Acton Commentary

Is Environmental Justice Tyranny?


Editor’s Note: Recent news reports have depicted the opposition of certain religious groups to President Bush’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol as mainstream among the faith community. But as the authors of the following article point out, mainline religious leaders are encouraged that actions such as the president's represent sound and prudent consideration of human needs amidst the environmental debate.

This article, written by three prominent pastors from different denominations, analyzes the conflicts of justice and compassion that would arise if extreme environmental policies were enacted.

Residents cheered Select Steel’s 1998 announcement that it was going to build a new plant in Michigan’s Genesee County. They applauded Detroit’s efforts to replace abandoned and polluted "brownfield" sites with new industrial facilities. They welcomed the $15- to $20-per-hour jobs, health insurance, better schools, community pride and other benefits these developments would have brought.

But a small band of critics said emissions from the new facilities might have a "disparate impact" on minorities. Waving this new red flag of "environmental justice," they were able to delay so many permits that the companies took their plans elsewhere.

Sen. Carl Levin wondered, "How in heaven’s name would the environment be improved" by stopping the creation of jobs in depressed communities? Harry Alford, president of the Black Chamber of Commerce, accused opponents of trying to "further their own agenda of a pristine earth at the expense of our jobs."

God commanded us to do justice and love mercy. Do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Care for the less fortunate among us. And resist the temptation to make idols of nature or exalt it above our duties toward God and our human neighbors.

The last century witnessed many tyrannies imposed in the name of justice, religion and the betterment of man and society. Is this new century to witness new tyrannies imposed in the name of "environmental justice" and saving the earth from mankind’s "industrial follies?"

Are we now going to say, for example, that the theoretical threat of global warming is so great that the needs and rights of human beings are simply inconsequential by comparison? Or will today’s heated rhetoric on this issue yield to our Judeo-Christian teachings—and our American traditions of open, robust, courteous debate, sound science, rigorous economics and a press dedicated to seeking truth and fairly presenting all viewpoints?

Debate over climate change still rages within the scientific community. Is our atmosphere warming? Are humans to blame? Will climate change be good or bad? Will deep cuts in US emissions reverse the feared warming trend? Despite what the daily barrage of apocalyptic news stories might suggest, scientists still do not know the answers to these questions.

But recent studies and the 1973 OPEC oil embargo provide clear evidence of how important secure supplies of reasonably priced energy are to our high-tech economy, cherished freedoms, reliable transportation and the well-being of our people.

Perhaps most important, there is an almost unanimous consensus that the Kyoto Protocol—the international treaty that will supposedly "fix" the theoretical climate "problem"—will exact a frightening cost on our nation and especially on our elderly, poor and minorities.

The US Energy Information Administration says the Kyoto treaty would drain more than $348 billion every year from our economy. It would force America to slash its energy use by 30 percent or more during the next 10 years, and the price of gasoline and electricity would soar.

A recent study for a coalition of black and Hispanic business groups concluded that the climate treaty would likely cause average black-family incomes to plummet by $2,220 and average Hispanic family incomes by $2,725. The state of Michigan alone would lose more than 94,000 jobs—32,000 of them in black communities. Across the United States, 510,000 Hispanic and 865,000 black workers could lose their jobs; 100,000 minority-owned businesses could be lost.

The treaty’s impact on America’s automotive industry should be obvious. But much of the growing demand for electricity in the United States is due to the Internet and broadband revolution. Kyoto-driven price hikes would impede both of these vital industries, as well as the economic growth and minority opportunities they promise.

Put simply, the price tag for the Kyoto Protocol is incredibly high. For minorities and the elderly and poor, it is unconscionable. As black business leader John Meredith says, "Over-regulation is being perpetrated in the name of ‘saving’ the environment. Real environmental justice would stop people from abusing our minority communities."

That’s why the collapse of climate treaty talks in The Hague earlier this year and President Bush’s recent decision to withdraw the United States from the Kyoto Protocol are really blessings. They give us an opportunity to return to our Judeo-Christian and American roots, as expressed in the Golden Rule and Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship , which has been signed by more than 1,500 Jewish, Catholic and Protestant clergy, theologians and other people of faith.

It also allows us to consider the true meaning of environmental justice and honest recognition of the tremendous human costs some are asking minorities to pay for a questionable solution to a theoretical climate problem.


The Rev. Lloyd Brasure is pastor emeritus of the First Presbyterian Church in Northville, Michigan; the Rev. Dr. R. Thomas Coleman is founder of the African-American Institute for Racial and Social Justice in Muskegon, Michigan; Fr. Robert Sirico is president of the Acton Institute. All are signatories to the Cornwall Declaration .

This article originally appeared in The Detroit News on February 1, 2001. Adapted and reprinted with permission.