The Necessity for an Infusion of Environmental Justice

Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report warning the world that if we don’t act radically, our planet will, in the very near future, become unlivable. The report states that if we do not reduce greenhouse gas emissions extensively by 2032, our planet will warm beyond 1.5°C, which is the cap on warming 195 countries agreed upon in Paris in 2015. Climate scientists have asserted that if warming exceeds this number, the world will become unlivable and we will no longer be able to prevent catastrophic climate disaster. This report, although frightening, action-inspiring, and put together by the world’s most acclaimed climate scientists, does not take into consideration the fact that for many, the planet is unlivable now and has been for decades. Further, this perspective––one that understands people are already experiencing the catastrophic burdens of climate change––is often overlooked due to the fact that it is society’s the most marginalized lives that have been and continue to be scapegoated.   

Established by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization, in 1988, the IPCC is a governmental group inside the United Nations tasked with, according to their website, providing for the world a “clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts.” This group of scientists claims to be dedicated to formulating solutions to climate change; however, I would call into question how much these scientists who claim expertise on the “socio-economic impacts” of climate change, have been educated on the concept of environmental justice.

Environmental justice is the movement informed by the fundamental truth that many low-income and minority communities are disproportionately affected by the negative externalities of climate change. Environmental justice scholars and activists look to formulate solutions to climate issues while taking into account this fact and understanding that expertise can come as much from experience as it can from those possessing scientific and technical degrees.  I would argue that those who have been in this fight for the longest might have perspective and information useful and inaccessible to the scientists using only the knowledge they acquired from approximately the last 30 years of study.

Climate change, as I have learned in Professor Giovanna DiChiro’s course titled “Environmental Justice,” does not affect all people equally. Those who are already most vulnerable to systemic societal abuses often become increasingly defenseless as various aspects of the environment deteriorate.  Additionally, as can be seen in the Actualitix global map of CO2emissions per capita, much of the developed world, specifically the United States, Canada, and Russia are disproportionately responsible for emitting greenhouse gases. Yet while we are the ones who are causing this climate deterioration, it is so often developing countries who feel the burden of our actions.  An environmental justice perspective is a critical component to aiding our understanding of this disproportionate impact, which occurs on all levels –– global continental, national, and state –– because it addresses concerns of climate change while taking into consideration who the vulnerable populations are and their needs with respect to these environmental factors.

The needs of communities most marginalized by climate change are also frequently those subjected to unprecedented social and economic challenges. Furthermore, since they have been fighting this fight for the longest, these communities represent the untapped potential of the international environmental movement within the context of fighting climate change. In their work titled “Ignition: What You Can Do to Fight Global Warming and Spark a Movement,” authors Agyeman et al. explain, “If the climate movement is truly to succeed, it must also speak to the needs and aspirations of marginalized peoples facing pressing social and economic challenges.” Organizations such as the IPCC are severely lacking in this practice, which leads them to erroneously overlook the fact that people are already directly experiencing the negative, detrimental, life-threatening, and life-ending effects of climate change and environmental racism. The “social and economic challenges” to which Agyeman et. al refer are present in so many communities who are subjected to disproportionate effects of climate change. Addressing simply the scientific aspects of climate change without taking into consideration the social justice ramifications parallels putting a band-aid on a bullet hole –– reducing greenhouse gas output, although important, will not change the fact that disproportionate quantities of toxic waste dumps are being placed in African-American communities.  

Climate justice activists are not invited to meetings of the IPCC, whose reports have served as guiding principles for responses to climate change. In order to construct a comprehensive and effective solution to the rapidly deteriorating environment, it is imperative that these groups work together in order to capitalize on the expert knowledge each has to offer. Further, climate change began to affect individuals in communities subject to environmental injustices before it was on the radar of scientists and present within the global conscious. Environmental justice activism began as early as the 1960s, and the effects of climate change have been persistent in communities for even longer –– just not in communities with individuals privileged enough to possess a voice on the international stage.

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