Since the dawn of the environmental justice movement, we have heard the stories of individuals and communities left unprotected by our environmental laws and policies. Their stories reveal the deep-seated structures of racism and inequality that determine what resources and which people environmental law will protect. Despite risks to the cultural and natural resources of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the federal government allowed the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. When officials in Flint, Michigan, a majority-minority city where 40 percent of the people live in poverty, purported to cut costs by switching the city's water supply, they cut corners and failed to treat the water to prevent corrosion. Their decisions exposed the city's residents to dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water. Recent hurricanes have again devastated the most vulnerable communities, and yet the president dismisses the 2,975 deaths from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico as fake news created by Democrats to make him "look as bad as possible."
But thousands of people did die. Thousands of people were exposed to lead in drinking water. And the promises made to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, long ago enshrined in treaties, were once again broken. How can the next generation of environmental laws do better? If the underlying problems include structural racism and inequality, the answer may require radical change. To achieve environmental justice on a sustainable planet, the next generation of environmental law will have to change in two ways. It will have to have to go beyond the environment and beyond law.
That is a tall order. But if we are asking big questions, there is no point in being coy or timid. There are two huge problems facing the planet right now. One is that its stable operating systems are at risk of going awry. Climate change is the signature example, but not the only one. The second is that inequality between rich and poor has increased dramatically over roughly the same period that we have put the planet's operating systems in jeopardy. To make matters even more complicated, wealth inequality is shot through with the structures of racism and colonialism. So if we are thinking big, we might as well think beyond the parameters of our training and disciplines. We should think about what sorts of cultural, economic, and legal structures would result in a just, equitable, and sustainable world for humans and non-humans. And then we should try to think and imagine a way from here to there.
Time is of the essence. We need new visions of an equitable, sustainable future now. Climate change (which is just one of the earth system boundaries at risk) could soon result in a virtually unrecognizable and volatile planet. In a recent article, Swedish scientist Will Steffen and co-authors outlined a scenario that leads the Earth to a situation where positive feedback mechanisms push "the Earth System toward a planetary threshold that, if crossed, could prevent stabilization of the climate . . . and cause continued warming on a 'Hothouse Earth' pathway . . . even as emissions are reduced." That pathway is not inevitable, but if it is not averted through rapid and steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, "Hothouse Earth is likely to be uncontrollable and dangerous to many . . . and it poses severe risks for health, economies, political stability (especially for the climate vulnerable) and ultimately, the habitability of the planet."
If the "Hothouse Earth" scenario comes to pass, it will occur on a planet marked by dramatic and racialized inequality. Economist Thomas Piketty has documented the rise in inequality since industrialization, attributing it to the fact that capital wealth has grown faster than incomes. The upshot is that the United States and other western democracies have very little economic mobility and are more similar in this regard to monarchical or feudal societies than functioning democracies. In the United States, the long history of legal, political, and economic marginalization of African-Americans, Native Americans, and other non-whites means that today's inequality is also marked by race.
Further, recent research has shown that natural hazards not only have disparate impacts on poor and minority communities, but that they too contribute to wealth inequality: "Overall, . . . natural hazard damages are contributing to wealth inequality. Additionally . . . while inequality is occurring along other lines, the most notable inequity is along lines of race, education and homeownership." In other words, environmental harms not only have disparate economic and racial impacts, they also entrench racialized inequality.
In the current cultural and political moment, the structural causes of environmental degradation, rising inequality, and racism are converging in troubling ways. Following the election of President Barack Obama, a study found that white Americans were less likely to view climate change as a serious problem, suggesting a link between racial resentment and climate change denial. Moreover, under the Trump administration, U.S. environmental policies have actively excluded the most vulnerable communities. For example, shortly after President Trump assumed office, the head of EPA's environmental justice office resigned in response to the administration's proposed cuts to environmental justice programs. In addition, the administration's new $1-7/ton social cost of carbon completely ignores the costs of global warming outside the United States, an isolationist approach to a quintessentially global problem. The Trump administration's indifference to the risks of a warming planet places the nation's, and the world's, most vulnerable populations at greatest risk. It is hardly surprising that a journalist summarized the most recent international report on climate change in the following way: "Either way, the outlook is dire, especially for the poor."
So what would laws look like that could take us off of the pathway to a deeply unequal "Hothouse Earth" and toward a just, equitable, and sustainable planet? They would look like anti-poverty laws, wealth redistribution laws, public infrastructure laws, and health care laws. They would also look like much stronger and more directive environmental laws with interlinked goals of just and equitable decarbonization. And environmental laws would engage at all scales of governance, making local issues of educational segregation and housing inequality national priorities. In short, they would be laws that simultaneously ensure a just, equal, and free society, and that protect the ecological foundations of the planet.
To achieve such laws (and the economic system in which they would participate), it will likely take the kind of massive and diverse activism that resulted in the civil rights and environmental law-making moments of the 1960s and early 1970s. It will take a movement that seeks more than legal change. Yet there is plenty for lawyers to do. Without lawyers to do the work on the front end, and to be standing by during and after the chaos, the chances of getting on the right path are greatly diminished. In short, to get on the path to a just, equitable, and sustainable Earth, it will take much more than legal change, but it will require no less than the full attention of lawyers committed to defeating racism, reversing inequality, and saving the planet.