One of the most contentious issues in the environmental and climate movements today is carbon pricing – that is, placing a price on carbon emissions and allowing companies to pay to pollute. The concept is the more polluters have to pay, the more likely they are to clean up their emissions. While carbon pricing has been shown to reduce atmospheric carbon emissions in some multi-state agreements, low-income neighborhoods and communities of color maintain they are paying the price of continued pollution close to home.
Over the past two years, confidential dialogues called “Transforming the Conversation on Carbon Pricing” have been undertaken by a range of climate justice activists and policy advocates in order to cultivate common ground, inclusive of the labor, faith, environmental justice sectors and Big Green environmental movements. Before the coronavirus pandemic, participants gathered at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, joined in the project by the Pricing Carbon Initiative, Citizens’ Climate Lobby and Karuna Center for Peacebuilding.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Tina Johnson, a writer, consultant and director of the National Black Environmental Justice Network. Here, she explains the goals of the meetings, which for now are taking place virtually due to COVID health restrictions.
TINA JACKSON: I think the key framework of environmental justice is the equity and justice lens. I guess the two good words would be “cumulative impacts” or “distributive impacts.” So it’s really looking at “where is the equity and justice in the way in which we are developing and designing policy? What are the impacts over time, not just what can the market bear?” When we talk about the economics of the modeling that’s done around any kind of pricing mechanism, it never takes into account cumulative impacts, it doesn’t take into [account] distribution of the co-benefits of what that looks like for communities on the ground, so what you end up having are a lot of communities that are adversely impacted with regulation or market-based mechanisms, because their needs don’t become part of the actual modeling or the equation of what this would look like over time for the human aspect of it.
And my understanding of it – and I have a layman’s understanding of it – is that most of the time we look at it from the industry’s perspective, and how much you can pollute in the water systems, for example, there is a real clear industry level of pollution that is permissible, but we’re not looking at it from a health impact perspective. So if we were to look at that and say, “What are the health levels that are reasonable for human beings, that would be a very different level of permissibility compared to that of the industry level.” So the equity and justice lens is the human lens; it’s really about the fairness. You can’t just have it be one way. And the way that most policies are talked about is that “We’ll do the policy now and we’ll do the pricing now and then we’ll readjust later, and that never happens.” They never go back and say, “Oh, we now see the impacts, so we need to adjust what we’ve started doing, because they’ve already started doing it.” It’s like when you get a tax, “We’re only going to have this tax for six years.” But then that tax doesn’t ever go away because you’ve already generated enough income that it becomes valuable.
So, the question is, “Can we look at the cumulative impacts beforehand? Can we look at the long-term co-benefits, if there are any? Can we look not just a what the reduction of carbon emissions looks like, but what does the reduction of co-pollutants look like over time as well — so, noxious gases. So it becomes this holistic understanding of what we’re looking at when we’re designing policies that are going to ultimately impact and affect the people who live in and around these places. It’s not brain surgery. It’s really clearly understood that this market-based approach, when it doesn’t take these things into consideration, it does end up having greater harm than greater benefit. So it is like this thing, if we considered the totality of all of these things, could we create a more effective policy that actually didn’t give one side more than the other, but took in the human impact as part of the outcome.
MELINDA TUHUS: Tina Johnson, you have talked about working to unpack what people in this dialogue are thinking and why, and to work toward alignment, not necessarily agreement. Could you elaborate on that?
TINA JACKSON: Yeah, I mean I think part of our nature as people is that we want people to agree with us, and I just think before you can get to agreement you have to have some alignment of understanding of where you’re both coming from, and I can clearly say back to you, I understand where you’re coming from and I understand your issues. I may not agree with the perspective or the position you’re in, but there’s an alignment of understanding — and then from there, any opportunity to find commonality: Are there things that are in common, even if we’re not in agreement? And if there’s commonality, there might be an opportunity to find some agreement, even if that agreement means people are willing to shift or change the way they think or the way they are going about addressing issues, because now they have new information. But the ultimate goal is not that agreement.
I liken it to personal, intimate relationships. When we are most successful in them, it’s when we don’t necessarily agree, but we feel understood. And then that builds trust, because at least I’ve been seen and heard and respected. Are you willing to look at an equity and justice lens as we talk about it from an environmental justice perspective: cumulative impacts, because that’s a very different conversation for folks who just think, If we can just give someone a check, a dividend, they’ll be happy to hear from an environmental justice person that says, You can’t pay for me to have good health. There’s no amount of money that’s going to provide me with clean air and clean water that I can breathe in my community.
MELINDA TUHUS: Can you give any examples of commonalities?
TINA JACKSON: Yeah, one of them was to look more deeply at policy, and to evaluate what’s being proposed as potential legislation from an equity and justice lens.