EJ series, part 7: challenging the fossil state: ‘environmental justice’ as a strategic discursive bridge

18 December 2017
When our politicians refuse to acknowledge the imminent deadlines for change demanded by climate science, what scope is there for researchers to challenge and go beyond deadlocked political institutions? This blog post reflects upon some of the answers provided by researchers presenting at the 2017 Environmental Justice (EJ) Conference. I consider EJ’s conceptual usefulness for integrating tractable political demands into an overarching rights-based discourse.

By Andrew Brodzeli, SEI Honours Research Fellow in the Department of Political Economy, The University of Sydney.

When our politicians refuse to acknowledge the imminent deadlines for change demanded by climate science, what scope is there for researchers to challenge and go beyond deadlocked political institutions? This blog post reflects upon some of the answers provided by researchers presenting at the 2017 Environmental Justice (EJ) Conference. I consider EJ’s conceptual usefulness for integrating tractable political demands into an overarching rights-based discourse.

Although ‘justice’ is not a concept frequently used in political economy, key presenters demonstrated that it will play a critical role in directing the challenge against a fossil state-system. As the conference demonstrated, EJ has proven helpful for people working across diverse networks spanning local community activist campaigns, Indigenous sovereignty advocates, environmental lawyers, climate researchers and sociologists, legitimating our collective demands and drawing them together into a broad coalition. While economic pressures may drive the general direction of social development, grassroots challenges must engage other logics – such as those of science and law – to force through our political demands.

The highly uncertain tessellation of these three logics – legal, scientific, and economic – is partly resolved by the state-system. When it fails to do so, seemingly contradictory responses arise in highly politicised contests over technocratic issues such as energy infrastructure. At these moments, profitability no longer seems as inexorably determinant over the outcome of a social project such as energy transition, and instead grassroots socio-political contestations, culminating in legal challenges, are critical.

Demanding just transition and the limits of Green Keynesianism

The grassroots struggle for energy transition in Australia has occurred through two separate but often linked, movements. The first comes through demands for ‘just transition’, which seek to ensure that the phase-out of fossil-fuel dependency is done in a manner that does not leave swathes of communities and ex-workers disenfranchised and unemployed. Bronya Lidsky of Environmental Justice Australia noted that ensuring the La Trobe Valley’s residents’ demands for energy projects that benefit their communal welfare is a critical strategic step in carting out the nation-wide transition, situated as they are at the centre of existing energy transmission infrastructure. Successfully transitioning such communities, previously highly dependent upon the fossil fuels, to clean energy jobs also demonstrates the viability of renewables as a source of employment capable of outstepping the fossil fuel industry.

Another approach described by Tom Reddington of UnionAid Abroad brings together the union movement’s concerns for workplace conditions and the harmful impacts of climate change. This combines the force of the organised labour movement with newer environmentalist social movements to overcome jobs-versus-trees logic promoted by industry and state representatives. Rather, demanding energy democracy, i.e. participatory decision-making about the energy transition, leverages the crisis of neoliberal governance in a manner that proposes a viable and just alternative.

These grassroots approaches to achieving an energy transition stand opposed to the national-scale imaginaries of Keynesian economic models, which instead prioritise the state as the single actor capable of promoting meaningful and wide-scale energy transition. This approach was exemplified by Kyla Tienhaara, chief economist of Greenpeace, who considered the opportunity for fiscally expansionary budgets to be directed toward substantial expenditure in ‘Green’ projects. However, her findings suggested that the OECD’s ‘Green’ in response to the GFC, in fact, failed to meet its objectives, in part due to its objective to ensure only temporary impact, where energy transition is a permanent program.

A question from the audience troubled the Green Keynesian understanding of the state as a benevolent environmental actor. Rather, it is an assemblage of semi-autonomous organs whose environmental outlook cannot be taken for granted, but must be ensured by ongoing pressure from below. On this view, it was no surprise that the 2008 ‘Green’ stimuluses failed to meet their objectives, for the key decision makers were chiefly concerned for the sustainability of profit for capital, rather than for ensuring an environmentally just outcome for communities, households and workers. This alternative conception of the state seems to approach a more realistic model of its constraints and allegiances, as was illustrated by researchers reporting from the frontlines of direct action campaigns.

Direct action for energy democracy

Faced with this political deadlock, Keynesian top-down economic decision making looks rather impotent compared with the concrete successes achieved by local communities and activists working together to prevent environmentally harmful developments going ahead. To this end, Bec Pearse and Vanessa Bowden’s analysis considered the efficacy of grassroots demands for ‘no new coal’ upon state developmental approval policy. They demonstrated how the neoliberalised state-system’s withdrawal from environmental protection over the 2000s resources boom enabled an enormous influx ecologically devastating mining projects.

Nevertheless, their research also reveals a recent change in direction at the state level more favourable to environmental appeals, through the insertion of a number of community-consultation requirements for companies seeking to develop significant energy and infrastructure projects. This has meant that direct actions, such as the campaign to stop the Shenhuan Liverpool Plains mine, the Bulga mine expansion, and, contemporarily, the Adani megamine, are increasingly forceful in achieving development injunctions.

David Ritter, the CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, delivered a stirring characterisation of the present political deadlock in the immediate wake of his arrival from Bowen, QLD, where Adani had been busily operating to ensure the promotion of their controversial coal mega-mine in the Galilee Basin. He described the situation as one of a ‘discursive crisis’ in the system of liberal environmentalism, premised upon elite governance and a legal system which is divorced from the scientific and experiential facts. This suggests, according to Ritter – formerly trained and practiced as a lawyer – that the state of the legal framework around climate-change is like that around native title immediately prior to the passage of Mabo in 1992 where, drastically out of step with scientific and historical facts, grassroots social pressure eventually proved overwhelming for key legal and political decision-makers.

Legal opportunities for change

As legal decision-making remains the final arbiter of whether an environmentally-impactful development proceeds, we must ask – what are the most fruitful avenues of contestation within the legal-system to advocate for climate justice?

Daniel Noonan considered the constitutional challenge launched by U.S.-based Our Children’s Trust, who claim that present decisions by the state-system regarding climate-impactful development will undermine constitutionally-granted rights life, liberty and prosperity. While specific to the U.S. constitution, Noonan suggests that Australian environmental lawyers would do well to consider atmospheric trust litigation for pursuing more expansive climate-change legal protections. Such an approach would be more attendant to scientific evidence rather than neoliberal political expediency.

Another young legal researcher, Tim Baxter, looked to equity law for negligence-based claims that provide a remedy for negligence before the fact of proven damage. His interpretation suggests that such litigations directed at the state-system should see growing success in handling both past and future breach of duty of care, a substantial break from legal doctrine which typically requires existing proof of damage – something not readily available for parties seeking to prevent rather than treat ecological damage.

A major constraint upon the scope of such legal challenges, however, remains the conservative nature of the legal profession. For this reason, it was heartening to hear UNSW’s Amanda Kennedy and Brendan Syden of Environmental Justice Australia (EJA), who looked to the EJ framework to incorporate a social-justice activist orientation into their professional capacity. The Victorian EDO, reformulated as the EJA, now explicitly supports social movements in promoting a paradigm shift away from the legal profession as service provision toward one of ethically committed activists with a basis in an overarching movement seeking to achieve justice.

Such novel approaches toward legal, academic and activist occupations suggest that the EJ framework has been helpful in bringing together people commonly concerned about the slow pace of change vis-à-vis the urgency of climate-related action. It suggests that despite the continuing domination of capitalist socio-ecological exploitation, new ways of contesting power are percolating up through different channels, contestations which now share a powerful common discourse.

Andrew Brodzeli is an Honours Research Fellow with the Sydney Environment Institute. He received first-class honours for his final year of study at the University of Sydney, in the Department of Political Economy. Andrew currently researches the potential for social movements combined with new energy technologies to instantiate democratic social relations and real alternatives to capitalist modes of production.

Header image: by Eebenezer via Shutterstock.