Human Rights and Equity
Corporate and shareholder activism must counter “a new class of aspiring despot” that threatens “a renaissance of civilisation” built on the “explosive growth of clean energy” and “triumphs of multilateralism led by the Paris Agreement,” writes solar entrepreneur and Carbon Tracker Chair Jeremy Leggett.
Stridently nationalist leaders like U.S. President Donald Trump, France’s Marine le Pen, and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, are emerging, Leggett writes, “just as it becomes clear that new technology, notably artificial intelligence and robotics, holds the potential to create the perfect infrastructure for police states.”
Whatever this emergent despotism’s implications may be for democracy and civil rights, Leggett argues, it is also very bad for business. “More business leaders,” he says, “must come to the view that fighting for a civilization appropriate for doing good business in is now a matter of responsibility to shareholders, never mind citizens. Increasingly, the business case is clear. Ratings agency Fitch has argued that the Trump presidency poses a threat to the global economy, for example. For their part, shareholders and citizens must pressure companies more, via their investment and purchasing power, to confront the new despotism.”
And “nowhere,” Leggett asserts, “is this imperative for engagement clearer than in the renewables industries. Rightist populists can be sure that the fossil fuel diehards that tend to support them will be neither quiet nor inactive. If renewables companies elect to keep a low profile, and in doing so become complicit in a creeping normalization of Trumpism, the task of aspiring despots everywhere becomes easier.”
Leggett applauds companies that have already taken stands against the U.S. administration’s agenda, including 100 in the tech sector that have joined state governments in legal challenges against Trump’s travel bans from majority-Muslim countries, and Latvian investor Nordea, which instructed its managers not to invest in the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“Others must speak out and use their money like this,” Leggett urges. “There is safety in numbers, and great danger for all in taking the easy option of silence. Down that road lies diminished talent pools, shrivelled business prospects, wasted investment capital, and much worse.”
The senior advisor responsible for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice programs is resigning after nearly a quarter-century on the job, after releasing a letter urging newly-installed Administrator Scott Pruitt to preserve the agency’s programs.
Mustafa Ali is leaving the EPA after multiple news outlets received copies of an internal memo that “called for a complete dismantling of the office of environmental justice and elimination of a number of grant programs that address low-income and minority communities,” InsideClimate News reports. “A story in the Oregonian reported that funding for the office would decrease 78%, from $6.7 million to $1.5 million.”
Ali told ICN he sees protecting poor and minority populations from pollution as one of the EPA’s key functions, but the agency’s new management has not given “any indication that they are focused or interested in helping those vulnerable communities. My values and priorities seem to be different than our current leadership, and because of that I feel that it’s best if I take my talents elsewhere.”
In his letter of resignation, he urged Pruitt to protect the agency’s environmental justice work. “When I hear we are considering making cuts to grant programs like the EJ small grants or Collaborative Problem Solving programs, which have assisted over 1,400 communities, I wonder if our new leadership has had the opportunity to converse with those who need our help the most,” he wrote. “I strongly encourage you and your team to continue promoting agency efforts to validate these communities’ concerns, and value their lives.”
Lawyer Benjamin Wilson, head of the National Environmental Justice Conference, told ICN he expected environmental justice to be “one of the major civil rights issues of the 21st century,” adding that “it’s going to become increasingly not simply local but regional, national, and international in scope.”
U.S. communities of colour and marginalized low-income whites will see the front-line environmental impacts as the Trump administration’s proposed 25% funding cut at the Environmental Protection Agency snuffs out the very brief hope that they might some day see environmental justice.
“The Trump administration has decided fenceline communities across the country, whose residents already bear an outsized burden from pollution, are on their own,” said Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook.
“Most pollution-spewing operations are within eyeshot of the backyards and kitchen windows of African American and Hispanic families, as well as those of many largely white lower-income communities,” he told the Guardian. “Through this decision to zero out funding for the EPA’s environmental justice programs, the president and the administrator have sent a shameful message: the health of poor Americans is less important than that of the wealthy.”
Toxic waste dumps, fracking wells, and other industrial facilities that emit waste to the open air or water are located disproportionately near communities rendered economically powerless by marginalizing conditions of race, poverty, or both. At least partly as a result, “black children are twice as likely to have asthma as their white counterparts,” the Guardian reports. “Meanwhile, nearly half of America’s Latino population lives in counties that do not meet EPA air quality standards.”
A state investigation into how lead-laced drinking water was delivered to residential taps in the largely black city of Flint, Michigan, it notes, “found that the poisoning was caused, in part, by ‘systemic racism’”.
Two months before the 2016 election, “the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a scathing report that found the EPA ‘has a history of being unable to meet its regulatory deadlines and experiences extreme delays in responding to Title VI [civil rights] complaints in the area of environmental justice,’” the paper notes.
The EPA has had an Environmental Justice Office responsible for “bridging the yawning disparity in pollution experienced by black, Hispanic, and low-income communities and wealthier white neighbourhoods,” writes reporter Oliver Milman. The office “provides grants to communities to mop up toxins and rehabilitate abandoned industrial facilities that are invariably found in poorer areas.”
And in the last months of the Obama administration, “the EPA unveiled a new effort to tackle lead poisoning, air pollution, and other problems suffered by communities of colour situated next to waste treatment plants, smelters, and other sources of toxins.”
But that work is now unlikely to get off the ground. The Environmental Justice Office is earmarked for elimination, along with nearly 3,000 jobs and funds for the “cleanup of lead, marine pollution, tribal lands, and the Great Lakes region.”
Avoidable environmental pathogens and toxins are responsible for a quarter of the deaths among children under the age of five, the World Health Organization has estimated, “with toxic air, unsafe water, and lack of sanitation the leading causes,” according to The Guardian.
Respiratory infections such as pneumonia kill 600,000 young children annually. Diarrhea, contracted from polluted water with poor sanitation, kills another 361,000. Altogether, the WHO determined that 1.7 million children per year die before their fifth birthday because of polluted environments.
“The harm from air pollution can begin in the womb and increase the risk of premature birth,” The Guardian notes. “After birth, air pollution raises the risk of pneumonia, a major cause of death for under-fives.” Among older children, 11 to 14% report symptoms of asthma, almost half related to air pollution.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the use of wood, charcoal, or dung as cooking fuel contributed to acute indoor air pollution. In the industrial cities of India and Asia, emissions from coal and diesel combustion are the largest contributors. Fossil fuel extraction, refining, and disposal contribute to water pollution, but the greater contributor to water-borne diseases is poor sanitation.
Mental health problems have also been traced to air polluted by fossil fuel exhaust. Research published in the British Medical Journal last year “found that relatively small increases in air pollution were associated with a significant increase in treated psychiatric problems” among children and adolescents, The Guardian reported at the time.
“A polluted environment is a deadly one—particularly for young children,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan. “Their developing organs and immune systems—and smaller bodies and airways—make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water.”