disasters people and animals die; homes, crops and resources are destroyed; public health infrastructure (e.g. hospitals, roads) is damaged. These impacts, and others, threaten the health, food security and livelihoods of poor populations across the globe, particularly those comprised of people of color.

Given that significant reductions in the use of carbon-based fuels will necessarily burden economies across the globe, most of which are dependent upon such fuels, one question is how much responsibility for reduction in these gases should be borne by lesser developed countries and economies. Developing countries are rightly concerned about the discrepancy between the responsibility for, and the sharing of, emissions reduction burdens. They want economically developed countries to take the lead in reducing emissions of greenhouse gases since they contribute the most to the development of global warming. Developing countries maintain that they shouldn’t bear social and economic burdens of controlling greenhouse gas emissions disproportionate with their causal responsibilities, particularly when they have yet to achieve a basic level of development.

While the Bush Administration calls on developing countries to share in the reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, it has failed to bind the United States to any concrete efforts to reduce such emissions. Almost all other industrialized countries except the United States are supporting a treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, that would require them to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide, below 1990 levels by 2012. The Bush Administration has rejected this treaty, opting instead for “voluntary” reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by industry until additional research, estimated to take years, demonstrates more certainty regarding the environmental risks posed by global warming. Taking this path will inevitably delay any action on emission reductions for at least a few years, causing potentially irreversible damage to our ecosystems and the communities that live in, and depend upon, them. The Administration views the short-term economic costs involved in promptly mandating reductions in gas emissions to outweigh any benefits claimed from the alleged “murky” science of risk assessment from those emissions.

A central feature of Kyoto is that it allows developed nations some flexibility in meeting their national emissions reduction targets by including a number of market-based mechanisms as alternatives to domestic emissions reductions. Countries (and companies) around the world have begun to develop international trading mechanisms to reduce greenhouse gases. For instance, Britain and Denmark are developing markets in carbon dioxide, whereby private companies and organizations can exchange and trade emissions credits with other domestic and foreign participants. The European Union, Japan, Norway, Australia and France have also announced their intent to establish greenhouse gas trading markets in the near future. The Administration’s resistance to Kyoto, despite the treaty’s embrace of a market-based regulatory structure is perplexing given that a similar, highly successful emissions trading program for sulfur dioxide—the main cause of acid rain—has operated for more than a decade under the Clean Air Act. The Bush Administration recently introduced legislation, the Clear Skies Act, that would extend this approach to the regulation of nitrogen oxide and mercury from power plants.

But even a well-developed emissions trading approach poses environmental justice problems. One danger of such market-based programs is that they can create “hot spots,” or concentrations, of emissions and thus potentially create (or aggravate) racial and class inequalities in the distribution of pollution and its impacts. (See CPR’s Emission Trading Perspective) The Kyoto Protocol’s market-based options for greenhouse gas reductions raise other environmental justice concerns as well. For instance, Kyoto would allow developed countries like the United States to invest in large-scale fast-growing tree plantations (so-called “carbon sinks”) in developing countries to earn tradable carbon credits. This approach would result in further deforestation in these countries, deplete water resources and increase poverty. Tree plantations do not allow for biological diversity, demand massive use of chemicals, and allow for future logging activities. The loss of biological diversity, in particular, has severe distributional consequences because local communities in or near the lands targeted for plantations depend on the plants native to their surroundings for food, medicine, clothing, shelter and cultural survival. Thus, these plantations threaten to cause social and cultural disruption for these communities.


A Progressive Perspective

Decisions on the Table
-Endorsement of the “Kyoto Protocol,” which requires all industrialized nations to significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
-Endorsement of the “Bali Principles of Climate Justice,” which recognizes that the impacts of climate change are inequitably distributed and subjects any mechanism to ameliorate global warming to environmental justice principles.

All economies must eventually become less dependent on fossil-fuel energy and should invest in energy efficient alternatives. However, proactive, aggressive steps must be taken to control emissions of greenhouse gases now, and the United States should join the rest of the world’s developed nations in reducing emissions. Although the United States signed the Kyoto Treaty in 1998, the Treaty has not been ratified by the Senate. In 2001, the Administration announced it would not send the treaty to the Senate. Congress should remedy the Bush administration’s failure to take the lead on greenhouse gas reductions. If the Administration acts soon, it will be in a position to influence the establishment of rules by which developed nations go about reducing emissions under Kyoto.

The crafting of the mechanisms and rules by which the developed world goes about reducing greenhouse emissions must take into account environmental justice concerns. Given that it is likely the Kyoto Treaty will soon be ratified by the requisite number of developed countries, those emitting 55 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, it is expected that some form of market-based mechanism will be approved and put in place soon by these countries. The Bali Principles on Climate Justice provide a good framework for implementing such mechanisms. These principles, among other things, counsel that any market-based solution to climate change, such as carbon trading, be subject to principles of democratic accountability, ecological sustainability and social justice. Any emission trading approaches employed to reduce greenhouse gases should be guided by these broad constraints, and should contain safeguards to avoid concentrating those emissions (and the other pollutants that tend to occur simultaneously with the production of greenhouse gases) in vulnerable communities. Moreover, the use of carbon “sinks” as a mechanism to generate carbon credits should be approached with caution as it creates a dangerous potential for the expropriation of indigenous lands, forests and communities.


In Sum

The environmental justice movement has demonstrated that pollution’s effects often fall disproportionately on the health and communities of people of color, low-income populations, and Indigenous populations. It is thus not surprising that the causes and effects of global climate change are also unequally distributed. This administration should stake out a leadership role in addressing global environmental inequities. It can start with global climate change, ensuring that all efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions comply with the principles of environmental justice.

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