How Carbon Trading Hurts the Poor How Carbon Trading Hurts the Poor
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How Carbon Trading Hurts the Poor

by Jenny Price

April 1, 2009

Pollution is a global problem, but the costs are paid neighborhood by neighborhood.

Now that California has adopted an ambitious, cover-all-bases greenhouse gas reduction plan, it is being widely touted (this happens to us a lot in California) as the model for a national plan. Most of the provisions would bring tears of joy to any environment-loving person who's waited out the last eight years. Unfortunately, the plan relies on cap-and-trade to achieve the largest share of reductions-despite vehement objections from low-income communities and a raft of public health professionals, along with a blistering response from the state Air Resources Board's own environmental justice advisory committee.Note to the Obama administration: Nearly every environmental justice group in the United States and abroad opposes carbon trading.Why? The strategy allows industries to pollute as much or more in some places if they pay to reduce pollution elsewhere-anywhere-and it's just not that difficult to predict that these "some places" will be the low-income areas that already suffer the worst industrial pollution. While the CO2 itself isn't toxic, every carbon source also emits a standard toxic list of co-pollutants-the sulfur dioxide, mercury, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter that have wreaked such havoc on people's health in these communities.So why are so many wonderful, principled, justice-loving environmentalists brushing aside these objections? Well, cap-and-trade is rooted deeply, and counter-productively, in environmentalism's enduring "we" problem."We are all in this together" rhetoric dates back to the 1960s and 1970s, when the environmental movement as we know it powerfully came of age. It remains one of the basic pillars of environmentalist culture-of the fundamental, practically instinctive, ways we understand the causes of environmental problems. We, as a species, are destroying the earth, and we, homo sapiens, must fix it. Humanity is the problem, right? How many times did An Inconvenient Truth inform us that Humanity is destroying the Environment?The "we" rhetoric has always tended to obscure a few sub-planetary inequalities in who creates pollution, where it happens, and where it gets cleaned up. It has encouraged the assumption that any environmentally destructive act-anywhere-is bad for all of us, and that any environmentally positive act is good for everyone. And it's encouraged a great many of even the most enlightened environmentalists to continue to see inequities as a secondary, or at best separate, problem.And that's why the "we" problem has helped to perpetuate the vast environmental devastation.
Because the problem, on a planetary level, isn't that we aren't all in this together. The problem is that to clean up the whole planet we share, you have to recognize the sub-planetary ways in which we are not.Historically, "we" have always concentrated our environmental messes in the low-income areas where people have the least power to object and the least money to escape. Our toxic hotspots have always been powerfully enabled by the ability of the most affluent homo sapiens to escape the most hazardous consequences of their environmental actions-to move away from the factories, clean things up in the suburbs where they live, and dump out there.Just imagine how fast we'd clean up the industrial quadrants of Los Angeles, for example, if everyone in the city had to breathe the emissions next door, equally.Now imagine how slowly we'll clean up this beautiful orb if we embrace strategies that continue to legitimate the use of the lower-income areas on the earth as places to stash the worst pollution.Which is exactly what carbon trading does. It sets out to reduce emissions on a global scale by reducing them anywhere at all. It ignores inequities and geography, with a great blast of "we" enthusiasm.Call it trickle-down environmentalism-which works about as effectively you would expect. In the short and medium term, many communities that are battered by widespread health problems will become either minimally cleaner or even more polluted. In the long term, any strategy that encourages the continued use of some areas as dumps for toxics is a strategy that dooms progress on a global scale to a tortoise's pace. You cannot clean up this planet by ignoring geographic inequities. It cannot be done.Carbon trading doesn't have to be so geographically witless. One can envision a new, improved cap-and-trade version 2.0 that's regulated to clean up the pollution hot spots preferentially. But whether trading, or just the more direct regulation by taxes and mandatory reductions, the dominant strategy should understand how environmental inequities perpetuate the problems we're trying to tackle.As we sail forth boldly into the New Green Age, a national environmental policy will have to recognize that the fastest route to sustainability is the most equitable. We need to share the costs of pollution, and benefit from our greening initiatives, equally. For all our sakes.Photos for illustration from flickr users tboard and November girl, licensed under Creative Commons
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How Carbon Trading Hurts the Poor