Environmental Justice And The Paradox Of Global Governance

“An environmental justice framework provides the most fundamental explanation for the paradox of environmental governance.” Critically evaluate this statement.

The paradox of global environmental governance (‘PGEG’) refers to the fact that despite growth in public concern, scientific knowledge, environmental treaty and soft law output since 1945, most serious global environmental problems are worsening (Kramarz & Park 2016, p. 1). While an array of causes have been advanced as explanations for this phenomenon, this essay will examine the linkages between an Environmental Justice (‘EJ’) framework and the PGEG. 

Demands for EJ first emerged as an American social movement in the 1980s, defined for present purposes as encompassing “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, colour, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies” (Martinez-Alier et al. 2016, p. 732; Brooks & Solas 2015, p. 1).

Applying an EJ framework to understanding the PGEG, posits that increased regulation towards mitigating environmental degradation has been unsuccessful because society fails to ensure recognition, distributive and communicative justice. This essay will contend that an EJ ‘framework’ is comprised of two dimensions; a way of seeing the world and accompanying institutional architecture. It will be argued that EJ’s perspective is foundational, yet its implementation is undermined by issues of enforceability and accountability.

While modern civilisation has developed in a period of “exceptional climactic stability over the last 7,000 years”, neo-liberal society faces a range of environmental justice issues which have slowly grown in tandem with mounting ecological degradation (Emanuel 2012, p. 54; Martinez-Alter et al. 2016, pp. 731).

Examples include disparities between the global ‘north’ and ‘south’, with the ‘north’ representing 20% of the world’s population but consuming around 80% of its resources (Thacker 2008, p. 144). This means that some groups face higher exposure to environmental harms without equal share of the resources and profits including conflicts of resource extraction, transport and waste disposal (Martinez-Alter et al. 2016, pp. 733). Humanity’s focus on the short over the long term undermines intergenerational justice while systemic racism and sexism exposes particular nations, classes and social groups to greater vulnerability relative to others (Martinez-Alter et al. 2016, pp. 747, 732). Moreover, the most vulnerable – generally the impoverished – are typically the most politically disempowered, possessing less capacity to “protect themselves, adapt or recuperate losses” (United Nations Task Team on Social Dimensions of Climate Change 2011, p. 5).

Making a clearer link between ecological degradation and these human rights issues, helps reframe ecological degradation as a short term issue, encouraging companies and government organisations to pursue bolder action. A report by the New Climate Institute has estimated that the EU’s greenhouse gas reduction pledge could prevent 6,000 premature deaths due to air pollution and up to 40,000 if strengthened (Höhne, N et al. 2015, p. 12). Reframing ecological degradation in terms of immediate effects highlighted by EJ, pressures businesses and governments to adopt more ambitious targets, helping overcome propensity to put off policy change due to the perception that environmental degradation is a long term issue. This suggests a strong alignment between EJ and action required to overcome the PGEG.

More than market failures, these issues are ‘cost-shifting successes’ for a minority who have transcended ecological thresholds, while denying ecological and social responsibility (Martinez-Alter et al. 2016, pp. 732). In an utopian world, these unjust shifts would “lead to complaints from those bearing them” and if such complaints were effective, “activities could be banned… or ‘equivalent’ eco-compensation mechanisms could be introduced. The economy would change accordingly” (Martinez-Alter et al. 2016, p. 732). In short, adoption of the values underpinning EJ could remedy the paradox at hand.

However if adopting EJ principles would resolve this paradox, why has this not happened? Two main obstacles explain this: incomplete acceptance of these principles in many societies and states; and secondly issues of accountability and transnational governance which make the implementation of EJ difficult to enforce on an international scale (Keck 1995, p. 409; Kramarz & Park 2016, p. 1).

Evidence of continued resistance to adopting EJ principles is seen in the fact that just 90 companies have generated “nearly two-thirds of all climate pollution since the dawning of the industrial age” (Naidoo & Mittler 2014, pp. 94). Despite arguments that further damage by these companies should be limited by intervention, they are instead “receiving special treatment… buying influence with governments” (Naidoo & Mittler 2014, pp. 94).

Meanwhile, institutions attempting to pursue EJ, “dealing with social agendas or the environment… are not coordinated, lack adequate powers and are much weaker than economic and trade bodies” (Naidoo & Mittler 2014, pp. 95). In 2011, when Canada rejected the Kyoto Protocol regarding reducing carbon emissions, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change did not possess the power to impose fines or sanctions (Naidoo & Mittler 2014, pp. 96). Many nations also refuse to sign up to this and similar bodies, and no enforcement mechanisms exist. Similar issues of vested interest and weak enforcement have meant many 21st century innovations, potentially delivering “more justice and a better planet”, aren’t implemented (Naidoo & Mittler 2014, pp. 94).

Weak regulatory power to enforce even agreed elements of EJ suggests, that while implementing its principles is fundamental to addressing the current global ecological crisis and thus the continued survival of our ecosystem, it is unable to achieve this without the support of other frameworks. Given EJ’s own interconnected approach that “environmental problems are political issues that cannot be solved apart from social and economic justice” it follows that an interconnected approach towards enforcing these values which acknowledges environmental degradation as a case of complex non-linear causation is required (Temper & Martinez-Alter, p. 34).

Weaving the threads of causation into one tapestry that addresses the PGEG is no easy matter with “attempts to meld social and environmental agendas” empirically constituting a major challenge (Keck 1995, p. 409). Nevertheless, this essay concludes that the first steps to resolving the PGEG do indeed require both acceptance of a set of standardised EJ principles and establishment of a body with the powers to enforce, shifting away from “functional requirements like monitoring and compliance” which lead ‘accountability to be viewed as an end in itself” instead turning the ‘accountability lens’ to goals on an international level (Kramarz & Park 2016, p. 1).

However at present, gaps in unified global acknowledgement of agreed principles of EJ and effectiveness at the nation state level mean the capacity for enforcement of EJ is weak. EJ’s perspective is foundational, yet its implementation is undermined by issues of enforceability and accountability, requiring alterations across institutional design and the execution of interventions to properly address the PGEG (Kramarz & Park 2016, p. 1).

Reference List:

  • Brooks, N & Solas, K 2015, Environmental Justice Framework, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Minnesota.
  • Emanuel, K 2012, “The Consequences”, What We Know About Climate Change. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 51 – 62.
  • Höhne, N, Day, T Hänsel, G & Fekete, H 2015, Assessing the missed benefits of countries’ national contributions, Institute for Climate Policy and Global Sustainability, Berlin.
  • Keck, M 1995, “Social Equity and Environmental Politics in Brazil: Lessons from the Rubber Tappers of Acre”, Comparative Politics, vol. 27, no. 4, pp. 409-424
  • Kopina, H, Washington, H, Taylor, B & Piccolo, J “Anthropocentrism: More than Just a Misunderstood Problem”, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 109 – 127.
  • Kramarz, T & Park, S 2016, “Accountability in Global Environmental Governance: A Meaningful Tool for Action?”, Global Environmental Politics, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 1 -21.
  • Martinez, J, Temper, L, Del Bene, D & Scheidel, A 2016, “Is there a global environmental justice movement?”, The Journal of Peasant Studies, vol. 43, no. 3, pp. 731 – 755.
  • Naidoo, K & Mittler, D 2014, “Transform Global Governance to Deliver Sustainability and Climate Change”, CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report 2014, in A Firmin, C Pegus & M Tiwana (eds), CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Johannesburg, pp. 94 – 97.
  • Temper, L & Martinez-Alter, J 2016, “Mapping Ecologies of Resistance”, in L Horowitz & M Watts (eds), Grassroots Environmental Governance: Community Engagements with Industry, Routledge, Abingdon, UK, pp. 33 – 44.
  • Thaker, J 2008, ‘The Myth of Prosperity: Globalisation of the South’, Thesis (Ph.D.), University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia.
  • United Nations Task Team on Social Dimensions of Climate Change 2011,“The rationale: Why integrate social dimensions into climate change policy?”, The Social Dimensions of Climate Change – Discussion Draft, International Labour Organization, Geneva, pp. 5 – 16.