This week, Kamala Harris and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez released their new proposal, the Climate Equity Act, which revolves around centring the American communities most affected by climate change when considering climate action going forward. Now, anyone who has read one of my climate change blogs will know a little about my thoughts on climate justice, but to sum up, I think that mega-polluters shouldering more of the economic burden of addressing climate change than countries and communities who have not been responsible for many of our total emissions is fair, just and vital to ensure that we all move forward together.
So yeah, I’m a fan. When I first started reading about climate creditors and began to consider the unfair burden being placed on nations who had very little to do with our pollution of the planet, I was astounded that this doesn’t come up more often in conversations about climate change. While I won’t hash out the theses of my previous posts in detail here, essentially, the rich countries who have profited from burning fossil fuels (which has resulted in better infrastructure, wealthier economies and an increased living standard for citizens) should do more of the work – physical and financial – necessary to create a greener planet, as it is a) primarily our fault and b) expensive, and many developing countries don’t have that kind of money without drilling for or burning their toxic natural resources.
Harris and Ocasio-Cortez’s plan proposes that any environmental regulation or legislation would be rated based on its impact on low-income communities, which are disproportionately affected by climate change because they are often in flood zones, near highways or power plants or adjacent to polluted land. Ultimately, this kind of action is awesome and long overdue. Recognising that, as with everything in life, it’s people lacking various privileges who will be – and already are – hit the hardest by climate change and need to be at the forefront of the climate conversation feels like a big step, especially in a country that is currently headed by a prominent climate change denier.
In her book This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein delves deep into the pain climate change causes to poor, underprivileged communities across America. She works alongside various Native groups as they attempt to get legal support for their rights over their land, to stop energy companies turning up with drills and ransacking the ground. She stands with protestors as they fight to stop the Keystone XL pipeline from existing at all, especially as it will run through the places they live and love. In a particularly moving chapter, Klein looks at the impact of environmental pollution on growth and regeneration, citing work done by the Colorado School of Public Health and Brown University that shows that mothers living in areas with natural gas developments are 30% more likely to have children with congenital heart defects than mothers living far away from any gas wells. She shares the story of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, who now live in what is terrifyingly termed ‘Chemical Valley,’ due to its high concentration of chemical plants. After 1993, the number of boys being born in the community started to fall, and by 2003, girls outnumbered boys in school two to one. Studies also found that Aamjiwnaang’s women were twice as likely to have miscarriages as the general population (39% vs 20%). Both of these effects are thought to be due to hormone disrupting effects from the higher-than-average amount of PCB chemicals found in people who live in Chemical Valley. There are reports of higher levels of respiratory illnesses, cancer and all the injuries and illnesses associated with extreme weather events, which are made more likely by climate change. The research is limited, but given everything we know about pollution and degradation and the impact of filling people’s bodies with toxic levels of unfamiliar chemicals, along with the research we do have, it seems clear that certain communities are being hurt and even killed by our endless desire to grow at all cost.
There have been few issues as all-consuming and unjust as the reality that most of the people who have benefitted from the last few centuries of fossil fuel burning are not the ones who will bear the brunt of the effects. It is so cruel and unfair that people who have done little to warm our planet are facing the worst impacts (or already dealing with them). However, what immediately stood out to me about Harris and Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal is that it only focuses on climate justice in America, between different American communities. There is a glaring omission from this conversation: that it is America (along with China and the EU) who has polluted much of the planet and ultimately owes a bigger debt to other nations than it does to pockets of its own citizens, at least in dollar terms.
Of course, I understand why two American politicians – one of whom is running for president – cannot bring out a bill that suggests diverting billions of dollars away from America to support other nations when there is plenty of justice to deliver to marginalised communities at home, not just over climate change but also slavery and the massacre of Native tribes (and that’s just to start). America has a lot of its own issues and I understand why many Americans feel like sorting those out should be the priority for the American government. I’m only just starting to understand the power of national needs and sentiment, and perhaps didn’t realise before how deep the desire to protect Americans because they are American goes, though whether it’s because Harris and AOC truly believe compensating Americans should be the priority or because saying otherwise would be political suicide is unclear. Foreign aid makes up a notoriously small proportion of most national budgets, the US very much included, showing that the needs of a country’s own citizens are widely accepted to deserve to take priority over the needs of other nations.
The issue of global climate justice touches on the same arguments around privilege, structural advantage and greed that are becoming more prominent in (certain parts of) society and the media. I’m sure the line goes that America did what they had to do because they were smarter or stronger or better, and that other, poorer countries today need to find a way and figure it out. That any debt owed to the hundred other countries whose futures have been completely screwed over by the US, EU and China over the past fifty years pales in moral comparison to the responsibility of America to enact justice for its own citizens first.
There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer to this question. There are plenty of people who will need practical or financial support to cope with our changing planet over the next hundred years, and the question of who ‘needs’ or ‘deserves’ help first or the most will probably detract from getting things done and improving people’s lives. However, it seems like a big blank space in an otherwise awesome and important proposition. Sure, the American government needs to consider how it has wronged already disadvantaged parts of its own country and make amends – but the bigger question is if, and how, they will face the same reality about what they owe to the rest of the world.