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The Intersection of Climate Change and Social Justice: Environmental Racism and Inequality

By Ayushi Keshri; 2nd year (Sem 4); S. S. Khanna Girls' Degree College (University of Allahabad)


Introduction

Climate change is already affecting every region on Earth. Changes in rainfall patterns, rising sea levels, melting glaciers, a warming ocean, and more frequent and intense extreme weather events are just some of the changes already impacting millions of people[1]

Climate change, an omnipresent threat to our global ecosystem, is intricately linked with social justice issues, particularly environmental racism and inequality. The adverse impacts of climate change do not affect all communities equally. Marginalized and underrepresented groups often bear the brunt of environmental degradation, leading to a disproportionate distribution of climate-induced hardships. This blog explores the intersection of climate change and social justice, emphasizing environmental racism and inequality, and examines the legal frameworks that address these issues.

 

Environmental Racism and Inequality

Environmental racism refers to the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color and low-income communities. This term was coined by Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., who defined it as the intentional siting of polluting and waste facilities in communities primarily populated by African Americans, Latines, Indigenous People, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, migrant farmworkers, and low-income workers[2]. Historically, these communities have been situated near hazardous waste sites, landfills, and industrial facilities, exposing them to pollutants that jeopardize their health and well-being. The placement of such facilities is often a result of systemic racism, wherein socio-economic and political power imbalances allow for the exploitation and neglect of vulnerable populations.

The disparities that already exist are made worse by climate change. For example, vulnerable populations are disproportionately affected by extreme weather events like hurricanes, floods, and heat waves because they frequently lack the resources to respond to and recover from these catastrophes. Additionally, climate change can lead to food insecurity, displacement, and economic instability, further entrenching poverty and social inequities.

 

Legal Perspectives on Environmental Justice

Environmental Justice was defined by Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Centre at Clark Atlanta University, in his Seminal 1990 work Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality as “the principle that all people and communities are entitled to equal protection of environmental and public health laws and regulations”[3]. Addressing the intersection of climate change and social justice requires robust legal frameworks that promote environmental justice. The concept of environmental justice asserts that all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, are entitled to equal protection from environmental hazards and equal access to the decision-making processes to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work. In this section, we will especially focus on the laws and regulations prevalent in India to ensure Environmental Justice.

1.     The Preamble to the Constitution: The preamble to the Indian Constitution states that one of the objectives of the State should be to secure all its citizens social, economic, and political justice. The role of these ideals has been seen as forming "the trinity" of the Constitution and has been summed up in the following words by the Supreme Court in a case decided a few years ago[4]:

"In deciding a case which may not be covered by authority courts have before them the beacon light of the trinity of the constitution and the play of legal light and shade must lead on the path of justice social, economic, and political. Lacking precedent, the court can always be guided by that light and the guidance thus shed by the trinity of our Constitution. Public policy can be drawn from the Constitution.[5]"

It is these general ideals that have guided the courts, especially more recently, to recognize environmental justice as an integral part of Social Justice. these ideals also help the court to issue directives and decide cases relating to marginalized communities affected by environmental degradation.

 

2.     Directive Principles of State Policy (Part IV of the Constitution): The DPSP, which were incorporated by the framers of the Indian Constitution to lay down cherished socio-economic and political ideals and values, are closely linked to the Indian social and cultural life. Although they are not justiciable, they still act as the most significant framework in ensuring the welfare of citizens and the country. Article 38 states that the state should promote the welfare of the people by maintaining a social order in which social, economic, and political justice shall prevail. It further states that not only individuals but also groups of people residing in different areas should be treated equally. Thus, this article promotes environmental justice.

 

3.     Law of Torts: In India, the law of torts plays a significant role in securing environmental justice by providing remedies for environmental harm and holding perpetrators accountable for their actions. Through tort law, affected individuals and communities can seek compensation and relief for damages caused by environmental degradation. The key torts relevant to environmental justice in India include nuisance, negligence, strict liability, and public trust doctrine.

 

4.     Article 21: In the mosaic of rights enshrined within the Indian Constitution, Article 21 stands as a beacon of hope, embodying the essence of justice, equality, and human dignity. Often regarded as the heart of the Constitution, Article 21 guarantees the protection of life and personal liberty, but its significance transcends mere survival; it encapsulates the ideals of a just and equitable society. Over the years, the judiciary has adopted a progressive approach in interpreting Article 21, expanding its scope to include various rights and freedoms not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. This includes the right to privacy, right to a clean environment, right to livelihood, right to shelter, right to health care, right to sleep, right to live with human dignity, etc.  Thus, it is obvious that this article plays a significant role in tackling environmental racism and inequality.

 

5.     The regulatory framework of Indian Environmental Statutes: Several environmental policies are intended to tackle environmental challenges, for example, the National Policy on Pollution Abatement, 1992; the National Conservation Strategy and Policy Statement on Environment and Development, 1992; the National Environment Policy of 2006; and the Clean India Mission of 2014. To implement these policies, the government has also set some legal frameworks such as the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981, amended in 1987; the Environment (Protection) Act of 1986; the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1974, which was amended in 1988; the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1977, again amended in 1991; the Public Liability Insurance Act of 1991; the National Environmental Tribunal Act, 1995; the National Environmental Appellate Authority Act of 1997; and the National Action Plan on Climate Change, 2008[6].

 

 

International Legal Frameworks

A global viewpoint is also necessary for climate justice. The developing world, which produces the fewest greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, is frequently the one most impacted by climate change. International legal systems, like the Paris Agreement, acknowledge the idea of "common but differentiated responsibilities," meaning that wealthy nations have the primary responsibility for addressing climate change and providing financial and technological support to developing nations.

1. The Paris Agreement:

The Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015 under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), aims to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. It emphasizes the need for financial assistance to developing countries and includes provisions for addressing loss and damage associated with the impacts of climate change.

2. The Kyoto Protocol:

Preceding the Paris Agreement, the Kyoto Protocol set binding emission reduction targets for developed countries. While it faced criticism for its limited scope and lack of enforcement mechanisms, it laid the groundwork for subsequent international climate agreements that emphasize equity and justice.

 

Moving Forward: Strengthening Legal Mechanisms

To effectively address the intersection of climate change and social justice, legal mechanisms must be strengthened and enforced. Key steps include:

Ø  Enhancing Community Participation: Legal frameworks should ensure meaningful participation of marginalized communities in environmental decision-making processes. This includes improving access to information and providing platforms for community voices to be heard.

Ø  Strengthening Enforcement: Regulatory agencies must be equipped with the resources and authority to enforce environmental justice provisions. This includes rigorous monitoring, transparent reporting, and accountability measures.

Ø  Expanding Legal Protections: Existing laws should be expanded to explicitly address environmental justice. This includes amending civil rights laws to encompass environmental discrimination and developing new legal standards to protect vulnerable communities.

Ø  International Cooperation: Global cooperation is essential to address the transboundary nature of climate change. Developed nations must honor their commitments to provide financial and technical support to developing countries, fostering a more equitable global response to climate change.

 

Conclusion

The intersection of climate change and social justice is a critical area of concern, highlighting the need for comprehensive legal frameworks to address environmental racism and inequality. By strengthening legal protections, ensuring community participation, and fostering international cooperation, we can move towards a more just and equitable world where the burdens and benefits of environmental policies are shared fairly across all communities.


[1] United Nations. (n.d.). Myth Busters | United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/science/mythbusters

[2] What is environmental racism? (2024, March 26). https://www.nrdc.org/stories/what-environmental-racism

[3] Claudio L. Standing on principle: the global push for environmental justice. Environ Health Perspect. 2007 Oct;115(10):A500-3. doi: 10.1289/ehp.115-a500. PMID: 17938719; PMCID: PMC2022674.

[4] Abraham, C. M. (1995). ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE IN INDIA: The manifestation of neo-dharmic jurisprudence in postmodern public law [Doctor of Philosophy thesis, Department of Law, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.]. https://eprints.soas.ac.uk/33830/1/11010620.pdf

[5] Delhi Road Transport Corpn. v PTC Mazdoor Congress, AIR 1991 SC 101 at 193.

[6] Environmental Injustice and Public Health in India: Towards a “Decolonial Intersectional Environmental Justice” framework. (2023, July 27). Economic and Political Weekly. https://www.epw.in/engage/article/environmental-injustice-and-public-health-india 

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