Issue 2 Academic Highlights
Updated: Aug 17, 2023
Two of these papers contrast those responsible for emissions with those suffering the consequences of this pollution - the first at a national level, the second at the global. The final paper puts forward a reparative justice-based policy proposal to combat this asymmetry.
Pollution from fine particulate matter (PM) - solid particles or liquid droplets found in the air - is the biggest environmental risk factor in the US, responsible for 63% of deaths from environmental causes. PM smaller than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) is the most harmful to health.
Tessum et al use a novel methodology to compare racial-ethnic groups ‘responsible’ for PM2.5emission, through consumption of goods and services, with those who suffer the greatest excess mortality from PM2.5 exposure.
PM2.5exposure was mapped using spatially explicit emissions data. Using previous work on mortality rate from PM2.5exposure, the authors estimated mortality attributable to each of a range of emitters, and by extension attributable to end users. They then compared PM2.5 and consumption causing PM2.5 against the “population-weighted average ambient PM2.5 exposure concentration of 7.7 μg⋅m−3”. Through this, the authors generate a coefficient of “pollution inequity” for any given racial-ethnic group, defined “as the fractional difference between a racial–ethnic group’s exposure to PM2.5 caused by all groups and that group’s population-adjusted contribution to the overall PM2.5 exposure of all groups.”
Results showed black and hispanic populations had pollution inequity measures of 56% and 65% respectively, meaning they both had substantially greater exposure to PM2.5 compared with the amount they were produced through consumption of goods and services. The non-hispanic white population had a pollution inequity measure of -17% meaning they were responsible for more than they were exposed to.
Although there is existing consciousness of differential health impacts of pollution between populations, Tessum et al is striking in quantifying these disparities. The mismatch between the emission responsibility of non-hispanic white populations versus excess PM2.5 mortality in black and hispanic communities reproduces dynamics of the Global North and South, a lucid demonstration of why climate justice is racial justice.
Contemporary climate change narratives are frequently agnostic to the long temporal arc of greenhouse gas emission. These conceptualise national responsibility for climate breakdown through an ahistorical lens. The Western gaze falls on emissions from rapidly growing economies such as India and China, and perceived corresponding lack of action - most recently seen following the Biden administration’s pledge to halve US emissions this decade.
Hickel builds on the well-characterised concept of the ‘atmospheric commons’ and compellingly argues there must be a “fair share” of a global carbon budget as per a safe emissions limit of 350ppm of atmospheric CO2. Beyond this limit thus constitutes ‘climate breakdown’. Hickel’s innovative methodology calculates fair share on a per capita basis, taken over the time period of the anthropocene, defined from 1850 through to 2015 (final year of consumption-based data available).
Using both historical territorial and consumption-based emissions data, Hickel calculates the extent to which a country’s emissions over this period overshoot or undershoot their fair share (i.e. whether they were in climate debit or credit, respectively). National responsibility was defined as “each country's overshoot as a proportion of total national overshoots”.
40% of total climate debit could be attributed to the US, the highest of any nation. The Global North, defined in this paper as the USA, Canada, Europe, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, were collectively responsible for 92% of climate debit. In contrast, both India and China were in climate credit (34% and 11% of total undershoot), although the author highlights at the current rate of emissions China will soon go over its fair share threshold.
It comes as little surprise that Global North countries were historically and continue presently to be the heaviest polluters. Hickel’s approach provides quantitative grounding for what he himself calls “atmospheric colonisation … [where] a small number of high-income countries have appropriated substantially more than their fair share of the atmospheric commons”, while Global South countries disproportionately suffer the deleterious effects of climate breakdown.
The results provide food for thought, reframing the current dominant narrative of who we hold to account for accelerating climate breakdown.
The enduring legacies of colonialism and neo-colonialism - extractive global trade practices and real-term capital outflows from ‘Global South’ countries - are increasingly well-recognised. In this seminal policy paper, Perry weaves this context into contemporary discussions around climate change, to make the case for the establishment of reparative justice funds. The impacts of climate change are outsized on marginalised and ex-colonial countries, through both acute hydrometeorological events and longer-term impacts on sectors crucial in these economies (e.g. agriculture, tourism). Yet common conceptualisations of particularly the former, ‘natural disasters’, are sanitised as incidental events of misfortune. The ‘Loss and Damage’ these countries suffer - estimated as high as $4 trillion/yr by 2030 - are bereft of recompensation through existing international climate-related coordination mechanisms, which direct focus primarily towards mitigation and, to a lesser extent, adaptation. Global response to these hydrometeorological events is thus ‘charity’-framed and piecemeal. Perry connects the dots for us, making explicit the relationship between: 1) the carbon-driven economic prosperity of ex-coloniser countries, 2) past and present exploitation of ex-colony and marginalised countries (whether through natural resource extraction, worker exploitation, tax-related capital flight or conditional debt-relief loans) and 3) the resultant economic vulnerability of the latter to the impacts of climate change. These interlinkages are used as the bedrock for the proposal of two transformative funding programmes aimed at reshaping the landscape of international climate-related financial provision. Both would provide non-conditional funding, drawn from a statutory trust governed by most-affected, marginalised states and financed by “major perpetrators of climate injustice”. The Global Climate Stabilization Fund aims to provide both immediate fiscal support in response to loss and damage secondary to climate emergencies in these states or regions and ongoing financial and technical support towards economic stability and long-term development goals. The Resilience Funding Programmes for Loss and Damage has a longer term focus centring solidarity through financing of “democratically controlled community-based initiatives”, with funding stratified by vulnerability to deleterious effects of socio-ecological breakdown and both ongoing and future loss and damages. An incisive read with concrete policy proposals.