Environmental Justice: Whose Responsibility is it Really?

Jay Stearman, Opinion Staff

Climate change is the most serious public health emergency in our existence: it will affect everyone, regardless of how much they have contributed to its advent. The problem is that the issue is so large that it is incredibly elusive to assign equitable liability for global warming or sea level rise. 


Some say the fossil fuel industries are the biggest bad guys, and thus the most culpable. But are they the only ones we should blame?


Imagine two identical Spidermans pointing at each other: the common folk point at the coal and oil industries for emitting more CO2 in a day then we will in multiple lifetimes, and they point back at us—the consumers—who buy fossil-fuel generated electricity to charge our cell phones and pump gasoline into our car. They didn’t ask for the business they were based around to be implicated in the planet’s global warming. And we didn’t ask for our entire society to be powered, literally moving at the hands of burned coal, oil, and gas. 


It’s like blaming high levels of obesity on more impoverished communities because they chose to eat lower quality (high in fat, low in fiber) food. Yet, these people choose lower quality food because it is more affordable. They, like you and I, have almost no say in the construction of fast food restaurants, liquor stores, or fresh food markets.


 In so many ways, a gulf exists between producers and consumers. How much authority did you exercise in the construction and placement of the Splash Pad Templeton Fountain?


Are we destined to a tragic cycle where suppliers blame consumers for their contradictory preferences and consumers blame producers for their broadly pollution-ignorant business models? It depends on how we choose to implicate those whose job it is to mediate between these two unchanging forces. 


Elected officials are tasked with aligning legislation, enforcement, and regulations with the interests of the population. They are the ones who have influence on the profit margins of companies, the distribution of food access, allowance of waste dumping, the subsidies and incentives for flood insurance, and highway construction. Therefore, we need to demand those who do have the power to actually use it for the common good. 


The fact of the matter is that in this country we have people whose job it is to provide the muscle (the carrot and the stick, if you will) required to bring the powerful and the prevalent in line. Their task is neither easy, nor ending anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean they should give up or give in to special interests. 


We need decision makers at the local, scholastic, state, and national level now more than ever if we are to have a sliver of hope in tackling climate change. And we need tough stances, which may be painful in the short-run. It takes bravery to invest in public transport, preserve undeveloped land, or sign off on pollution control and enforcement; it challenges both the status quo and the human inclination to follow the path of least resistance. After all, voluntary restrictions on environmental harm will not work; 10 minutes learning about game theory is all you will need to understand why. I mean, just imagine if paying taxes (or tuition) was voluntary. 


We need to buy into our electoral system instead of shying away from it, because we cannot run from the inescapable truth that the ethics of a CEO matters exponentially more than the average person.