I find the Center for Progressive Reform’s pursuit of environmental justice inherently appealing, but this work raises provocative questions: Should U.S.-focused groups like the Center and policymakers pursue an environmental justice mission that does not account for potentially negative trade-offs in developing countries? Or, are there ways to account for those trade-offs to ensure environmental justice work and efforts to address climate change benefit people across the globe? The answers to those questions determine the positions we should take on a wide range of issues. Here are just a few.
There are well over a billion people in Asia, Africa, and South America who lack access to things that those of us in industrialized nations take for granted, like electricity and cars. China and India are attempting to respond to those basic needs by building many more coal-fired power plants. While installing more fossil fuel-fired electricity generation capacity doesn’t advance environmental justice (and in fact leads to increased, unequal pollution burdens), it is currently the fastest and cheapest route to meeting the basic needs of low-income people in the developing world. Should advocates and policymakers support those efforts or try to block them? Are there readily available alternatives that could be rapidly deployed in developing countries and that would reduce the disproportionate impacts of fossil fuel pollution?
Here is a closely related question: How should we react to efforts to export U.S. natural gas to Asia to displace some of the coal that now dominates generation of electricity there? That would be better for the climate than coal-fired power plants, as well as for low-income people in Asia, but it would have a variety of adverse effects on some low-income people in the United States. These would include increasing the cost of gas-generated electricity and home heating and cooking, as well as increasing pollution and disaster risks from drilling, processing, and transporting that gas.
The U.S. effort to replace fossil fuel-powered vehicles with electric vehicles will require a 500 percent increase in the quantity of 11 key minerals. That will require opening or expanding hundreds of mines, both domestically and in other countries. Many of those new or expanded mines will have severe adverse environmental effects on the residents of neighboring communities. Should advocates and policymakers support or oppose the dramatic expansion of mining in these areas?
The Inflation Reduction Act raises many questions of this type, as well. Should we support or oppose the content prerequisites to the green energy subsidies, knowing that they have adverse effects on low-income people in many countries? Should we support or oppose the prevailing wage and mandatory training prerequisites for subsidies, knowing that they cannot be satisfied by products made in the Global South? Should we support or oppose the efforts to eliminate or dramatically reduce China’s dominant role in the supply chain for the critical components of electric vehicles, knowing that any such effort will both slow the transition away from fossil fuels for transportation and increase the cost of transportation for low-income people in the United States?
I don’t have good answers to these questions. I hope that other Member Scholars at the Center — and others — do.