Climate Justice and the International Conference on Sustainable Development Practice


What’s the biggest problem on Earth? Ask each keynote speaker at the 2014 International Conference on Sustainable Development Practice (ICSDP) this September and you will get a different answer.

Jeffrey Sachs said climate change. Erik Solheim said perverse subsidies on fossil fuels. Bineta Diop said political exclusion. No wonder the United Nations has 17 sustainable development goals on the draft table. Leaders are divided.

Three days after the conference, however, over 300,000 people came together in Manhattan to march for climate justice, a perspective that unites all races and asserts that climate change is fundamentally an issue of human rights. At the intersection of 81st and Central Park West, environmentalism and democracy intersected on the issue of equity. (Mobilization for Climate Justice, 2014)

Equity is about equal access to political processes, environmental benefits, health and financial services, and governmental protection. It is essentially a question of inclusion.

At the ICSDP, Bineta Diop of Senegal spoke about the importance of inclusion. Her organization for peace and women’s empowerment, Femmes Africa Solidarité, operates a program called the Situation Room, which responds to disruptions of democratic processes such as intimidation at voting booths. In Senegal, where desertification and other land-use issues threaten the national economy and environment, efforts to include stakeholders are critical. Diop’s effort demonstrate her comprehension of the paradoxes of environmental justice.

These often conflicting roles of exclusion and power asymmetries have been acknowledged by scholars:

“Whereas the environmental justice movement can be understood as a grassroots or ‘bottom–up’ political response, the sustainability agenda emerged in large part from international processes and committees, governmental structures, think-tanks and international NGO networks. In this sense, sustainability as a policy approach can understood as a more exclusive, ‘top–down’ phenomenon. Paradoxically, however, the implementation of sustainability is generally seen as being through local action.” (Agyeman, Bullard, & Evans, 2001)

From the perspective of environmental justice, the opportunity to engage in decision making is a problem of distributional justice. Graham Haughton highlights this concept in his article, “Environmental Justice and the Sustainable City,” wherein he distinguishes between systemic and distributional problems, i.e. polluting vs. decision-making about where to pollute. (Haughton, 1999)

As Sachs himself acknowledged, “One of the best ways to protect environmental rights is to uphold the basic civil and political rights of the individual. (Sachs, 1995)

Within this framework, we see sustainability nested within a larger complex of social inequality. Sustainability is contingent on environmental justice which is contingent on equity. In Haughton’s words, “it is useless and meaningless to create a sustainable city in isolation.” (Haughton, 1999)

To extrapolate, it is useless to create a sustainable nation in isolation. Just take a look at 2014’s map of extreme events and notice that affluent countries are equally as vulnerable as developing nations.

Given the interdependence of global ecosystems and markets, we are all stakeholders. We all must have a say in the key decisions about how we avert, mitigate, and adapt to climate change. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent the highest echelon of decision making, yet who authors these goals? Academics, politicians, businessmen, or democratic processes? Certainly not the world’s poor and under-represented. The very act of setting global goals calls environmental justice into question.

Returning to this paradox of environmental justice, Jeff Sachs asserted that the purpose of the SDGs is to set practical objectives for world leaders to follow. He quoted John F. Kennedy who said during a speech at American University in 1963:

“By defining our goal more clearly – by making it seem more manageable and less remote – we can help all people to see it, to draw hope from it and to move irresistibly towards it.”

Building on the importance of clear objectives, Sachs also claimed that a Chinese minister informed him that the previous Millennium Development Goals influenced China’s development agenda. Millions of people were raised out of poverty. Without fair representation, however, millions of others were excluded from decision making and consequently displaced.

Access to democratic processes is crucial to protecting the individual freedoms which are the instrumental basis for equitable societies. No inequitable society is sustainable; no unsustainable society is equitable. For many nations, a prosperous economic future is closely linked to environmental policies. Environmental rights — the right to environmental benefits as well as the right to protection from polluted living conditions — are central to any attempts at sustainability, for both the rich and poor.

Climate change threatens everyone, regardless of income level. As Amartya Sen argues in Development as Freedom, “Even when people without political liberty or civil rights do not lack adequate economic security (and happen to enjoy favorable economic circumstances), they are deprived of important freedoms in leading their lives and denied the opportunity to take part in crucial decisions regarding public affairs.’ (Sen, 1999).

In conclusion, the diversity of development approaches present at the ICSDP were greatly overshadowed by the unequivocal message sent by 300,000 activists at the Peoples Climate March three days later. It is clear that the solutions to the world’s biggest problems lie in issues of equity, particularly political access. Environmental justice demands that we the people shall be part of the decision making processes that affect our environment. The role of energy is central to this discussion. Yet until municipalities control their own means of energy generation, even New York City remains a passive customer, excluded from decisions as to how its energy is generated. In Oakland, CA the Energy Solidarity Cooperative is working to democratize financing and ownership of renewable energy through partnerships in traditionally disenfranchised communities.

Inclusive tools are needed for constructive change. One this point all the ICSDP keynote speakers agree. Sachs, Solheim, and Diop support the adoption of ICT. One such resource that stood out at the conference was, an online ‘open space’ on climate adaptation issues and synergies with mitigation which allows practitioners, researchers and policy makers to access credible, high quality information and to share experiences and lessons learnt.

Faced with the biggest problems on Earth, ICT may present some of the biggest inclusive solutions.

Works Cited:

Haughton, G., (1999) “Environmental Justice and the Sustainable City,”. 233 – 242.

Agyeman, J., & Bullard, R. D., & Evans, B. (2001). “Exploring the Nexus: Bringing Together Sustainability, Environmental Justice and Equity”. 88.

Sen, A., (1999) “Development as Freedom”. 16.

Mobilization for Climate Justice West. “What is Climate Justice?” (2014). Retrieved from

Femmes Africa Solidarité. Retrieved from

National Climatic Data Center. (2014). Retrieved from

We Adapt. (2014). Retrieved from

Energy Solidarity Cooperative. (2014). Retrieved from


What is Sustainability?


The first logical step in a course named “Planning for Sustainability” is to set up the context of what sustainability is – how is it defined, how is it used, how has and how should it evolve over time? These are just some of the questions that come to mind, and throughout my years working in the fields of environmental design and planning, I have yet to come up with an answer to any of them, but am beginning to formulate that the ever-evolving quest for these answers is what makes a good planner in the realm of sustainability. This is because sustainability may have a static definition in the dictionary sense, yet it is the furthest thing from static in practice. As planners we must be able to adapt and respond to the changing world around us, whether it be from an environmental, social, or economic standpoint.

Going back into the history of planning, we see its evolution over time. Daniels’ A Trail Across Time discusses the five eras of sustainability and how it has grown from a necessity and public health issue, such as fighting waterborne diseases and improving sanitation, to city-beautiful movements and planning in a physical sense, to pollution cleanup, wilderness protection, and climate change mitigation. Not only have the topics at hand changed, but also who plans – from non-profits, to grassroots movements, to local, state, and federal governments (Daniels, 2009). In Bullard’s Legacy of American Apartheid and Environmental Racism we see how planning’s legacy regarding certain issues, such as redlining, has decades later manifested in problems like inequality and severe health disparities (Bullard, 1993). These methods of planning have shifted with the political and natural world as we have come to better understand some issues, or simply acknowledge that they exist (while continuing to fight for the acknowledgement of others).

Our physical landscape also evolves with issues and actors, making defining sustainability in a planning context that much more difficult. Bullard highlights the issues with using census tracts or zip codes as a proxy for the self-identified neighborhoods that have existed for generations. Cultures and societies have been built upon commonalities, such as values or schools, and may not follow the rules of geographic boundaries (Bullard, 1993). Natural resources, as well, do not follow preset boundaries, as watersheds, greenhouse gas emissions, and other factors transcend geographical areas and ownership (“Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development,” 1987) (Bassett, 2013). When a stream flows through ten people’s backyards, who is in charge of its maintenance and what can one do if a neighbor further upstream pollutes it? Similarly, what do we do when cities like San Francisco intend on included private trees in their future iterations of the Urban Forestry Plan? One may argue that doing so protects the environment of the entire city; while others say that it is an infringement on personal property rights and out of line of a government (San Francisco Planning Department, 2014). Without a physical boundary through which to study neighborhoods, how can we measure income, population, health, and other important planning and sustainability issues? Perhaps this is why cities like Curitiba were able to make such strides in their Bus Rapid Transit system under an authoritarian regime (Bassett, 2013). While a controversial idea, a city that does not need to take into account individual property rights or varying political opinions on a topic may be able to get more done than a democratic society, for better or for worse. Obviously, this has many faults, but highlights an important issue raised by the dissonance over what exactly sustainability and planning are and how to address them.

During the first class we were asked to write down our personal definitions of “sustainability.” With a mix of graduate and undergraduate students, different majors and backgrounds, and from various places, the definitions were rightfully riddled with our own biases, however still maintained commonalities. Most contained pieces of the Our Common Future definition of “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (“Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development,” 1987, section IV, para. 1), some with added emphasis on social justice, design, or, personally, the tension between the definition in theory and in practice. While I agree with the Our Common Future definition in an idealistic sense, what does that mean in practice? While many may agree on this definition, the implications of planning in the real world are anything but consensual, with constant political battles and ideologies pushing for their own definition and requisite actions. For example, we see the controversy that has arisen over the United Nation’s Agenda 21, which has been used by some as a basis for sustainable planning, and others as propaganda against land use regulations and a tool for revoking our personal freedoms (Beck, 2014). Rittel and Webber rightfully highlight the “wickedness” of planning problems because unlike a finite science, planning issues have no “right answer,” take years to manifest results, and have endless butterfly effects (i.e. siting an incinerator in a lower-income community may result in high rates of childhood asthma several years later) (Rittel & Webber, 1973).

San Francisco defines “sustainability” in their Sustainability Plan the same as in Our Common Future. However, their plan highlights the need for a definition of sustainability in the practical sense to evolve with issues and places. Written in the 1990s, It discusses goals set for the year 2002, and while many of its concepts are still relevant, it is important for a city to set news goals, report on benchmarks, and create new plans as a city changes (City and County of San Francisco, 1997). San Francisco is incredibly different than it was in the 1990s, with the development of the Central Market, SOMA, and Mission Bay neighborhoods (among many others), as well as the influx of tech commuters who work at Google, Apple, or Tesla and live in city but work in the Peninsula.

As the definition, the places planning affects, and the profession change, so does the word itself. The word “green” or “environmental,” has changed to “sustainability” and, more recently we have begun to discuss “resilient” and “regenerative” design. As we discussed this in class, I was reminded of a figure from my undergraduate sustainable design days that tried to graph what these words really mean in practice (found here: Is this a response to the changing needs and development of the practice or a rebranding whenever one does not seem to push far enough or gathers too much controversy? So this begs the question that is the impetus of this post – if sustainability and planning are such abstract and fluid ideas, why and how do we respond? I challenge Wheeler when he states, “…although some initially expected the subject [sustainability] to be a passing fad, [it] has shown no sign of diminishing…” (Wheeler, 2004, p. 30) I do believe sustainability is something that will not be forgotten anytime soon and I believe its urgency is only growing stronger (despite how “wicked” its issues may be), but with climate change deniers, lack of federal legislation on the topic, and many sustainable strategies still out of reach for every race and economic status, is it really more than just a fad? In order to progress from “fad” to “revolution” sustainability must be accessible to all and an everyday part of policy, design, and planning, and planning as a discipline must be able to adapt to these changes as they occur.

Works Cited

Bassett, T. (2013, November). Top-Down, Bottom-Up. Planning Magazine.

Beck, G. (2014). Agenda 21.Glenn Beck. Retrieved from

Bullard, R. D. (1993). Legacy of American Apartheid and Environmental Racism, The. . John’s J. Legal Comment. 9, 445.

City and County of San Francisco. (1997). Sustainable City. Retrieved from

Daniels, Thomas L. (2009). “A Trail Across Time: American Environmental Planning from City Beautiful to Sustainability.” JAPA, Volume 75, Issue 2.

Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development,

Chapter 2: Towards Sustainable Development. Retrieved from

Redi, I. (n.d.). Urban Eco-SystemIvan Redi. Retrieved from

Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973). 2.3 Planning Problems are Wicked. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-69.

San Francisco Planning Department. (2014). San Francisco Urban Forestry Plan. City and County of San Francisco.

Wheeler, S. (2004). Sustainable Development. In Planning for Sustainability (p. 30). Routledge.

We’re Back!


A new semester of Sustainable Communities at the University of California, Berkeley has kicked off and we will be posting new articles soon. We encourage you to check out some of the earlier discussions from spring 2014, such as creating an alternative sustainable economy, food justice, and examples of equitable development, among many other topics. There are thought provoking articles, links to resources, and discussion in the comments. This semester we look forward to continuing the questions raised by the idea of creating “sustainable communities.” We are particularly interested in the central role that equity plays in achieving sustainability (e.g. intergenerational, intragenerational, interspecies, procedural and so forth) and how sustainable development looks across the globe and at different scales.

Here in California, the drought remains an acute problem in terms of the states water resources, the tensions between the sustainable uses of water (agricultural, industrial, residential) and the stark reality of inequality in accessing potable water leaving homes without water for months , in the central part of the state. This emergency represents the urgency in meeting the enormous challenge of planning sustainable communities.

Stay tuned!