Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Peter Kneffel/DPA/AFP via Getty Images
the national interest

The Climate-Justice Movement Is Helping Neither the Climate Nor Justice

Nor is it a movement, actually.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Peter Kneffel/DPA/AFP via Getty Images

“Environmental justice activists,” reports E&E Daily, “consider their success in stopping passage of a permitting reform bill last month their movement’s highest profile achievement to date.” You might wonder why the movement doesn’t instead consider its biggest success to be the passage of the biggest climate bill in American history the month before. The answer is that many environmental-justice groups opposed that bill. (“After careful study of the language of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, Climate Justice Alliance concludes that the harms of the bill as it is currently written outweigh its benefits,” stated the Climate Justice Alliance.)

You might also wonder why the climate-justice movement would oppose reforms to permitting given that the existing permitting process makes building any of the infrastructure needed for a green-energy transition difficult to impossible. The reason is that the environmental-justice movement believes the permitting process makes it too easy to build new projects. The movement wants to make it even harder.

In a narrow sense, this shows the climate-justice movement’s misplaced belief that empowering local communities to block infrastructure projects is a positive force for justice. But it also reveals the larger conceptual problems with the climate-justice movement’s worldview as a whole, which has devolved into a simultaneously reactionary and radical program that does more to inhibit the green-energy transition than to help facilitate it.

The climate-justice movement is predicated on the correct observation that environmental damage does not fall upon all members of society equally. Poor people and racial minorities often bear the brunt — think of people who breathe dirtier air because they live near a power plant or a highway or those whose homes are ruined during floods because they live in low-lying areas. That dynamic can also be extended to climate change, especially internationally (developing countries will suffer the most from rising temperatures) but also to a more limited extent domestically (a hotter atmosphere means more floods and hurricanes).

But from this, the movement has proceeded to the conclusion that the only viable solution to climate change is to shut down fossil-fuel production rather than enable the creation of carbon-free energy that can replace it. And while the climate-justice movement presents this stance as the authentic position of oppressed minorities, it mainly represents the beliefs of its funders and professional activists.

“Climate justice” has become a tool for using the cause of racial justice to win intra-progressive fights over climate policy. The climate-justice movement associates itself with a series of left-wing stances whose relation to the cause of racial justice is at best theoretical.

The Climate Justice Alliance announced last year that it opposed both the infrastructure law (which contained a number of environmental provisions) and the Biden climate plan (which contained many more). Its statement of grievances laid out what it called “a short list of just some of the false solutions we oppose in the packages.” The “short list” of objectionable measures, which is not even a complete inventory of its objections (“just some”), ran to 21 categories of emission-reduction methods, including “carbon capture in all of its forms,” “direct air capture,” “geoengineering technologies,” “cap and trade/offsets/carbon tax/carbon pricing,” “nuclear energy,” “liquified natural gas,” and “hydrogen and hydrogen hubs.”

This partial list of the Climate Justice Alliance’s verboten technologies and policies reflects a left-wing posture that is fixated on the creation of a low-resource post-neoliberal utopia, for which reducing greenhouse gas emissions is merely a means toward an end. The climate-justice program insists a “just transition” must “democratize wealth and the workplace,” “relocalize most production and consumption,” and “decolonize our imaginations, remember our way forward and divorce ourselves from the comforts of empire,” among other requirements.

These requirements are not only different than, but are almost certainly incompatible with, meeting our greenhouse-gas targets. In the context of the actual American economy and political system, coming anywhere close to the Biden administration’s greenhouse-gas targets will require using every possible tool, including nuclear energy and air capture.

Even if it were feasible to meet the goal by relying solely on solar and wind power — and it’s definitely not — doing so would require revolutionary changes to the sclerotic permitting system. Even the most cost-effective green-energy projects often take years to win approval. In many areas, proposed solar and wind projects have been blocked by local environmental activists.

It also requires a gigantic expansion of transmission lines to bring energy from places with lots of wind and sun to areas that don’t have it, but getting approval to do that is even harder. Russell Gold’s book Superpower describes an effort to connect wind farms in Oklahoma with the existing transmission lines in the nearby Tennessee Valley Authority, which required getting approval from every community along the route and failed after an eight-year struggle. Failing to expand transmission lines alone could reduce the effectiveness of the Inflation Reduction Act’s climate provisions by 80 percent.

A failure to enact permitting reform for other energy infrastructure would hold back the law even more. All that the law’s incentives can do is make more projects theoretically profitable. But that won’t matter if local activists can continue blocking these projects from being built.

The climate-justice movement isn’t even satisfied with maintaining the broken status quo. Its main goal is to make it even easier for local communities to block these projects by passing a new law to “dramatically expand the public comment period before permits can be issued, plus provide legal recourse to affected frontline communities,” per E&E Daily.

You can see how the climate-justice movement’s principles brought it to this position. They believe local communities should have more power. The problem is that their ideals are bad — or, at least, that they are an extremely poor fit for the contours of the existing climate-change problem, in which community activists rank among the most powerful forces standing in the way of decarbonization.

In theory, the climate-justice movement’s vision of devolution and restoration of ecosystems is radical. In practice, it upholds a system — one that reifies the existing built environment and maintains local control — that is deeply reactionary.

The Climate-Justice Movement Is Bad for Climate and Justice