Center for Urban Environmental Reform
The United States was once a global leader in environmental policy. Many of the US environmental statutes, particularly the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) 1 and the Clean Air Act (CAA) 2 have been copied by nations around the world and by the international community as a whole. The International Court of Justice recently declared that the analytical technique of environmental assessment, which originated in NEPA, had become customary international law. 3
Yet, during the past two decades, environmental policy in the United States has foundered. For many of the key environmental decisions facing urban communities-issues — like adaptation to climate change, air pollution, equitable handling of wastes, and exposure to environmental toxins — discretion is vast and scientific certainties are few. 4 Under these circumstances, policy choices are influenced by regulators' assumptions about the kinds of risks that are acceptable. These assumptions are typically unstated and unexamined, so they often ensure that new decisions merely replicate existing power and economic dynamics, rather than being perceived as transformative moments for environmental justice.
A common technique for making environmental decisions is to conduct a cost-benefit analysis. Often, the costs and benefits are assigned values in dollars and then those dollar figures are compared. However, many of the environmental costs and benefits that are most important to the public and local communities (such as access to green space, sustainable communities, functioning ecosystem services, and overall pollution loads) do not readily lend themselves to quantification. But rather than confront this problem, many decision makers only consider a narrowly defined set of economic benefits and harms of proposed activities. This approach also ignores the fact that certain social groups are often allocated multiple risks from which they receive very little benefit.
Many of the standard techniques of environmental decision-making reduce society's ability to include issues of distributive justice and overall fairness in the decision. As a result, environmental policies have been repeatedly accused of perpetuating environmental injustice — with poor and minority communities consistently allocated a larger share of environmental bads while having access to fewer environmental goods. CUER's emphasis on environmental citizenship is an attempt to surface these justice dynamics that are too often ignored. Framing environmental choices as questions of fundamental equality in a political community, rather than as private choices about property, helps emphasize the role that power, access to information, and inequality play in shaping environmental outcomes.
CUER is dedicated to developing new avenues of participation and new opportunities for citizen empowerment in environmental decision-making. Drawing from the emerging human rights norms of participation, access to information, transparency and intergenerational equity, CUER will seek to revitalize participatory environmental decision-making to help community members, scholars and policymakers communicate in a way that leads to better, more sustainable decision-making. In doing so, the Center will seek a role in facilitating important social conversations about the acceptability of environmental risks and the need for their equitable distribution.
The Center will actively work to build the capacity necessary to ensure full participation in environmental decision-making by historically-excluded communities. Plural voices will make for better, fairer and more legitimate outcomes. The goal is to build social justice while at the same time improving substantive environmental decision-making.
- National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321
- Clean Air Act, 42 U.S.C. §7604
- Case Concerning Pulp Mills on the River (Argentina v. Uruguay) Judgment of 20 April 2010, para. 204 (finding that the duty to undertake an EIA when there is a risk of transboundary pollution has achieved customary international law status, even though international law does not specify the exact scope and content of such an EIA.)
- For recognition of this point in the context of the Clean Air Act, see Lead Industries Ass'n, Inc. v. EPA, 647 F.2d 1130, 1147 (D. C. Cir. 1980) (noting the wide policy discretion agencies have when making decisions "at the frontiers of science.")