Environmental Justice: The Good, the Bad, and the Unavoidable of a Changing Climate

By Rachel M. Gregg

Environmental justice is essentially “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency).” When people suffer disproportionately from environmental risks or hazards, it’s a case of environmental injustice; when viewed through the climate lens, that is climate injustice. The heaviest burden of global climate change will fall on low-income, already impoverished communities.

There have been a few interesting articles and reports recently about the disproportionate effects of climate change on various human communities:

The Good: Incorporating Climate Justice Issues into National Policy
The Environmental Protection Agency is required to develop an EPA-specific Climate Change Adaptation Plan by June 2012. Administrator Lisa Jackson states that environmental justice implications of climate change will be key to the agency's policy.

The Bad: Global Food Security Issues
Increasingly shorter growing seasons associated with climatic changes also pose food security issues for already impoverished people living in the tropics. For example, the recent report by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research’s Program on Climate Change Agriculture, and Food Security (CGIAR CCAFS), Mapping Hotspots of Climate Change and Food Insecurity in the Global Tropics, states that over the next 40 years, these shorter seasons will drastically affect food access for millions of people. Farmers may have to consider drastic changes to their practices, including altering crops harvested. A Warming Planet Struggles to Feed Itself is a great article from the June 4th edition of the New York Times by Justin Gillis about food production and pricing in a changing climate.

The Unavoidable: Forced Relocation and Migration of Entire Countries or Communities
The June 3rd edition of the Sydney Morning Herald featured an article about The Hungry Tide, a documentary that focuses on climate justice issues facing the village of Tebekenikoora on Kiribati. Many of the locals on Kiribati live about 6 feet above sea level, so even minimal changes in sea level have caused massive erosion and saltwater contamination of drinking water supplies. The president of Kiribati has stated that relocation is likely the only option available. Forced relocation is already happening in other areas; for example, the Native Villages of Kivalina, Shishmaref, and Newtok are in various stages of relocation because of massive erosion, melting sea ice, and increasing storm surges along the coast of Alaska.

Adaptation for all: It is clear that adaptation is needed since we are already committed to a certain amount of climate change. How can adaptation investments be adequately distributed among the citizens of the world? How can we support innovative solutions to major global challenges?