Faculty Journal Posted on Tuesday, March 20, 2018

New Methodologies and Emerging Interdisciplinary Perspectives in Environmental Justice Education and Research

Bipasha Chatterjee Environmental Economist, Hunter College and the Earth Institute at Columbia University

This post appeared as part of a Roosevelt House Faculty Journal series on the New and Renewed Visions of Environmental Justice.


The Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz once remarked, “How we describe success, affects what we strive for.” Many economists, including Stiglitz, have argued that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) does not measure the success of a nation, nor can it measure whether a country is on a path toward sustainable development. Even methodologies intended to measure sustainable development may not necessarily present a true picture of well-being of a typical citizen with median household income. A green economy, even if desirable and even with a focus on sustainable investments, may not automatically address poverty issues. The environmental justice movement, on the other hand, calls for a holistic approach toward sustainable development; an approach that prevents injustice toward those who are the poorest and, therefore, will be hit first and hardest by climate change despite having contributed least to the problems of environmental pollution. Developing comprehensive methodologies for assessing the true impact of climate change on different income groups, local communities, and groups based on gender, age, and skills, remains a persistent challenge within climate change related education.

Since the inception of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997 and made effective in 2005, international negotiations on greenhouse gas emission caps and compliance regimes have hammered out many national commitments (especially under the ambitious Paris Agreement in 2016). Global and national data on greenhouse gas emissions and scientific research that inform lawmakers and climate educators about the impact of climate change have become more important than ever. Despite US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2017, the 2018 EPA budget provides for $8.5 million to continue tracking GHG emissions from large facilities in the US under the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program (GHGRP). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Reports are summaries of a large collection of scientific research and global data on climate change that educators use in classrooms, workshops, and in policy research. However, despite having access to climate related data, the application of an environmental justice perspective in climate education is limited to legal studies and is sorely lacking in other disciplines.

In legal disciplines, the climate justice perspective manifests through the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (the CBDRRC principle), which is the basis of the burden-sharing arrangements crafted under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its Kyoto Protocol. In CBDRRC, “Common” refers to the notion of something being of universal concern to mankind, and “Differentiated” refers to the fact that not all countries have contributed equally to  environmental problems and also not all countries have the same capacity to act for solving environmental problems.  Since the greatest impacts of climate change are felt by developing countries, whilst the greatest per capita GHG emissions come from developed countries, it is considered a just approach to make the developed world more responsible for mitigating climate change. Based on this principle, the UNFCCC established two groups of countries: Annex I countries with emission reduction obligations and non-Annex I countries which did not have legally binding obligations. However, the Paris Agreement has also led developing countries to announce their national commitments called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). These national commitments need to take into account numerous domestic issues such as poverty, migration, and human rights in relation to their climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. In the context of these new legislative developments, award winning textbooks have emerged for climate educators, such as The International Climate Change Law that explores the intersections between climate change law, human rights, migration, and trade issues. Another book, Trends in Climate Change Legislation, is a thorough documentation of new climate legislation in developed and developing countries. However, the application of environmental justice cannot be addressed from a legal perspective alone; it is primarily an economic issue. Reducing the damage future generations will face due to climate change will require the current generation to greatly lower the consumption of environmentally harmful goods and services now.

From an economic perspective, environmental justice issues are complex and extend beyond the idea of climate justice as manifested through the CBDRRC principle. Issues of economic equity – both within and across generations – are central to the economic assessment of climate change. The current generation of poor households consume less goods and services than the rich. The poorest half of the world population (3.5 billion) is responsible for just 10% of carbon emissions while the richest 10% produce around 50% of all emissions due to excessive consumption. A UNDP study shows that income inequality in countries is negatively correlated to environmental sustainability. Reduction of environmentally harmful consumption of goods and services effect the marginalized unless sustainable goods are available and affordable for the poor. Therefore, the idea of environmental justice needs to be deeply incorporated into economic studies.

Mainstreaming an environmental justice perspective into traditional economic theories is essential. For instance, energy economics cannot be just about the efficiency of fuel usage; it must also consider the current pricing system that creates energy-poverty, no matter what source of fuel is used. Environmental justice focuses on removing the inequitable impacts of the fossil fuel industry on the overall living conditions of the most vulnerable and marginalized communities. Fossil fuel subsidies have prevented renewable energy and low carbon technologies from becoming cost-effective for poor consumers. Moreover, several international organizations, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have established that “fossil-fuel subsidies are often regressive, with the wealthy benefiting more than the poor.” The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and International Energy Agency (IEA) have jointly published estimates in 2018 showing that “government credit support to fossil-fuel related projects is pervasive and can result in inefficient allocation of public resources.”

Agro-business economics, energy economics, and water management studies all inform lawmakers, climate educators, students, and researchers about differential climate impacts on communities. It would be important, for example, to assess whether, in an attempt to be climate smart, measures to achieve a low carbon economy might exacerbate poverty issues through water scarcity challenges. Currently (March 2018), in Cape Town, South Africa, the city government has announced that taps may have to be turned off  for 4 million domestic and agricultural users due to a severe and long running drought in the region since 2015. In response to the water ration announcement, Cape Town’s rich residents are stockpiling bottled water while the poor await the consequences with few resources available to them. The impacts of climate change in Africa have been a topic of discussion in climate forums for a long time, though little has been done to look at the national production systems and international trade policies that exacerbate the impact of climate change on the marginalized population of the continent. Moreover, policy solutions, such as support for low-carbon technologies in Africa, like large hydropower projects are problematic as these technologies are no more water efficient than traditional energy sources; policy support for renewable energy crops encourage fertilizer and pesticide use, which, in turn, have an impact on water and food quality. Therefore, worldwide, water management studies need to adopt methodologies that assess the fuel cycle in the water sector.

One promising development in the environmental field is the emergence of specific methodologies from alternative paradigms of ecological and development economics that are proving to be useful for analyzing environmental justice related problems. Ecological Footprints is one such methodology that measures total resource consumption by individuals and groups in cities, countries, and globally, and weighs it against the planet’s total regenerative capacity. The Gross National Happiness Index (GNHI), developed by Government of Bhutan, is another survey-based technique that measures the level of satisfaction that human beings enjoy from different kinds of public and community services. The GNHI includes ecological diversity and environmental services as important indicators that provide happiness to communities. The Human Development Index (HDI), used by the United Nations, assumes that health and social indicators can capture the differential environmental impact on various income groups in a nation. The World Bank meanwhile has published a new methodology in their 2018 report, The Changing Wealth of Nations, to measure a nation’s true wealth. Instead of GDP, the World Bank use indicators in their measure that show a strong link between good management of natural resources and the level of economic well-being of communities in a country. Clearly, these new methodological trends indicate that there is a growing consensus among development practitioners that environmental justice and sustainable development should be treated as a single mandate. Environmental justice is also embedded in some of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals that came into effect in January 2016 and is reflected in the Triple Bottom Line accounting framework for measuring corporate performance.

Despite recent advancements in methodologies to assess environmental impacts on communities, environmental justice does not necessarily manifest into climate related policies or corporate policies. Higher education curricula for social sciences, policy studies, management studies, and legal disciplines therefore need to incorporate and mainstream the new approaches and methodologies to make education more effective and relevant for students who are the next environmental justice professionals and lawmakers.


About the author:

Bipasha Chatterjee is an environmental economist with extensive experience in climate change policy issues. She teaches environmental, agricultural and urban economics at Hunter College, CUNY and Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Previously as an economist at the UK firm, AEA (now Ricardo-AEA) her clients were the UK Government, European Commission and many policy think tanks. Prior to that she has worked with the UN Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome and as a governance reform consultant for KPMG Consulting in London. Bipasha is on the Board of Directors of Energy Vision USA, a national non-profit working on the issues around renewable gas made from organic waste. She is also a member of The Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas and on their student scholarship committee. She is a post-graduate from Cambridge University and London School of Economics, UK.