Tackling Environmental Justice: a Local Perspective.

About a week ago, I went to Stony Brook University, where I am collaborating with Prof. Lori Scarlatos from the Department of Technology and Society, in constructing a simulation/game. Its aim is to allow students (and everybody else) to find out how the world would change based on certain key decisions, and then compare the results with the actual world. The simulation/game incorporates 25 autonomous country agents, interacting with a single world entity. Populated with data from the World Bank, British Petroleum, and the US Energy Information Administration, these countries represent 75% of the world’s population, living in both developed and developing countries around the world. The players are the “rulers” of their respective countries and are engaged in their energy management.

To get to Stony Brook, I took the LIRR (Long Island Rail Road) train. On my way (from Brooklyn) I had to change trains twice. I take this trip frequently, approximately at the same departing time and on the same day of the week. On my way, I noticed that the volume of passengers was considerably higher than I used to observe. It might have been completely anecdotal, but my physicist training was trying immediately to correlate it with recent events. I did make an effort to get real data from the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority), which runs the trains, but I didn’t get any response. My immediate next thought was to correlate the volume of passengers with the aftermath of Sandy, which had hit the North East about 10 days earlier and had a major impact on all modes of transportation in the region. One of the longer lasting impacts was the fuel shortage, which forced the governors of New York and New Jersey to ration fuel by imposing odd/even day filling times based on the last digit of cars’ license plates. The order immediately had soothing effects on the length of the lines around gas stations.

My cause/effect association was that people that had difficulty getting gas decided instead to take public transportation. My thinking followed with the “dreadful” and “frightening” thought that such a policy might be considered even in calm times as a possible weapon to fight Climate Change.

About the same time, I read a New York Times (November 9, 2012) article by Casey B. Mulligan titled, “Gasoline Lines are Unnecessary.” The following paragraphs from the article summarize the perspective:

Waiting in line is a waste of time. The people there were certainly not helping bring more gasoline to the region and could instead be helping rebuild or could be productive in other ways.

Economists on the right and on the left agree that market prices – prices that reflect both supply and demand location by location – are much better at allocating scarce resources in extreme situations like the storm’s aftermath. But state and local government regulations, in the form of antigouging laws, effectively outlawed market pricing.

If officials had allowed the price system to work, it would have alleviated lines in a number of ways. As suppliers seek the maximum profit, temporary and extraordinary prices encourage them (and make it affordable for them) to go to extraordinary lengths to get the electricity and fuel needed to have gasoline available to customers where it is needed the most.

Were they permitted, high prices would also have encouraged customers to economize creatively on their usage and acquisition of gasoline. If it had cost $10 or $15 a gallon, some people on those lines might have been willing to delay vehicle usage, leaving more for people who were willing to pay that price or who had no other choice.

The net result from both mechanisms to shorten the gas lines should have produced similar outcome. The makeup of the affected populations, however, would have been different. In the first case, people that didn’t want to be bothered with detailed planning and that could freely choose between public transportation and driving, would have shifted to public transportation. In the second case, people that couldn’t afford to pay the higher gas prices, would have had to shift regardless of planning.

The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) defines Environmental Justice as:

Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, culture, national origin, income, and educational levels with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of protective environmental… laws, regulations, and policies.

The policy advocated by Prof. Mulligan is a clear example of environmental injustice.

New York City is at the forefront of urban areas when it comes to formulating policies that are designed to monitor the effects of Climate Change. In 2007, the city launched PlaNYC2030, to coordinate sustainability planning. It combines 25 city agencies, in preparation for population increase, strengthening the local economy  and mitigating Climate Change. As part of this effort, a panel was created to evaluate NYC’s adaptation needs with regards to Climate Change. The report was issued in 2010. My students are now trying to determine how the city is implementing these recommendations. It is a semester long effort that can be followed online.

A quick search of PlaNYC2030’s regard for Environmental Justice issues came up wanting. Recently (August 2012), the New York City Council, with support from the Mayor, recognized this omission. In response, they voted in favor of a new bill that would enlarge the purview of the Climate Change Panel and the Climate Change Task Force to focus not only on infrastructure development, but also on populations that are especially vulnerable to extreme weather events – such as the elderly, children and the poor. That legislation also makes the Panel and the Task Force permanent.

In the next blog I will try to show that dealing with Environmental Justice issues on a global scale is not only the right thing to do but is also the key to finding solutions to these problems that affect us all.

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About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.

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One Response to Tackling Environmental Justice: a Local Perspective.

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