Unwritten: How environmental inequity is impacting your life & the global community

MEGAN CISTULLI: Hello, and welcome to Unwritten. My name is Megan Cistulli, and I'm a student at the University of California Berkeley studying political science and human rights. And today, we're exploring social equity and the environment in the United States and internationally with Cornell University Senior Lecturer and Pearson Author, Justin St. Juliana. Dr. St. Juliana, thank you so much for being here today. Please take it away with your hot take on the topic.

JUSTIN ST. JULIANA: We often hear about environmental justice and social justice in the news. But we don't always hear about them talked about together at the same time. When in reality, these two subjects are very linked to each other. At both the personal, local, national, and global levels, we can see places where social justice and environmental justice interact with each other.

I think one great example we can see of this is the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which highlight both social and environmental aspects as important to sustain that sustainable development. And oftentimes one action that we take in a given sphere can influence both social and environmental movements.

Say, for example, education of individuals--if we can educate and empower people, one, we've got a social benefit that's really obvious. But that also may empower them to make more informed decisions and do things in a way that are less harmful to the environment. And so these two things are constantly interacting with each other.

MEGAN CISTULLI: Thank you, Dr. And really working under this framework of the interaction between social and environmental--because that is extremely important here. So working under that framework, let's set the scene. What sort of environmentally-friendly, sustainable infrastructure or resources exist today? And how equitable is the access to those resources?

JUSTIN ST. JULIANA: Yeah. Let's talk about energy for a moment. And we can think about the energy that somebody uses where they live. Anda lot of people may want to adopt green sources of energy in order to reduce their environmental footprint. But is access to that equitable? I would argue, in many instances, no.

If we think about one thing that people talk about--solar panels on homes--it's not easy for everybody to go out and put a solar panel on their home for many, many socioeconomic reasons. Many people don't own their own home. Many people live in large structures where they wouldn't have access to do that. And it may simply be out of reach in terms of affordability.

Another technology we hear about is electric cars, right? Somebody could lower their environmental footprint through the use of electric vehicles. Well, not everybody can afford an environment--can afford an electric vehicle. Those subsidies that we always hear about for those vehicle types only apply to that small portion of the population who's buying new vehicles. And so we have a socioeconomic disparity in access to these environmentally-friendly technologies.

MEGAN CISTULLI: That's such a great point, especially considering the fact that a lot of us, even students like myself and my peers, we're constantly moving around from apartment to apartment and on top of the fact that solar panel installation can cost thousands and thousands of dollars. So not only we're not homeowners, but more than that, we don't have the funds. A lot of people don't have the funds to access this technology. So speaking of access to technology and these resources, what are some of the associated impacts that we see as a result of this socioeconomic disparity and inability to access these resources?

JUSTIN ST. JULIANA: Yeah. Well, let's go ahead and take this up from kind of that local example I gave to a global one. If we look around the world, we have nations in different stages of development as indicated by the Human Development Index. And what we see is disparities in levels of pollution as a function of that as well as levels--as well as ability to deal with that pollution.

So if we look around the world, the wealthiest, most developed nations tend to be those that pollute the most. And let's take global warming. They contribute the most to global warming. If we look at the less developed nations, they're contributing a lot less. And we can also look at today, what's the ability of these nations to deal with this type of global warming producing pollution?

And what we find is that nations that are more developed have a greater ability to do this than nations that are less developed.If we think about something like the Environmental Protection Index, wealthier nations tend to score better. Poorer nations tended to score worse.

But this isn't because people in less wealthy nations are happy with pollution, happy with the negative environmental and health consequences of that. It's because if a nation is less developed, there's other concerns that they have. If a nation is struggling to meet basic human needs, it's really difficult to look at these other aspects. And so what we see is disparities around the world in both the amount that nations are polluting and the ability to deal with that pollution.

MEGAN CISTULLI: So with that in mind, how can more industrialized countries like the United States or other nations help to close the global equity gap and help those less industrialized countries adopt sustainable energy solutions to fix those problems?

JUSTIN ST. JULIANA: Yeah. Yeah, I think you hit on a really good point there. So how did the United States get to the level of development that it's at today? Well, it got there by polluting along the way. As we see scores for Human Development Index improve, we see the level of pollution in the nation or emissions, for example, going up. And so nations that are developed got there by contributing a lot to global warming.

And so we can't just look around the world today and say, well we've got a problem. Everybody cut back. From a social perspective, those less developed nations have a right to develop. Those people in those nations deserve the opportunity to develop. And so the trick is going to be--is to develop sustainably.

And so if we look at the United States, for example, we can do our part in our nation. And I hope we can. But we also need to look at the world as a whole and recognize we owe it, in some respects, to support other nations develop, but also develop sustainably along the way.

MEGAN CISTULLI: And I think that's a really important point that we need to look to. Not exactly what we've done in the past, but now how can we improve on it in the future? And how can we use those sustainable practices and share them with other nations so that we can all as a planet, and a globe, and a global network, work to not only reach those sustainable solutions, but also reach social equity in these other places as well?

And finally, as an expert in the field, I'm wondering, what are we not being told? So, from your research and from your expertise, what are some of the important things that the public needs to be talking about in this conversation and discourse around both environmental justice and social justice?

JUSTIN ST. JULIANA: I think one thing to really consider is hidden costs of different actions. And so one way we often measure a nation's environmental impact is by CO2 emissions per capita. And so we look around the world. The United States emissions are very high and so are the emissions in China.

And let's say you buy a product from China. You know that you've paid the monetary cost for that and somebody there has a job and they're producing something. But the environmental cost of that action is only being paid in China. If that product is made there, it's produced, those local individuals pay that cost.

And oftentimes those costs aren't factored in to what you're paying when you buy your product. And so we see kind of this disparity in nations being held accountable for certain levels of pollution when that demand that's generating that pollution is actually generated in other nations.

So when we look at the accounting around the world for per capita CO2 emissions of a nation, for example, it's important that we actually consider how and why that's being generated and moving forward, take those factors into account when we have these discussions.

MEGAN CISTULLI: Thank you so much for your time today, Dr. St. Juliana. And it's really important to talk about these hidden costs, like you said, and how environmental inequity is impacting not just our lives here in the United States but abroad as well. So, thank you for your time. And thank you to the Unwritten audience.