The Future is Now: Climate Change and Environmental Justice

On one side of town, there would be ecological ‘haves,’ enjoying access to healthy, morally upstanding green products and services. On the other side of town, ecological ‘have-nots’ would be languishing in the smoke, fumes, toxic chemicals, and illnesses of the old pollution-based economy.[ref]Van Jones, quoted in Bird on Fire by Andrew Ross, (New York: Oxford University, 2012) p. 70-71.[/ref]
By focusing on Phoenix and its environmental challenges, Andrew Ross’s Bird on Fire broadens our understanding of environmental justice. In particular, the book shows how conceptions of environmental justice have evolved and broadened to include diverse issues, including parkland, transportation, urban design, energy, biodiversity, and climate change. This shift has occurred as part of the evolution of the environmental justice movement as well as the dynamic nature of both the physical and social environments. Changes in the physical environment have introduced new concerns, while transformations in the social structure have impacted who we consider to be vulnerable, how certain groups are affected, and societal responses.
Phoenix, what Ross calls one of the least sustainable cities in the world, illustrates how social inequalities are embedded in such things as green urban growth, the distribution of water, air quality, heat, pollution, and green energy.  For me, the take-home message from Bird on Fire was that unless we get our collective act together, not only are we headed for some very hard times in terms of global warming, but we are also heading towards a social formation predicated on triage in which the more powerful and privileged will ensure their basic needs are met — largely at the expense of the less powerful.
…if these initiatives do not take shape as remedies for social and geographic inequality, then they are likely to end up reinforcing existing patterns of eco-apartheid. If resources tighten rapidly, a more ominous future beckons in the form of triage crisis management, where populations are explicitly selected out for protection, in eco-enclaves, or for abandonment, outside the walls. The anti-immigrant mood that has sharpened during Arizona’s recessionary years stands as a harbinger of the hoarding mentality that may well govern such a desperate future.[ref]Andrew Ross, Bird on Fire, p. 17.[/ref]
Clearly, Ross is urging us to see the connection between social inequality and sustainability, and the need to forge a new socio-ecological future. This idea of planning and changing in advance of global warming is called, “anticipatory adaptation.”[ref]N. Kuruppu and D. Liverman, “Mental Preparation for Climate Adaptation: The Role of Cognition and Culture in Enhancing Adaptive Capacity of Water Management in Kiribati” Global Environmental Change (in press).[/ref] While I fully concur with the need to invest in anticipatory adaptation, I wish to challenge Ross’s assessment that triage may happen in the future.
The truth is, triage is already happening de facto in various places across the globe. This is not something that may come in the future — the future is now and we have shown ourselves perfectly capable of ignoring the suffering that climate change has caused others. Worse, we are continuing on the path that led to this calamity in the first place (witness the current tar sands debate).[ref]For a critical take on the tar sands project, go to ( accessed 11-16-11.[/ref]By expanding our spatial lens beyond Phoenix we can see the consequences for the less powerful and how we, the relatively more powerful — by virtue in living in the US — have responded. Or more accurately, how we have not.
Island nations are some of the first places that come to mind. Not only are they losing landmass due to rising sea-levels, but they also are having problems accessing fresh-water. Participants’ low expectations for the latest round of climate talks (COP17 in Durban) were borne out, partly because of US opposition. In short, we have the option to support small island nations, but we choose not to. Or, consider the case of Thailand, which recently suffered a deluge. Massive rain and flooding caused over 1000 deaths plus thousands more displacements. Increasingly, researchers are linking such events to climate change.[ref]Quirin Schiermeier, “Extreme Measures: Can Violent Hurricanes, Floods and Droughts be on Climate Change? Scientists are Beginning to Say Yes.” Nature 477 (2011): 148-149.[/ref]Closer to home is Hurricane Katrina. Here, the re-engineering of the Mississippi River erased land masses (swamps, barrier islands, etc), which, combined with more intense hurricanes, led to the devastation of New Orleans.[ref]See Mike Tidwell, Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast. New York: Vintage, 2003.[/ref]The deep racial inequalities that characterized the city became abundantly clear in both the local and national response to the storm.[ref]On Hurricane Katrina and its relationship to the racial formation, see the special issue of American Quarterly edited by Clyde Woods, 61 (2009): 1.[/ref]
There are two observations that I would like to draw from such recent events. First, in most instances, there are multiple reasons for such tragedies. They are not solely the result of climate change but rather the product of several complex social and environmental processes — of which climate change is but one. This, in turn, partly explains our reluctance to engage in anticipatory adaptation: It is difficult to isolate the impact of climate change (or any other environmental factor) in causing death, harm, and social dislocation. Indeed, this has been one of the ongoing challenges and debates within environmental justice discourse, i.e.: can you prove that the incinerator caused her cancer? Given the dynamics of global capitalism and the political culture of the US, the complexity of environmental processes is regularly used as an excuse to do nothing.
The second observation I would draw is that these catastrophes are impacting primarily people of color. If we employ Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism, as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death,”[ref]Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Race and Globalization” in R.J. Johnston, Peter Taylor and Michael Watts (eds). Geographies of Global Change: Remapping the World. Second edition. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 261.[/ref]then we can see how the consequences of global climate change are indeed an extension of the ideology and practices that have resulted in U.S. environmental racism. Research has indicated that people living in low-latitude riparian and coastal environments will bear the greatest impact of global warming — areas that are populated primarily by poor people of color.[ref]This does not imply that these regions will be the most impacted, but in terms of the size and vulnerability of the population, these people will. For an analysis of equity issues in US domestic climate change, see for example, Seth Shonkoff, Rachel Morello-Frosch, Manuel Pastor, and James Sadd, “Environmental Health and Equity Impacts from Climate Change and Mitigation Policies in California: A Review of the Literature.” Publication # CEC-500-2009-038-D. Sacramento: California Climate Change Center, March 2009.[/ref]While we don’t say it explicitly, our actions show that we consider these places and peoples expendable. To do otherwise would simply require too great of an inconvenience and hardship to us. While Ross suggests that Arizona’s anti-immigrant environment may be a “harbinger” of things to come, it should be readily apparent that nonwhite residents of poor places are already experiencing extreme hardship and death. In short, Ross is right-on to connect inequality, climate change, and triage, but we need only look at the migrants crossing the Arizona desert and dying of dehydration to know that an informal triage is already at work.
Top image: Flooding in Bangkok, seen via satellite on October 24, 2011. Courtesy of DigitalGlobe-Imagery.

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