Climate Justice — and Injustice

“When you in sit in council for the welfare of the people, you counsel for the welfare of that seventh generation to come. They should be foremost in your mind, not even your generation, not even yourself, but those that are unborn. So that when their time comes here they may enjoy the same thing that you are enjoying now.”

Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper, Onondaga Nation

Climate justice issues arise when an economic activity contributes to global warming, but passes the environmental and health harms to people who do not benefit; this is true even if the activity benefits businesses and consumers of their products. For instance, the United States and other highly-developed countries are responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), but most of the harmful effects fall on less-developed countries and on future generations. Many activities that raise climate justice concerns are also traditional environmental justice issues—activities that harm people’s health and the environment. Sometimes the more visible issues are easier for students to grasp.

For example, the following activities cause both climate and environmental justice concerns:

Fossil fuel extraction industries (mining coal and drilling for petroleum and natural gas) have a long history of spewing toxic chemicals into the air, soil, and water—at the extraction site and at other processing and distribution sites.

Coal mining is very destructive, especially with the strip-mining technique called mountaintop removal (MTR), which has been used extensively to extract coal in Appalachia. MTR has been shown to harm the health of local residents, including children, at the same time it threatens people everywhere by putting CO2 into the atmosphere. Mine owners and coal users benefit, but others pay.

Oil Extraction and Pipelines pose a significant threat. The industry has proposed several major new pipelines and upgrades of existing pipelines for crude oil from the Bakken Shale and the tar sands in Alberta, Canada. These proposals are in various stages of consideration or approval. All of these pipelines are intended to make it easier to extract and burn more fossil fuel, so they are all climate justice concerns. Thousands of people, including people from hundreds of Indigenous tribes and nations, are working to stop construction and prevent contamination of the water supply.

Natural Gas Extraction and Pipelines make significant contributions to global warming. Burning natural gas burns produces lower GHG emissions than other fossil fuels, but its extraction causes severe health problems and disease for people and animals living nearby; in addition, the drilling and fracking operations, pipelines, and compressor stations all release fugitive emissions of methane [CH4] in their operations. While some people benefit from cheaper natural gas, the health and lives of many others are harmed by local pollution, and people throughout the world are harmed by climate change.

(No matter how much the oil and gas industries try to deny it, wells and pipelines leak. Continually. Often in enormous quantities.)

The Industrialized Food System is another example of a system that contributes to climate injustice while also harming people more directly. ‘Conventional’ farming uses fertilizers made from natural gas and pesticides that are highly toxic to humans and other life, especially residents of nearby communities and farmworkers. (Many pesticides are descended from nerve gases made as weapons for warfare.) In addition, large-scale industrial farms depend on equipment powered by fossil fuels, and the food is then subject to long-distance shipping and energy-intensive processing. Not only does the entire system create far more GHG than organic growing, the toxic pesticides are now present in the soil and water throughout the U.S.

Nuclear Power does not produce GHG in its operation, it does during the construction—and remember: people who live anywhere near processing plants or nuclear power plants are subject to excess radiation, whether or not they benefit from that power. (Also, major disasters at nuclear facilities—such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima—release deadly radiation that causes severe, life-threatening health problems for workers, emergency responders, and all those who may happen to be in the path of emissions.)

We have become so used to seeing these destructive practices that they are almost invisible; many people do not realize how much harm we are doing. Others do recognize the harm, but are unwilling to change their behavior or accept inconvenience.

Under what conditions is it OK to reap profits or have access to cheaper products, even when it’s clear that they are harming others?

As we move towards clean, renewable energy, it will be important to see that workers displaced from the old systems are prepared for good jobs working for sustainability.

Big Ideas

  • Global warming may disproportionately impact some people and ecological systems.
  • Concerns of climate justice arise when actions harm people and systems that do not benefit from or control the actions—even if we cannot see the impact because it is far away or in the future.

Sources and links to additional resources.