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 weadapt.org, 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.
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 http://www.actforclimatejustice.org/about/what-is-climate-justice/
Femmes Africa Solidarité. Retrieved from http://www.fasngo.org/.
National Climatic Data Center. (2014). Retrieved from http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/service/global/extremes/201408.gif
We Adapt. (2014). Retrieved from https://weadapt.org/
Energy Solidarity Cooperative. (2014). Retrieved from http://energy-coop.com/about/