When the government proposes a big infrastructure project like a road or a dam, environment activists oppose it and unions take a position that this will create jobs. Even when the government proposes a new regulation for environment, environment activists hail it, but unions oppose it as it will lead to loss of jobs. This happens all the time, in our country and across the world. The result: a conflict between those for jobs and those for the environment. But in this world we cannot have some people who struggle just for the environment and others who struggle just for jobs, as we do not have people who can live without a job and neither people who can live without food, water and air. We all need a livelihood and we all need a habitable planet to live on.
How each one of us live our lives, affects our environment. We change our environment when we build roads and dams, dump garbage, drive cars, use plastic. We as individuals affect our environment, our government policies affect our environment, and possibly most of all, the corporations affect our environment. Over time each of these actions changes our environment, affects our access to clean drinking water, to healthy food to clean air to breathe.
To complicate the issue further, there is the inescapable fact that the global north has been able to reach its level of development through the exploitation of people and natural resources of their own as well as of their colonies in the global south. So there is an argument that if the global south has to develop, it too needs to take the same path to development.
This is a self-destructive argument and hence needs to be understood based on the principle of equity, not equality. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) ties equity to “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” (CBDR-RC). The convention makes a difference between the responsibilities of climate mitigation of developed and developing countries. Mitigation targets for countries in the global south is different from the countries in the global north. However, the fact that in 1990, the global south produced one-third of annual global emissions; and today they emit 55 percent and according to projections by 2030, they could produce as much as 70 percent of global emissions, is a challenge to which these countries need to find a balance. Some countries in the global south however argue that the global north should lead the climate change mitigation effort because they are historically responsible for the accumulation of global greenhouse gas emissions since the Industrial Revolution that has led to the current climate crisis. These countries also argue that the global north also has a greater capacity to take actions given their financial and technological resources.
The Paris Accord on Climate Change of 2015 despite its limitations was an important step in bringing countries from the global north and south together to undertake efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects, with enhanced support to assist the countries of the global south to do so. The Agreement requires all countries to make their best effort through nationally determined contributions (NDCs). To the shock of everyone, the US government under Trump pulled out of this in 2018 with the stated position that “…The Paris accord will undermine (the U.S.) economy … puts (the U.S.) at a permanent disadvantage.” Trump also called the entire phenomenon of global warming a “Chinese hoax”. The US is the second largest producer of Carbon-dioxide after China. Canada, EU, Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa have all affirmed their commitment to the Paris Accord, irrespective of the decision of the US. But in per capita terms, the global per capita average consumption is at 5 tonnes, China produces 7.2 tonnes per person, the EU produces 6.8 tonnes while the US is far ahead at 16.5 tonnes per person. The reason for this pullout can also be attributed to the close tie of the Trump administration to the fossil fuel industry. A climate sceptic, Trump over-emphasises on the economic costs of mitigation such as restructuring of the economy, loss of jobs and belittles its ecological and economic benefits, which fits into his nationalist ‘America First’ politics.
From Pacific Gas and Electric Company to Vedanta … it goes on
From 1952 to 1966, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, that provides natural gas and electricity to two-thirds of northern California, dumped “roughly 370 million gallons” of chromium 6-tainted wastewater into the ground spreading to ponds around the town of Hinkley, California. PG&E used chromium 6 as “one of the cheapest and most efficient commercially available” chemicals as a coolant. PG&E did not inform the local water board of the contamination until December1987.The residents of Hinkley filed a lawsuit against PG&E. Backed by PG&E Corporation, the local PG&E workers held meetings with Hinkley citizens and informed them that chromium 6 was actually not dangerous in ‘normal’ quantities. In 1996, finally after a bitter struggle the company was forced to a pay a compensation of $333 million to the 634 residents who had sued the company. As of 2002, 50 people of the original 634 plaintiffs that filed a lawsuit against PG&E died from causes related to the contamination. Later again in 2012, the water regulators slapped an additional $3.6 million on the company. In July 2014 California became the first state to acknowledge that ingested chromium-6 is linked to cancer. By 2013 PG&E had cleaned up 54 acres, but it is estimated the remediation process will take another 40 years.
On 24 March 2018, thousands of protesting residents Thoothukudi demanding immediate closure of Vedanta’s Sterlite copper smelting operations were shot by the Tamil Nadu government. Sterlite Copper, a subsidiary of London-based metals major Vedanta Resources Plc, started this plant in 1996. On 5 May 1997, women workers of a dry flowers manufacturing unit near Sterlite fell sick and many fainted due to a gas leak from Sterlite but the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board gave the company a clean chit. On 20 August 1997, staff at Tamil Nadu Electricity Board’s sub-station located across the Sterlite factory complained of headache, coughing and choking due to smoke emanating from the plant. In November 1998, acting under directions by the Madras High Court, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) submitted a study that found that Sterlite had failed to develop a greenbelt; had contaminated the groundwater with arsenic, lead, selenium, arsenic, aluminium and copper; may have tampered with the online air monitors; had caused gas leaks that affected the workers at the dry flower unit and of the TNEB. On 23 November 1998, the factory was closed for the first time by the Madras High Court.
From 1997, citizens in Thoothukudi have been charging Sterlite of contaminating the air and water resources. In January 2018, Sterlite planned to double the smelter’s capacity by setting up another plant. The protests grew stronger. But following the police firing and the countrywide outrage over it, the Tamil Nadu government declared a ‘permanent shutdown’ of the plant, which has left 1100 permanent workers along with 3000 contract workers of the plant jobless. The government order for closure comes with no direction to Sterlite to either address the loss of jobs of over 4000 workers or to address the pollution caused by them and compensate the affected for its impact. Both the workers and the residents will now have to fight a long and tedious legal battle for their rights against Sterlite. However, the TN government and Sterlite have succeeded in pitching the workers against the residents.
Do we have to make a Choice?
While governments and corporations pitch workers against people demanding a safer environment, the larger questions escape us: Are there two contesting groups of people? Who benefits if we can pitch one section of the people against another? Why do corporations and governments engage in acts that lead to environmental degradation and affects our access to a safe and healthy world? Much of what pollutes the most today is the outcome of the simple logic of capitalism: the less corporations spend on health, safety and ensuring a clean environment, the more profit they make. With this simple objective in mind, corporations spend less on workers, find new ways to give them lower and lower wages, take away their social security, compromise their safety at work on one hand and also spend less on preventive measures to control pollution.
Corporations in fact moved from countries in the global north to those in the global south when pollution norms became strict in the former. The Kodaikanal mercury thermometer factory of Anglo-Dutch MNC Unilever is one such example. In 1983, US based Chesebrough Ponds Inc. relocated a thermometer-making factory from the New York suburb of Watertown to Kodaikanal when the legislation changed on mercury handling in the US. Unilever acquired this factory as a part of its global acquisition of Ponds. Ironically for Hindustan Unilever and its parent company, India too adopted new laws at the same time following the Bhopal gas calamity of December 1984: the Environment (Protection) Act 1986, hazardous process amendments to the Factories Act, 1987, and Hazardous Waste Rules 1989 but this did not deter Unilever as it continued to contaminate the groundwater in Kodaikanal. It took two decades of struggle by the workers and the residents of the area to shut down the plant. However, just as in the case of the world’s worst industrial disaster, the Bhopal gas tragedy, establishing criminal liability and culpability of the corporations remains the greatest challenge especially in the global south. Recognising that there we are not two contesting groups of people: environmental activists and workers is the challenge we face. If we don’t address both together, we will face job loss and a degraded environment while the greedy corporations will get away with it.