Nov 10 2021

Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger

Reviewed by Shekhar Chandra, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

What environmental threats do the native, tribal, and other vulnerable communities face and what singular challenges do they encounter when trying to secure environmental justice?

Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger

Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger, by Julie Sze, University of California Press, 2020, 160 pp.

Environmental justice scholarship emerged in the United States with the historical 1982 protests by civil rights activists who stopped North Carolina from dumping 120 million pounds of contaminated soil in Warren County, which had the highest African American population in the state. Robert Bullard, regarded as the father of the environmental justice movement in the United States, found that the communities most resistant to environmental injustice have higher social capital, better education, higher income, and a smaller number of people of color. Julie Sze argues that we ought to learn from historical environmental struggles and forcefully makes a case that environmental injustices in the United States are rooted in racism, capitalism, militarism, colonialism, and native land exploitation. Different chapters in the book discuss important environmental cases, like indigenous land rights in Standing Rock; the Flint, Michigan water contamination case, Hurricane Katrina, as well as key concepts like “climate change denial,” “police violence,” “just transition,” “radical democracy,” “whiteness,” “skepticism,” and “optimism.” They explain the complexity of the environmental justice movement in the United States.

Sze rightly emphasizes the unique circumstances facing indigenous communities and communities of color with regard to environmental justice. The book challenges traditional approaches to environmental justice that focus solely on the distribution of impacts, ignoring the processes and circumstances that result in such maldistribution. As the world recognizes the multifaceted nature of social injustices, moving away from the consequentialist approach to defining environmental justice seems inevitable.


Nov 10 2021

Giving Future Generations a Voice: Normative Frameworks, Institutions and Practice

Reviewed by Jungwoo Chun, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

A structured approach to studying the interests of future generations in sustainability and environmental justice

Giving Future Generations a Voice
Giving Future Generations a Voice: Normative Frameworks, Institutions and Practice, edited by Jan Linehan and Peter Lawrence, Edward Elgar, 2021, 232 pp.

The importance of future generations in discourses about the environment and sustainability is universal. Future generations are often described as a symbol of hope and action. At the same time, they are the victims of the choices made by past and current generations. It is becoming clear that generations in the future will be faced with increasingly difficult problems associated with the changing climate, rising temperatures, and higher sea levels.

The question is, are current generations doing enough to lay the foundation for the future or are they simply depending on them to find their own solutions? Giving Future Generations a Voice, edited by Jan Linehan and Peter Lawrence, helps make clear the kinds of things current generations ought to be thinking about with the future in mind.

This book is particularly helpful in two respects. One, it paints discussions of the needs of future generations in an appropriate institutional context: institutions that are designed to support future generations more directly (often led by an appointed commissioner), and institutions that indirectly address intergenerational concerns around sustainability and climate change (i.e., UN Sustainable Development Goals). Two, it provides a normative basis to think about the work of such institutions, drawing on philosophy, law and political science, particularly scholarly work on intergenerational justice.

The book is organized into three sections: (1) normative basis, (2) mandate and operating principles, and (3) lessons from practice. In the first, Peter Lawrence (in Chapter 2) argues in favor of a procedural reform of Institutions for Future Generations (IFGs) to factor in their true interests. He introduces the concept of proxy institutions underpinning the democratic values of equity and inclusion. Nicky van Dijk (in Chapter 3) suggests that a “Capability Approach” ought to guide the IFGs in the area of sustainability and human rights. Similarly in Chapter 4, Bridget Lewis argues that both moral and legal rights provide a basis for appropriate IFGs despite current limitations in human rights law regarding obligations to future generations.

In section 2, Jonathan Boston (Chapter 5) and Friedrich Soltau (Chapter 6) propose helpful operating principles to guide a more effective functionality of IFGs as exemplified by what Boston calls “commitment devices” that can help with enforcement. Soltau also examines the “time” variable to make clear what needs to be done now, and how benefits can flow to future generations.

In the last section, the contributors draw on empirical experiences ranging from the Australian ombudsman to other European approaches to IFGs. Phillipa McCormack and Cleo Hansen-Lohrey (Chapter 7) draw lessons from the ombudsman tradition and argue that IFGs should be equipped with a flexible mandate centered on principles and values rather than specific outcomes. They also raise the importance of processual issues such as education and outreach. In Chapter 8, while Alan Netherwood and Andrew Flynn praise the establishment of the Wales Well-being of Future Generations Act under the auspices of the Commissioner of Future Generations, they admit a lot of work needs to be done to account for the distinctive interests of the future generations. Jan Linehan (in Chapter 9) focuses on the reform of legislatures in a number of countries (mostly in Europe) and argues that proposals for independent parliamentary bodies and deliberative assemblies are crucial to providing a voice for future generations. Finally, Elizabeth Dirth (in Chapter 10) explores various concepts that can ensure more fluid and effective decision-making for future generations by offering a systematic account of different kinds of existing European IFGs.

To date, at least to this reviewer’s knowledge, there has not been an adequate effort to consolidate the debates around the interests of future generations. This edited volume is particularly helpful because it provides a bit of everything: raising the question of why IFGs are needed and presenting what they might look like in practice. The book offers a structure for those interested in studying the interests of future generations in various substantive fields, most notably sustainability and environmental justice.


May 21 2021

The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change: A Guide to the Debate, 3rd Edition

Reviewed by Dr. Yasmin Zaerpoor, Boston College

Why is collective action on climate change so difficult to achieve, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that the climate is changing?

The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change

The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change: A Guide to the Debate, 3rd Edition, by A. E. Dessler and E. A. Parson, Cambridge University Press, 2020, 278 pp.

Our global response to climate change remains insufficient despite regular, and increasingly urgent, warnings from the scientific community about the global impacts, especially if warming exceeds 1.5°C. Although there is some uncertainty about the extent to which our natural world will change as a result of the climate changing, there is wide scientific consensus that the climate is changing. The existing challenge is therefore not related to knowledge, but to knowing how to translate that knowledge into political action.

In this third edition of The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change, A. E. Dessler and E. A. Parson masterfully consider the interaction science and politics as it relates to climate action. They outline three factors that make climate change more difficult to address than previous environmental challenges. First, climate change is a slow process that requires long-term planning, which is not immune to changes in local and national politics. Second, they highlight the tradeoff between environment and economics, noting that the necessary reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will require transitioning away from fossil fuels and may have, at least short-term, impacts on economies around the world. Third, uncertainty about the impacts of climate change makes it easy to misunderstand and miscommunicate the seriousness of the problem.

Chapter One starts by introducing the science of climate change and, more specifically, describing climate, the Earth’s energy balance, the greenhouse gas effect, the role of feedbacks and climate forcings, and the impact of humans on the climate. It also provides a brief overview of climate change policy, starting from the late 1980s and 1990s through the 2015 Paris Agreement (and the United States’ temporary withdrawal under Donald Trump).

Chapter Two summarizes the scientific and political debates on climate change, their differences and how they interact. Interestingly, Dessler and Parson approach this by differentiating between positive and normative statements made in the climate debate, describing the scientific process as a collective endeavor with peer review rather than an abstract, rational process, and by highlighting the potential conflict that emerges when science is used/misused to support contradictory political positions. This is a very thoughtful approach to the climate debate as it extends beyond the science and introduces readers to the complexity of integrating science into policy.

Chapter Three, which focuses on the impacts of humans on the climate, is organized around four questions: (i) Is the climate changing? (ii) Are human activities responsible? (iii) What further climate changes are likely? and (iv) What will the impacts be? Dessler and Parson also consider natural processes (e.g., tectonic processes, variations in Earth’s orbit, solar variability and internal variability of the climate system) that affect climate, but explain that these do not explain the extent to which the climate is changing. They end the chapter by considering, and rebutting, two contrary claims for anthropogenic climate change. More specifically, they explain and dismiss the misinformed and pervasive counterarguments that global warming is not happening and that the climate has always changed and therefore should not be a concern.

In Chapter Four, Dessler and Parson turn to climate change action–focusing on mitigation, adaptation and climate engineering. In each of these discussions, the politics surrounding the feasibility of future action is considered alongside the science. For example, they point to nuclear power as a significant potential zero-emission source of energy, while also recognizing the existing political opposition to nuclear energy and the risk that expanding fission could lead to increased opportunities for “sabotage, terrorism, or diversion for weapons.” They also consider subnational, national and global policies that could promote mitigation, weighing the benefits and limitations of different types of policies (e.g., market-based policies such as cap and trade systems versus regulatory policies) before describing two possible approaches to climate engineering, or the act of manipulating the climate system to reduce the impacts of greenhouse gases. They conclude the chapter with a recognition that effective climate action will require all three interventions–mitigation to reduce the effects of climate change, adaptation to reduce the impacts and continued study of climate engineering in case the first two interventions are insufficient.

The final chapter summarizes climate policy in 2019 and outlines a path forward. Interestingly, the authors warn against waiting for global consensus on climate change and suggest that piecemeal national and subnational mitigation may be the best we can hope for in today’s political climate.

This book is an excellent teaching resource–whether it is for an undergraduate or graduate course or for nonspecialists who want to understand how science and politics interact in relation to climate action. It is structured intuitively as though the authors have anticipated the questions and follow-on questions that students of climate change will ask, and answer them comprehensively and succinctly. Overall, it is an easy, engaging, and comprehensive primer for anyone trying to understand the challenges and opportunities for action on climate change.


May 21 2021

Sustainability Made Simple: Small Changes for Big Impact

Review by Jungwoo Chun, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

 What does sustainability mean to individuals in their day-to-day practice? How can individuals engage more directly and realistically with the idea of sustainability?

Sustainability Made Simple

Sustainability Made Simple: Small Changes for Big Impact, by Rosaly Byrd and Lauren DeMates, Rowman & Littlefield, 2019, 216 pp.

Sustainability Made Simple is designed for those who are interested in learning what sustainability means to them. Sustainability is often linked with climate change and other environmental issues. What it means to individuals and day-to-day practices is less frequently discussed in much detail. Rosaly Byrd and Lauren DeMates do just that–putting people as agents of change, they offer ways for individuals to support the collective efforts towards sustainability. The book is for everyone who wishes learn how they can engage more directly and realistically with the concept of sustainability and the environment.

The book is organized in two parts. In part 1, the authors introduce the environmental problems we face collectively (i.e., air and water pollution, deforestation and climate change); provide examples of how governments, companies and other societal organizations are transitioning toward sustainability (i.e., making commitments and technological investments); and underscore why individual action is vital. Besides the fact that more than 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are contributed by household consumption, the authors describe what they call a shift towards a culture of sustainability that essentially supports collective efforts. They emphasize the importance of individuals taking small steps such as making consumption decisions more carefully, buying more sustainably grown products or actively monitoring electricity and water usage at homes. Part 2 offers various examples of these small changes individuals can achieve–opportunities to integrate sustainability into day-to-day practices.

What is most fascinating is how much of what appear to be low-hanging fruits can in fact be completely unnoticed or ignored. The detailed list of practices (ranging from cutting down on foods with the biggest environmental footprints to going paperless) provides an opportunity for individuals to perform a self-audit and identify what else can be done on a daily basis. Part 2 essentially offers a detailed recipe for individuals who desire to learn and apply the practices to their daily routines. While the book provides examples from multiple contexts (often international), it would be even more interesting to observe examples of how an accumulation of individual efforts engenders a culture of sustainability that in fact supports national or local-scale societal transitions towards sustainability.

The good news is that transitions to sustainability are still optimistic and easily relatable. The detailed accounts of what we can do as individuals are a testament to how the ideas of sustainability have evolved over time. As a reader, my hope is that more people around the world can invest 5-10 minutes of their time and try out a few daily practices described in the book. The combined effects cannot be readily measured or studied, but I have little doubt that the impacts will be enormous.


Jan 6 2021

Conflict and Sustainability in a Changing Environment: Through the Eyes of Communities

Reviewed by Jungwoo Chun, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How do we overlay various sustainable development frameworks and roadmaps on local governments? Who are the critical actors? What does sustainable development look like at a smaller community scale?

Conflict and Sustainability in a Changing Environment

Conflict and Sustainability in a Changing Environment: Through the Eyes of Communities, by Gwendolyn Smith and Elena P. Bastidas, Anthem Press, 2017, 208 pp.

Sustainable development is pretty well-defined by international organizations, multinational corporations, and governments. But it is still unclear what sustainable development looks like at a smaller community scale. How do we overlay various sustainable development frameworks and roadmaps on local governments? Who are the critical actors? The authors try to answer these questions in this book.

The book is organized in sections on theory and practice. The first part presents alternative conflict resolution frameworks as a way of incorporating community views into sustainable development initiatives. The authors demonstrate that values are a crucial starting point—they dictate choices and actions that communities must sort through when they are faced with environmental problems that call for social change. Social polygraphy is introduced as a joint-problem-solving method through which the researcher and the community collaboratively create maps of the past, present, and future as a way to understand past conflicts and envision a pathway forward.

The second part illustrates how the proposed framework can be used to analyze the views of the Trio indigenous community in the Amazonian forests of Suriname. Chapters 5–7 discuss how the values of the Trio community shape their views about climate change and the actions they decide to take. These chapters help the reader see how climate change must be understood through the lens of the community.

The book concludes with answers to some of the questions posed at the outset, offering a comparison between how sustainable development is viewed by the community and development organizations. The last chapter explores sustainable solutions for the Trio community, for example, combining mitigation with adaptation efforts already practiced by the community. The authors further explain the “unfitting” nature of the REDD+ framework which operates from a limited mitigation point of view.

Conflicts are likely to emerge when behavioral change is necessary to achieve wider social change. The model offered by the authors can be applied to different contexts around the world, helping local and indigenous communities define their own sustainable development pathways in reaction to guidelines provided by global development organizations.