Environmental Justice Is Worth Fighting For

Sidney Shapiro
Robert Verchick

Oct. 2, 2018

Originally published in The Regulatory Review as part of a series on social justice and the green economy. Reprinted with permission.

The reactions to our article, Inequality, Social Resilience, and the Green Economy, have a clear message: We, environmentalists, have our work cut out for us.

We wrote our article to start an overdue conversation about environmental policy and social and economic well-being, and we thank our commentators for joining us in starting this conservation. In response, we would note that, although protecting the environment and achieving justice has never been easy, the United States has made progress over time. We are persuaded, despite the caveats our commentators have identified, that the country can do so again.

Michael P. Vandenbergh warns of the political danger of tying the environmental agenda to social well-being in our current political state, and we agree with this warning for all of the reasons that he gives.

To start rolling the boulder up the hill, we suggest that environmental and social advocates find ways to work together, thus bolstering political support for needed policies. We contend that this collaboration should be possible because both types of advocates support a common purpose: giving Americans a fair chance in the race of life by considering the fate of people losing jobs, whatever the cause.

Once political momentum develops, our commentators warn there will be many a slip between cup and lip, to use a well-worn phrase.

Daniel A. Farber notes that policy design is still in the basement stage because we lack a very good understanding of the extent of job loss and of the resulting types of harms. Vandenbergh points out climate change will require policymakers to address not only intragenerational justice, but also intergenerational justice—a rather daunting task.

Nives Dolšak and Aseem Prakash catalog the multiple facets of climate justice that need to be addressed, including: the disproportionate impact of climate bads, the unequal extent to which some citizens benefit from environmental goods, and the issue of who will bear the cost of environmental protection. Achieving environmental justice, they note, will require not only recognizing all of these facets, but also designing programs—including compensation programs—that address them.

But, as Alice Kaswan indicates, there is some reason for optimism.

California policymakers have enacted policies that pursue environmental protection and economic justice, which can serve as models for the rest of the country. And Dolšak and Prakash point to other initiatives—in Appalachia and elsewhere—underway in places that do not share California’s pro-environmental politics.

To sum up, we resort to one last cliché: “Nothing worth doing comes easily.” But, for us, the bottom line is this: Environmental justice, social resilience, and embedded environmentalism—to borrow three terms used in this series of commentaries on our article—are all worth doing.

Now for the hard work.

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