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Climate and environmental justice


I was listening to one of the Energy Gang’s podcasts the other day, focusing on environmental justice.  They speak with Jacqueline Patterson from the US’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  In this, they mention a report called Coal Blooded, issued in 2012, in which they investigate the location of coal fired power plants, and which communities (and which demographics) are most affected by them.

“Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People is a systematic study of 378 coal-fired power plants in the United States, in which each plant is evaluated in terms of its environmental justice performance (EJP), i.e., how it affects low-income communities and communities of color.”

What has been found is that low income communities, and particularly communities of colour, are disproportionally affected by the health impacts associated with coal fired power stations.

This is not surprising, nor is it a new concept.  Climate justice movements have been very vocal in pointing out that the effects of climate change will largely impact the most vulnerable communities around the world, while those most responsible for the causes of climate change have benefitted the most and are most able to adapt to changing climates, respond to shifting weather patterns, plan for major weather events and react to natural disasters.

This applies at a global level, in countries already facing developmental challenges and economic hardships – who are not yet adapted to our current climate.  But the environmental justice groups also focus on a smaller scale.  Looking at the location, type and extent of industrial and commercial activities that have a negative environmental footprint, and what type of communities are shouldering the burden of these activities.

This is something I’ve written about before, when I was in Vietnam, and was becoming increasingly conscious of the additional burden being felt by Vietnamese communities in the face of coal infrastructure expansion plans and projects.  It’s also something I have come across in South Africa too.  Mining activities there result in massive environmental degradation, water contamination and have led to increased levels of radiation in local communities.

The reality that marginalised, vulnerable communities carry the major burden of coal and other pollutive industrial activities is therefore not unique to the US.  It’s a global phenomenon, and it is often the most voiceless groups, who are, perhaps, not aware of the true health cost associated with living close to these facilities, that have to deal with increased rates of asthma, lung cancer, radiation sickness and other massive health concerns.  Voiceless groups, who probably don’t have access to consistent, competent and affordable healthcare.

The important role of environmental justice activists therefore becomes clear – to give a voice to these communities, to highlight the inequitable allocation of wealth and well-being resulting from these industrial activities, to educate communities as to their rights, to lobby for those that have benefitted to redress the situation and to provide access to or information on health-care options.

This reminds me of a cartoon that has been making the rounds over the last few months (or ones similar to it).  Equity means helping all people to reach the same level; acknowledging that the starting points are not always comparable; and that those who are struggling the most, need the most.