Why environmental justice matters

Here is a presentation I gave at the EDO/CREEL Environmental Justice Symposium:

I want to present two somewhat related thoughts to you today about why environmental justice matters.

The first thought is: that environmental justice matters because the concept of ecological sustainable development has failed – ESD has become a catch-phrase, has always lacked meaning, and certainly no longer prioritises environmental protection and conservation. The concept of ecological sustainable development is not used to improve the livelihood of the least advantaged among us. The ecological modernists, and even the ecological industrialists, have employed the notion to achieve their ends, be they environmentally benign or destructive. Moreover, a legal system designed around an environmental justice framework might have caused decision-makers and ourselves greater reason to doubt the appropriateness of government decisions made about the environment and development.

This thesis is demonstrated by three Australian case studies which are the subject of my current research and which explores the aspects of distribution, recognition, participation and capabilities that David Schlosberg has identified as being components of a multi-faceted, hybrid and plural notion of environmental justice.

It is demonstrated in a battle over a landfill in rural NSW where the law at first intervened to halt a project that would have cross-generational adverse impacts on the rural future of the people of the township of Molong, whose landscape would include the home of a landfill and recycling plant owned and operated by, and servicing the people of, the neighbouring city of Orange. Later, however, the law allowed the court’s concerns to be downplayed as the project was rebadged as one of the most sustainable waste projects of state importance. The landfill was approved. The community was left with no meaningful avenue to the courts to challenge a dubious legal conclusion reached by the NSW Minister for Planning.

It is also seen in the environmental assessment process, an archetype of sustainability law, for the Channel Deepening Project here in Victoria, and was especially evident in the process for the sugarloaf pipeline, where the environmental law failed to guarantee expected and typical rights to participate in the project evaluation process in a meaningful way, a process already designed to advantage industrialist proponents.

It was evident in the dispute over logging in Tasmania’s Wielangta forest, where the ‘ecologically sustainable’ Regional Forests Agreement – a model of sustainability policy – was found to allow the endangerment of species the RFA was supposed to conserve and protect. While the court at first instance concluded that the law required an assessment to be undertaken before any activity would further diminish threatened species populations and the species’ capacity to flourish, the executive governments of the Commonwealth and Tasmania devised a work-around to permit logging in the forest despite its adverse impacts on the ecosystem.

My second thought about why environmental justice matters is that a principle of environmental justice is an important moderator of some our collective environmental enthusiasm. It should make us think before, as a community, we are seduced by the promise of environmental benefits using relatively novel policy approaches.

Last month I returned from a half-year research stay in the San Francisco Bay Area where environmental justice issues are raised and pursued by a number of grass-roots non-profits whose focus is on improving the environmental health of California’s most disadvantaged communities. While often the environmental justice groups work alongside traditional environmental groups, they have recently lined up against them in court.

The issue that has demonstrated a disjuncture between community-focused environmental justice groups and mainstream state and national environmental groups has been the Californian Government’s decision to adopt a cap-and-trade mechanism to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

The environmental justice groups succeeded in court by arguing that the government had failed to follow the process required of it in law because it did not evaluate alternative options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions – particularly a carbon tax – or indeed regulatory limits on emissions. The environmental justice movement’s concerns about a cap-and-trade mechanism include that there is an ability under that system to offset emissions. This might lead to total emission reductions but will not have the associated benefit of reducing the local pollution in some of California’s most polluted areas. They argue that the only fair way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to reduce them at source, and at every source.

The policy setting has already led to the development or proposal of new, more efficient and sustainable gas fired power plants – a cluster of them (each power plant just coming under the human health emission limit triggers for assessment and mitigation requirements – collectively they are over the limits). They are being built or proposed around the poor township of Richmond, though much of the power will be used in San Francisco where polluting power plants were closed owing to the lobbying efforts there of a wealthier and empowered community.

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