Sunday, March 16, 2008

California enviro justice groups should do some self-examination on climate change

One aspect of environmental justice theory is that environmental burdens fall disproportionately on poor minorities, and that environmental solutions designed by more powerful groups often fail to address or even exacerbate this disproportionality.

The classic examples is air pollution and trading pollution permits. Air pollution can affect powerful middle and upper class communities. Enviromental justice theory posits that here in the US, at least, politically powerful constituencies react to this problem by reducing pollution while reducing costs born by industries (and costs to the classes who have a stake in those industries) through trading pollution permits, so a polluting plant can continue operating while buying permits from cleaner operators. The effect: encouraging, or at least allowing, hot spots where permit-buying, polluting industries are located, usually next to poor minority communities. While this hot spot problem can be addressed, the usual failure to do so supports environmental justice's validity.

But then we've got The California Environmental Justice Movement’s Declaration on Use of Carbon Trading Schemes to Address Climate Change. The "California" part of the declaration should be in quotes - while I recognize a few of the signatory groups, many are new to me or aren't even from California. Basically it says that carbon trading hasn't worked well, that creating a "right to pollute" is immoral, and that carbon trading can create hot spots, so they oppose a carbon trading system in California.

Two problems with the declaration. First, nowhere does it acknowledge that there are no "hot spot" problems with CO2 emissions themselves - they diffuse quickly and cause warming on a global scale. All they can claim is that CO2 trading will not by itself help control copolluntants that are supposed to be controlled by other processes (and even that's not completely true - ratcheting down CO2 will inevitably help with other emissions, the only question is how fast it'll help).

The other problem is they haven't examined the environmental justice implications of their own proposals. Climate change is a classic environmental justice problem for people outside of developed regions like California. Subsistence farmers in developing nations are far poorer than the communities served by these groups in California (and also produce fewer emissions). Delaying a carbon trading program to address co-pollutants that are subject to separate regulations anyway could provide significant harm to people these groups have ignored, in favor of their better-off constituencies.

I suppose the groups would deny that argument by saying that carbon-trading just doesn't work, period. Fine, but that's a separate argument (one that I don't think they'll win) and not an enviro justice argument.

Too bad Communities for a Better Environment signed the declaration - they're a good group otherwise.

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