Environmental Injustice and the Pursuit of a Post-Carbon World: The Unintended Consequences of the Clean Air Act as a Cautionary Tale for Solar Energy Development

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Brooklyn Law School


The combustion of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) and, to a lesser extent, changes in land cover, have led to a rise in greenhouse gasses (GHG) in the atmosphere and an increase in global average surface temperatures.¹ This human-induced warming is causing dramatic changes in the climate that are manifesting in numerous ways throughout the world, including an intensification of storms, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, salt-water intrusion of fresh-water aquifers, more frequent and extreme floods, droughts, and heat waves, changes in the range and occurrence of certain infectious diseases, declines in agricultural productivity, and social upheaval resulting from competition for scarce resources.² Arguably, the transition to a post-carbon³ world is urgent, but thus far little progress has been made toward curbing carbon emissions in the United States and globally.⁴ Even the recent Paris Accord—which was lauded as a “historic breakthrough” and “landmark” climate deal⁵—falls far short of what many scientists argue is needed to limit the rise in global temperatures to a safe level. While the Paris Negotiations yielded an agreement to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels” and to “pursu[e] efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C,”⁶ the emission cuts in the agreement are voluntary pledges made by governments and do not actually come close to achieving the 1.5-degree, or even the 2-degree, goal.⁷ The limited outcomes of the Paris Accord should not indicate a lack of grassroots support for effective international policy aimed at addressing climate change, however. On the eve of the Paris Negotiations, over 750,000 people from more than 175 countries took to the streets in what was collectively called the Global Climate March.⁸ Their message to world leaders was a demand to leave “fossil fuels in the ground and [to] finance a just transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050.”⁹ Protests have continued since the Paris Negotiations, such as the “Break Free” demonstrations organized by 350.org during May 2016 that again urged leaders across the world to “break free” from fossil fuels and to make a shift to one hundred percent renewable energy.¹⁰ But what does that transition look like? Many argue that well-designed environmental regulations have the potential to engender technological innovation.¹¹ But can technological fixes really provide a sustainable future for all of us?