Last week, environmental justice groups from California issued a declaration against cap-and-trade, stating that pollution already disproportionately affects low-income, communities of color, and they will "fight at every turn" against regulations that create a carbon-trading system that would only exacerbate those trends. EJ groups, long overlooked in the more mainstream environmental movement, fear that climate legislation will once again disregard the concerns of the communities who are already most affected by the factories and refineries responsible for global warming. In a cap-and-trade system, poor communities, where polluting plants are most often sited, will still bear the brunt of impacts if industries are allowed to trade for rights to pollute there. Instead of this system, they're advocating a carbon tax, direct emissions reductions, and meaningful measures to move America to clean, renewable energy sources.
"[C]arbon trading is undemocratic because it allows entrenched polluters, market designers, and commodity traders to determine whether and where to reduce greenhouse gases and co-pollutant emissions without allowing impacted communities or governments to participate in those decisions," says the statement.
Mainstream environmental groups have also noted that a cap-and-trade system in which carbon credits are handed out to polluters would be problematic. Most support a cap-and-trade system in which credits are auctioned off and the proceeds are used for projects like new renewable fuel technologies, green job training programs, and helping folks adjust to increases in energy costs. In an ideal system, these programs would benefit the communities of concern for environmental justice groups. But the EJ groups in California are taking a hard line: "[O]ur demands for real changes in the way we make and use energy will not be silenced by promises of money or token adjustments to the fundamentally flawed trading and offsets approach."
There has long been a perception in the environmental justice community -- for good reason -- that mainstream environmental groups don't pay attention to the concerns of low-income communities and people of color. Ignoring their opposition to cap-and-trade would only further that impression. The big green groups in California are already trying to strike some sort of balance on the issue. Says Bill Magavern, the director of Sierra Club California:
We share many of the concerns of the EJ groups regarding pollution trading, like possible hot spots, loopholes and windfall profits [...] We are also open to using well-designed market compliance mechanisms to achieve some of the emission reductions necessary, as long as big polluters have to pay for their emissions and local air quality is protected.
A cap-and-trade system is more politically feasible than a carbon tax at this point. It doesn't look like these EJ groups will be able to push mainstream environmental groups away from supporting it. But their concerns about a cap-and-trade system that doesn't make polluters pay are valid and shouldn't be ignored. Whatever system we do adopt can't throw poor communities under the bus yet again.