Global Environmental Justice beyond Copenhagen: Footprints, Fairness and the Future of the Planet

Article excerpt

"The world we have made as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far creates problems we cannot solve at the same level of thinking at which we created them. " Albert Einstein

Introduction

The recent debates over the Copenhagen Protocol, although unfortunately not providing a clearly satisfying approach to the problem of global climate change, did serve to re-focus attention not only on the direct environmental and health consequences of climate change but also, and perhaps more significantly, on the underlying economic, political, social and ethical considerations driving the process. A true resolution to global climate change will require acknowledgement of our failures in addressing these underlying drivers and in particular the ethical failure of our current public policies and private practices.

Although a significant ethical failure in its own right, global climate change is just one symptom of a broader threat to global sustainable development, namely the environmental injustice of the inequitable distribution of all eco-system services. As has been recognized in the sustainable development literature, poorer nations may be in part stuck at the bottom of the development ladder, or in fact excluded from even getting on the development ladder, by adverse environmental conditions, which seem to afflict them to a greater extent and which they have less capacity to address. As developmental economist Jeffrey Sachs notes:

   The greatest tragedy of our time is that one sixth of humanity is
   not even on the development ladder. A large number of the extreme
   poor are caught in a poverty trap ... trapped by climate stress,
   environmental degradation, and by extreme poverty itself. (1)

It also seems possible that some, if not much, of the "climate stress, environmental degradation" and general ecological insults imposed on the poorer nations may be due to an un-fair trade in eco-system services whereby predominantly the resources flow from the poorer to the wealthier nations and wastes flow from the wealthier to the poorer nations. Throughout history, unfair trade practices between more developed and less developed nations have been characterized by colonialist exploitation of this sort enforced by military and/or economic advantage of the former over the latter. Thus type of military-economic colonialism has been generally condemned as unfair and viewed as a thing of the past in international relations and trade. However today, military-economic colonialism has been replaced by eco-colonialism by which more developed nations use their accumulated technologic and financial advantages to disproportionately import eco-system services at the expense of the less developed nations. So, we need to seriously consider whether the poorer nations of the world are stuck at the bottom of the sustainable development ladder with such a disproportionate burden of environmental problems primarily due to our eco-colonialist policies and practices. And, if so, how do we determine the extent of our ethical responsibility to help? What is the basis of a global environmental justice?

Ethics and Ecology

Environmental justice is a question of ethics, and in the ethics literature, the idea of justice as fairness was re-emergent in the twentieth century largely due to the work of John Rawls, among others. (2) However, as has been pointed out several times, Rawls approach seems insufficient, particularly in the face of global issues. (3,4) Yet when it comes to environmental issues, fairness seems to be a reasonable place to start, and fortunately many great minds have attempted to address this. For example, Peter Singer, one of the most influential ethicists of our day, has made a very strong argument that the way we live in developed countries endangers the life and welfare of those in less developed countries through our approach to consumption and the use of environmental resources in a way that is a major moral failure. …