May 7, 2022 | Expert Insights
Environmentalism is a philosophy whose goal is to protect and improve the environment, which has been damaged due to human activity. Environmental justice recognises that environmental issues are directly linked to social and economic problems, and it recognises that environmental issues disproportionately impact the poor and marginalised.
The last UN Climate Change Conference, or COP26, brought together 120 world leaders and 40,000 participants from various backgrounds. The outcome of COP26 was positive, as it is clear that the world realises that we need to accelerate action taken towards these issues; that being said, the one fallback was the split between the developed and developing nations. It goes without saying that the developing world was demanding environmental justice because over a century of depredation of the environment by richer countries in their quest for prosperity for their people has left the world with a severely impacted environment as a legacy to the billions of poor in the global South.
The scientific community has overwhelmingly supported the idea that climate change is real and a consequence of human activity. From a leadership point of view, the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) came into play back in 1994, and today with 197 member countries is nearly universally accepted. Its ultimate goal is to "prevent dangerous human interference with climate systems". The UNFCC set a goal, put the onus on the developed nations, raised and moved funds towards climate change activities, and kept tabs on nations' progress towards goals. However, at its core, it represents the global community recognising that there is a climate/environmental issue that will affect the world, and everyone must come together to solve it.
Typically, when we talk about the split between the developed and developing nations, we talk about how developed countries became developed; only because they could burn fossil fuels and do activities which we are trying to move away from now. We also talk about how developing nations have a national interest in providing for their population and don't have the same resources to make the technology leaps that developed nations can.
However, what must be spoken about on both local and global levels is environmental justice and environmental racism. Which people are environmental damage impacting the most now? And who will be affected the most in the future?
Environmental justice recognises the link between economics, social and environmental issues and promotes all three aspects because of this recognition. Environmental justice promotes regulations, policies, and norms, ensuring that all people and communities would have a safe and productive environment.
It is true that climate change is a global issue and will negatively impact all nations. The impacts, though, will not be felt evenly worldwide. According to Eliot Levine, director of the environment technical support Unit at Mercy Corps, "Climate change is going to amplify the already existing divide between those who have resources and those who do not". Climate change will deepen inequalities within countries and exacerbate inequalities between nations. The poorest and most marginalised communities live on the most fragile lands, and they will be the most severely impacted. For example, in Puerto Rico, when hurricane Maria hit, the poorest communities suffered the most; the rich were able to evaluate and rebuild quickly, while the poor had to wait for months or even years to get assistance.
People all across the world living in coastal areas can be displaced due to the rising sea levels, and people without the resources could be pushed into further poverty due to the displacement. All across sub-Saharan Africa, farmers are being displaced from their lands due to droughts that are caused by the rising temperatures.
For the first time in years, global hunger rose in 2019 and not surprisingly, the sharpest increase was seen in sub-Saharan Africa as drought has ruined the region's agricultural output. In Southern Africa, over 45 million people faced food shortages in 2019.
The world bank predicts that due to climate change, 100 million people could be pushed back to poverty by 2030. In addition to that, major ports in developing countries, including Mumbai, face an existential threat of being submerged by 2050 if no action is taken; the world bank estimates that 300 million people living in these areas could be displaced.
The Pentagon has described the effects of climate change as "threat multipliers". People in security circles talk about how displacement and poverty will only act as catalysts for terrorist organisations for recruitment. Extreme weather has already contributed to conflict and terrorism, as we have seen in Northwest Africa.
Environmental racism is when marginalised communities are disproportionately impacted due to specific environmental policies and practices. It could be the poisoned water in Flint, Michigan or a city in China where 80 per cent of its children are poisoned due to old computer parts. It seems as though specific poor and marginalised communities always live near areas detrimental to their health. Dr Robert Bullard proved in his landmark study in 2007 that African American children were five times more likely to have lead poisoning due to proximity to waste than white children. What was shocking about Dr Robert's study was that wealthier African Americans were still more likely to live in polluted areas than their poorer white counterparts. A government report found that black children were exposed to 30 per cent more air pollution than white children in the UK.
This type of environmental racism happens on a global scale. In 2017, over 44 million tonnes of e-waste were produced, and 80 per cent of that was dumped in Asia. In the town of Guiyu, China, one water sample showed lead levels to be 190 times more than the WHO limit.
A significant example of environmental racism was the 1984 Bhopal gas leak. A pesticide plant belonging to Union Carbide (an American corporation) leaked 27 tons of methyl isocyanate gas, 25000 people were killed, and over 100000 people suffered health issues. The incident happened due to negligence, the corporation refused to face trial, and they never cleaned up the site. To this day, the leak continues to affect people's health in the area.
- The issue of climate change needs to be looked at from the point of view of the people who are going to be first and most badly impacted by it. Solutions have to be made that will help the poor and marginalised communities first, as the wave of consequences will start from there.
- At both local and global levels, leaders must make choices that will stop marginalised communities from getting the most impact due to things such as e-waste, air pollution, water pollution etc. Developed nations must dump waste on their own lands or find better solutions to get rid of their waste. And within nations, we need to find the solution to mitigate the conditions of our poorer compatriots.