Ethics and Environmental Justice

A Theory of Justice

During the last half of the 20th Century, John Rawls produced a philosophical body of work addressing the problem of distributive justice (the socially just distribution of goods in a society). His Theory of Justice is based upon two principles grounded in what he sees as a social contract: given that justice is fairness, if one were tasked with creating a just society what kind of arrangement would be agreed upon?

To ensure a fair distribution within the society, he identifies two principles:
one, that each person should have equal rights to the most extensive liberties consistent with other people enjoying the same liberties; and two, that inequalities should be arranged so that they would be to everyone’s advantage and arranged so that no one person would be blocked from occupying any position.

This process is facilitated by what Rawls refers to as “the veil of ignorance.”

In the context of Rawls theory, environmental justice is an ethical issue unlike any humanity has ever faced. It poses spatial questions that span the globe and temporal issues that cross generations. Climate change affects nations differently. Within nations, inequality and geography distribute the impact of climate change differently. The greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere today will have a disproportionately damaging affect on the world of future generations. In the natural world, species will adapt if they can, but many may go extinct because they can’t.

Conflict over resource exploitation is seen at every level of social interaction. Steve Yuhas lives in the affluent estate of Rancho Santa Fe, a gated community which consumes some five times more water per capita than the statewide average. During the recent severe drought in California, the state’s governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order that all cities and municipalities cut water consumption by between 25% and 36%. Ranch Santa Fe’s consumption rose by 9%. When interviewed, Yuhas said that people “should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting their gardens beautiful.” He later added that he paid high property taxes to live where he did and that “we’re not all equal when it comes to water.”1

On the other side of the world Coca Cola operates 58 water-intensive bottling plants in India. In Kerala state many residents were forced to rely on trucked daily water supplies. After large protests, the government revoked the company’s license to operate forcing the closure of the plant.2 Given what we have seen of the issues about water, this is a welcome story, but unfortunately, does not represent the usual in India.

There is no agent to govern what is a global problem. The developed world bears the historical responsibility of having based growth on fossil fuels. Who is to tell the developing world that they have no right to do the same even if that pushes global temperatures to catastrophic levels? It can only be seen as an embarrassment to global leaders that it is children, today, asking for change, but even they cannot speak for those who will live in the next century, and who will make the case for the millions of species with which we share the planet?

In the absence of regulation, what we have is a chaotic system of unbridled use of natural resources. This phenomenon is vividly seen in the context of what is referred to as Earth Overshoot Day. That day marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services exceeds what the earth can generate in that year.

From the chart it can be seen, for example, that if everyone on earth lived like Americans, we would need 5 Earths to satisfy the demand. This presents an individual moral dilemma about which most people are completely unaware. It is not a trivial question though, as it is the future of the world at stake.

Humanity is unprepared to address the situation because climate change creates what Stephen Gardiner calls “A Perfect Moral Storm.”3

Three important spatial characteristics of climate change are the following:

  • Dispersion of Causes and Effects
  • Fragmentation of Agency
  • Institutional Inadequacy

The situation is further complicated because the source of climate change is “located deep in the infrastructure of human civilization.”4 Any serious effort to mitigate the profusion of GHG emissions will have a profound impact on the economic and, hence, social structure of current societies. 

As difficult as this part of the problem is, though, Gardiner argues that the temporal issues of intergenerational justice are even more intractable.5 Time is critical, and delay in action may very well make the problem worse, but the bias for the status quo is a powerful psychological and economic force. Though the consensus about climate change is clear, the future cannot be known with certainty, making it easy for typical political actors to defer. The temporal complexities of climate change make it difficult to argue that efforts to mitigate climate change are in the best interests of current population.

The result is a profound moral problem which is easily corrupted by typical political strategies:6

  • Distraction
  • Complacency
  • Unreasonable Doubt
  • Selective Attention
  • Delusion
  • Pandering
  • False Witness
  • Hypocrisy

Finally, Gardiner finds the complexity of the problem such that it becomes all too easy to pass the problem on to the next generation.7

Fighting Environmental Racism in North Carolina

The American environmental justice movement began in a small town north of Chapel Hill, NC in 1982. See the full story here:

Climate Change, Human Rights, and Social Justice

The environmental and health consequences of climate change, which disproportionately affect low-income countries and poor people in high-income countries, have profound implications for human rights and social justice.

Read the paper here:

Weighing the Costs and Benefits of Climate Change to our Children

No issue has ever presented so starkly to a current generation the question of whether spending money now should be done for the benefit of future generations. Once again, an unprecedented situation strains the historical understanding that future generations will be always be better off than their predecessors. Economic analysis uses Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA) and the Social Discount Rate (SDR) to evaluate whether social spending now to reduce GHG emissions makes sense.

Read the paper here:

Minorities in the US breathe in more air pollution caused by white people