by Richard Coca, '22
This blog post is the second in our series "Missing from the Mainstream" that amplifies stories that are often ignored by the mainstream news.
Question: How does the urban island effect intersect with environmental justice?
Answer: According to the PEW Research Center, social trends show that urban and suburban counties embody and will increasingly become more racially and ethnically diverse than rural counties. With the global rise in temperature, the urban island effect will lead to a disproportionate effect on communities of color. A USC Climate Gap report found that “in Los Angeles, African Americans are twice as likely to die in a heat wave, and suffer from more heat-related stress and illnesses.” Urban centers have less tree cover to reduce heat and more concrete to capture it. Considering that communities of color historically had less to access to air conditioning and transportation away from the city, the urban island effect poses a significant risk to the most vulnerable.
Why should environmental justice advocates care? We should care because it’s a matter of life and death. Recent studies concluded that climate change will catalyze an increase in heat-related deaths for years to come. Cities tend to be on average 10 degrees warmer than suburban areas and heat waves will disproportionately impact people of color. While heat-related deaths should be prevented in all communities, special attention should be brought to communities of color considering that solutions to environmental problems should at the very least embody inclusivity and deliver racial justice.
What can we do? Climate change and racial justice are not separate issue. Nationally and locally, neighborhoods most at risk should be identified. With talk of a Green New Deal in Congress, policy makers should write legislation targeting people of color and the poor. These two groups will suffer most from reduced or shifting job opportunities as a result of climate change. Creating a green economy can create an opportunity for our most vulnerable. Advocates should also advocate for more funding for communities at risk so that central air conditioning and community pools can be implemented.
“Climate Change Indicators: Heat-Related Deaths.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 11 Oct. 2017, www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/climate-change-indicators-heat-related-deaths.
Frosch, Rachel, et al. “The Climate Gap: Inequalities in How Climate Change Hurts Americans & How to Close the Gap.” USC Dornsife, Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, May 2009, college.usc.edu/geography/ESPE/perepub.html.
Mitchell, Travis. “Demographic and Economic Trends in Urban, Suburban and Rural Communities.” Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project, Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project, 22 May 2018, www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/05/22/demographic-and-economic-trends-in-urban-suburban-and-rural-communities/.
by Ryan Treves, '22
This blog post is the first in a series called Missing from the Mainstream. Members of the SSS Environmental Justice group are amplifying narratives often missing from mainstream news outlets that show the intersection of social justice and sustainability.
Question: Does the quality of American urban park systems vary based on the cities’ socioeconomic and ethnic composition? Answer: YES. Among America’s 100 most populous cities, scientists found “Wealthier and Whiter cities have higher quality park systems than less affluent and more ethnically diverse cities” even when controlling for confounding variables. This means greater park coverage, park access, park spending per resident, and better facilities. More specifically, a recent study confirmed “Cities with larger percentages of Latino residents had lower quality park systems.”
What does this mean? Urban green spaces have been shown to support human well-being, sustainability and resilience. Specifically, physical activity, social integration and mental health may be correlated with access to urban green spaces. Less affluent cities with more nonwhite citizens are restricting that access and the benefits that come with it.
Why? Local funding for parks has dropped significantly in the last 50 years, meaning more cities have to look for state or federal funding. In practice, local organizations must prepare competitive grants for urban park funding. Wealthier cities are more likely to have skills and capacity to prepare winning grant applications. In addition, impetus for tourism and development -- which are key factors in park creation -- are often focused away from communities of color.
What can we do? Learn and spread the word about the green space inequity that disproportionately affects Latinx and other communities of color. Advocate for state park funding that prioritizes park-poor and low-income neighborhoods!
A.C.K. Lee, R. Maheswaran; The health benefits of urban green spaces: a review of the evidence, Journal of Public Health, Volume 33, Issue 2, 1 June 2011, Pages 212–222, https://doi.org/10.1093/pubmed/fdq068
Rigolon, Alessandro, et al. “Inequities in the Quality of Urban Park Systems: An Environmental Justice Investigation of Cities in the United States.” Landscape and Urban Planning, vol. 178, 2018, pp. 156–169., doi:10.1016/j.landurbplan.2018.05.026.
by Guest Authors
This blog post is Part Three in our series on the geopolitics of sustainability, the theme of this quarter’s Roble Hard Earth Talks. Ben Franta, JD-PhD student in law and history, presented on the fossil fuel industry’s early knowledge of climate change and their deliberate efforts to mislead the public about its existence and effects brought many issues for discussion. You can read more about Franta’s research here.
Students were particularly interested in questions of culpability – who is to blame, and how should they be punished? When we think about the full costs of climate change, the damage is so large that it’s effectively infinite. Should the fossil fuel industry bear the full, infinite liability of climate change for their fraud on the public? If we answer yes, does that imply that we assume that if the public had known – i.e., if the industry had been forthcoming about the science – then the public would have acted aggressively to avert climate change and its consequences?
Answers to these questions are difficult to settle, not least because they require us to construct an alternate reality in which the fossil fuel industry had not deceived the public. Students disagreed about how the public would have responded to the science in this alternate reality; some thought the public would recognize the impending dangers and act aggressively, while others thought we would be in more or less the same situation because even now, when people know the science, we are still not acting as aggressively as we could (or should). We agreed, however, that the climate denial phenomenon would not be nearly so strong if the industry had been forthcoming with the science. Students also recognized that fossil fuels are not the only contributors to climate change, and that consumer decisions about the use of fossil fuels and other contributing factors are important to consider. Individuals bear responsibility for the consequences of their actions – especially when they are conscious of those consequences before they act. We discussed this in regard to both individual members of the public and decisionmakers in the fossil fuel industry. We agreed that a person’s knowledge and intent are important in determining how blameworthy they are.
We also discussed the structure of Ben’s presentation. Who was its intended audience, and was it persuasive? How would fossil fuel industry apologists respond? Is it possible that they could marshal an effective rebuttal of the allegations of fraud? Although Ben presented a damning case against them by juxtaposing the industry’s public statements with their internal scientific reports, it is at least possible that he chose the most compelling documents to show us. In a courtroom, such as where Ben plans to present his research, opposing counsel will be sure to rebut the notion as forcefully as they can. In the public square, however, people are less able to identify evidence as potentially problematic because of its source.
by Guest Authors*
This blog post is part 2 in our series about the Geopolitics of Sustainability, based on the Roble Living Laboratory for Sustainability at Stanford's Hard Earth Talks. For more info about ROLLSS visit their website or attend the upcoming Hard Talk on Wednesday November 7th from 7-7:50 pm, which will focus on US-Mexico Border Politics and sustainability.
We have a tendency to look at companies as monolithic machines, devoid of personality and coldly calculating their moves like a computer. They exist solely to maximize profit and outlast the competition, or at least that’s how we like to portray them. However, such a view can simplify a corporation down to a shell of what it really is, obscuring the nuance behind corporate decision making and creating undue cynicism of what we can pressure companies to do. Hajin Kim, a doctoral candidate at Stanford, recently gave a talk at Roble outlining how we might move towards a more holistic view of company decision making that takes into account the reputational risk to and personal beliefs of the people running a company. The first assumption we need to move past is the view that companies are an entity distinct from people.
Ultimately, corporations are composed of people; all of their decisions are a function of the executives, shareholders, and employees that make it up. Any representative model of a corporation that views it solely as a profit maximization machine is a limiting construct that either ignores the influence and behavior of the individuals within it, or wrongly assumes that such behavior can be condensed into that of rational actors optimizing for corporate gain. The expenditure of both social and reputational capital, either personal or collective, can factor into decisions with the same weight as monetary concerns. Executives can also factor in their own personal and political beliefs when making decisions that affect a company’s bottom line. One recent example was Colin Kaepernick’s ad campaign for Nike; while it was admittedly a shrewd and effective marketing ploy that capitalized on the public’s recognition and empathy for Kaepernick’s protest, it also created lasting reputational harm for Nike amongst the conservative political segment. While it’s likely the reputational gain amongst liberals was seen as being worth the alienation of conservatives, it also reflects an executive body comfortable with taking a decidedly liberal stance publicly. Profit maximization models of corporate governance might have recommended other marketing strategies, due to perceived risks in alienating one political group in order to make possibly temporary gains with another. Despite their flaws, such simplified profit maximization models are often the default when representing corporations in either economic literature or policy discussions.
While there are limits to eliminating the influence of people on corporations, the opposite model of corporate personhood can be equally problematic. Corporate personhood, wherein corporations are treated, and therefore given some of the same legal rights, as individual people is just as if not more of a simplification of actual company dynamics. We’ve seen the debate around corporate personhood flare up before, most notably during the Occupy Wall Street protests. The crux of the argument is that, because corporations have much more money and influence than individuals usually have, and because the incentives motivate them to seek profit at the expense of anything else, regulators should scrutinize them more than they do individuals. But there is another issue with corporate personhood: it treats a company as it would an individual. But a company is not just a product of the individuals that comprise it. It is a product of interpersonal relationships, group dynamics, and the interplay of personal beliefs of all of the people participating in its decisions. In some circumstances, groups can act as a collective to make better decisions than an individual could. However, they can also fall prey to mob mentality and groupthink.
Group decisions also allow for the distribution and dilution of blame for immoral behavior, as no one person is fully responsible. Corporate personhood, in allowing a further shift of responsibility away from the individual and onto an abstract legal entity, can exacerbate this issue further. People may be more comfortable making decisions that negatively impact the environment if the blame is shifted away from them and onto the corporation. For example, we all know that Volkswagen cheated emissions tests, and some of us may know the names of the executives who allowed the cheating to occur. But very few of us know the names of the engineers that took part in that effort. In keeping with Kim’s attempt at restructuring corporate models to account for non profit motivations, maybe policymakers should research legislation that allows individuals to be held reputationally liable for the actions they undertake in the name of a corporation.
*Authors of this blog post chose to remain anonymous.
by Zora Ilunga-Reed, Daniel Jacobson, and Becca Nelson
This quarter we will be featuring a series of blog posts about the geopolitics of sustainability, recapping Roble's Hard Earth Talks. If you are interested in attending this series of sustainability talks at Roble or want to learn more about the Roble Living Laboratory for Sustainability at Stanford (ROLLSS), check out Roble's website. Here is a recap of the first talk, which focused on how carbon pricing policies affect low income households.
On Wednesday, September 26th, Chikara Onda, a doctoral student in Environment and Resources at Stanford discussed his research on how costs are distributed in carbon pricing policy. Climate policies can be either regressive or progressive. Regressive policies take proportionally more from low-income households, whereas progressive policies take proportionally more from high-income households. Climate change often disproportionality affects low-income communities due to geographic location (e.g., socioeconomic disparities between the global North and South), communities which often lack resources to enact climate adaptation measures. Thus, policymakers should take environmental justice frameworks into account by creating carbon policies that are progressive and by understanding how a climate policy may impact different income brackets. According to Onda, carbon pricing policies are often regressive because low-income homes tend to spend a greater percentage of their income on energy costs.
Onda's economic research uses computer-generated equilibrium (CGE) models to predict a policy’s outcomes regarding consumer behavior and the costs of goods and services, such as energy. Onda and other researchers at the Energy modeling forum compared different carbon policies’ economic consequences across different income levels. Ultimately, any form of a carbon tax would affect the cost of many products which would spread throughout the economy. Although a price hike would affect all consumers, it would disproportionately affect low-income households because they spend a larger share of net income on goods. However, in response to carbon-tax-related price increases, firms might change production processes, potentially stabilizing or minimizing the hike. It’s important to note that all actions in this scenario are hypothetical and actual price reactions to a carbon tax are challenging to predict.
The question then becomes “what should the government do with carbon tax revenue?” The most progressive option would be to redistribute revenue back to households on a per capita basis. Two other options include using the increased revenue to adjust capital and labor tax rates, both somewhat regressive options. Emission-heavy industries contribute higher paying jobs for less-educated workers. A new labor tax on these jobs might increase labor mobility away from environmentally damaging industries, thus compounding the positive effect of a carbon tax policy. However, this would negatively affect less-educated workers in need of high-wage jobs. Therefore it would be a more regressive policy.
Onda’s model also explored different sectors that people choose to work in and predicted how they might be affected by a carbon tax. Using individual data, Onda found that people have difficulty transferring their experience across sectors, meaning that a worker with 20 years of experience in one industry would earn lower wages if they had to switch to another industry, and would thus be regressively affected by a carbon tax if they worked in an emissions industry.
In our discussion of Onda’s talk, we weighed the regressive impacts of carbon pricing with our planet’s urgent need to reduce carbon emissions and had a hard time justifying regressive policies even if they cut emissions effectively. During his presentation, Onda made a point that many of the low-income countries in the tropics that contribute the least to climate change are feeling its worst effects. In times of such rampant wealth inequality in our own country, it doesn’t seem right that those with the least should bear the largest burden to solving the problems our planet faces. Policymakers should create carbon policies that reflect principles of environmental justice.
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This is a forum for students to share their writing on intersectional environmental topics, curated by Students for a Sustainable Stanford. Writers of all backgrounds, abilities, and perspectives are welcome.