What air will your grandchildren breathe?
Your answer to this question is likely to be influenced by the economic conditions you currently experience. Too often, academic and privileged circles engage in strategic discussions around climate change and how we can achieve “net zero” carbon emissions over the next 30 years, while ignoring the existing and worsening health conditions of communities that are neighbored by pollution generating industries.
While the actions we take to address climate change are consequential to all those who inhabit the earth, it is essential that whatever steps we do take to preserve our planet are aligned with protections for those who are disproportionately impacted by corporate pollution.
The idea of “net zero” assumes that if we deploy enough measures to reduce and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, then perhaps we can stop global warming. However, most measures taken to expedite a large-scale transition to renewables have been undermined by simultaneous efforts to rationalize the short-term expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, deforestation, and high-risk capital investments in carbon capturing technologies that have not yet matured.
As it becomes politically advantageous for elected officials and corporate companies to align themselves with the “green economy,” we see more lobbying and legislation focused on climate protection measures. But those proposals are almost always devoid of protections and instruments that would address environmental justice for vulnerable communities.
Historically disenfranchised communities often reside in less-desirable areas — near highways, fossil fuel infrastructure, waste facilities, and chemical processing companies — a fact closely tied to the poorer health outcomes they experience. An air pollution study completed by the Rhode Island DEM suggested that communities in close proximity to I-95 and Providence’s industrial waterfront suffered from the unhealthy emissions. There is also a clear association between community asthma rates and air pollution, which has been highlighted by the RI Department of Health (DOH).
Carbon taxes have been proposed as a means to generate revenue and contribute to a reduction in carbon emissions, but there’s little thought to environmental justice. The carbon tax revenues collected annually in 40 countries around the world have been used to subsidize research, support green infrastructure, and to dispense corporate tax-breaks for “green companies” — they are not allocated toward improving the lives of the people most affected by pollutants.
Rather than fight to reallocate revenue from carbon taxes, perhaps it’s time for a new tax instrument to protect vulnerable communities from the negative impact of fossil fuel, chemical processing, and other pollution-generating industries.
Imposing a “harm tax” on these companies would be a first step towards environmental justice. As compared to proposed carbon tax revenues that might end up in a general fund, the harm tax revenues could be placed in a categorical fund, designed to primarily support housing assistance, utility assistance, food assistance, and healthcare programs for communities that have been disproportionately impacted by corporate pollution.
In addition, if the “harm tax” were indexed to industry fees (i.e., utility fees, maintenance fees, disposal fees, etc.), then consumers would be protected against corporate practices that would aim to raise fees in order to sustain corporate profits. The harm tax would ensure that our transition to renewables is met with an equivalent investment in protecting and improving the lives of historically disenfranchised communities, while undoubtedly slowing the irresponsible expansion of harmful pollution generating infrastructure.
Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz is a member of the Rhode Island Equity Council and a Democratic candidate for governor of Rhode Island in 2022. He lives in Pawtucket.