COP21 Must Address Economic Inequality to Promote Environmental Justice

December 4, 2015

On the surface, COP21, the international climate change conference that started this week in Paris, appears to have all the right ingredients for building a global and equitable strategy to address climate change. The emerging messages deal directly with environmental justice—ending world poverty through the shift to a low-emission, sustainable future. Achieving such lofty goals will require a transformation of the global economy. Yet the proposed agreement fails to address some of the underlying factors leading to climate change and environmental injustice, such as economic inequality and the distribution of environmental burdens.

The real goal of environmental justice is not merely to redistribute environmental harm but to eradicate the harm completely. The movement underscores the role that economic inequality plays in environmental destruction and social injustice. What’s missing from the COP21 dialogue is an understanding of how the reduction of economic inequality could improve the environment and address massive issues such as climate change. The goals laid out in the proposed agreement pay lip service to these ideas, but they don’t address the substance.

In particular, the proposed agreement’s economic agenda is problematic. It claims to take equity concerns into consideration by tailoring each country’s contribution to its needs and development status, but it demonstrates a flawed understanding of the two-way relationship between economic inequality and climate change. For example, under the “finance” section, the proposal suggests ways in which more developed countries should aid those with less infrastructure and funds. These suggestions are guided by the assumption that the size of an economy and its development status are the main drivers of ecological destruction. However, research shows that economic inequality is a better predictor of biodiversity loss than size of the economy.

The eradication of world hunger, which the proposal also aims to achieve, is likewise impossible without policies to address massive economic inequality and short-termism. Current corporate governance structures lead companies to take on more risks, fail to invest in innovation, and perpetuate economic inequality. Failure to end short-termism will prevent much of the necessary capital from being invested in new technologies to reduce emissions.

Unless we change how we do economics, our environmental policy will continue to not only discriminate against marginalized populations but also fail to address climate change. Some concrete steps on this front include reining in rising CEO pay by closing tax loopholes as well as curbing tax breaks for the wealthiest. We must challenge the model of shareholder primacy so that companies once again have an incentive to invest in their workers and in their future instead of maximizing shareholder payouts.

In addition to economic equity, the proposed agreement emphasizes the importance of concerns about human rights, development, gender equality, intergenerational equity, and vulnerabilities related to migrant status, disability, and military occupation. Yet the last point in the preface states that the parties agree that carbon pricing is the most “cost-effective” way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon pricing makes sense on paper, in that it adds the “social cost of carbon” to the actual cost of carbon for polluters, but it fails to measure up in terms of true environmental justice. While it would reduce the overall amount of greenhouse gases emitted, it would also concentrate pollution in the areas least able to pay for carbon offsets. The assumption that distribution of pollution will take care of itself through market forces is untrue, therefore carbon pricing by itself would disproportionately hurt poor populations of color.

Policymakers and negotiators have failed to address the interconnectedness of these issues time and time again, but they can learn some lessons from the environmental justice movement moving forward. As environmental justice scholars J. Timmons Roberts and Melissa Toffolon-Weiss write,  “The reason why the environmental justice movement did not focus only on the environment was because activists saw that the economic and social disparities that surround an individual’s life are rooted in hundreds of years of economic and political inequality.” This framework expands the environmental movement’s goals to encompass economic and social concerns that face the poor communities of color that are most often hurt by environmental hazards. To make meaningful progress on climate change, the COP21 agreement should take a cue from the movement and expand its efforts to reduce economic inequality.

Margaret Sturtevant is a Policy Change Coordinator for the Roosevelt Institute network and a senior at Connecticut College.