NIMBY and Environmental Responsibilty


The Difficulties
Environmental Justice
The International Stage
So Where Does NYC Fit?


For the average American, it is probably hard to think about environmental science with respect to climate change on a global scale. “Going green” is the widely-advertised solution, and Americans probably think they are doing a sufficiently good deed by using recyclable and reusable products, driving hybrid cars, and being more conscious of their electricity usage. And their efforts should not be belittled; as one of the most developed countries in the world, we need to be extremely aware of our emission of greenhouse gases and work together to reduce our emissions of these gases. However, reduction by individual responsibility is not enough to combat the concentrations of carbon dioxide that are already permeating and affecting our atmosphere. Climate change is hardly at the forefront of politics, but is has already begun to cause disruptions in local climates that threaten our everyday life. Preventing and reversing the effects of climate change is an increasingly urgent and pressing matter. If precautionary steps are not taken, disastrous effects will be seen soon on a massive scale, from not being able to grow coffee for a cup of Starbucks in the morning to a possible warm age that will eradicate the human race.

New York City serves as a microcosm for the international climate crisis, not because the city presently undergoes climate changes that model predicted global shifts (this is not possible), but because the attitudes of New Yorkers incorporate a variety of arguments made about “green” lifestyles and environmental ethics.

One such mindset is abbreviated as NIMBY, which stands for “Not In My Back-Yard.” NIMBY describes public opposition to any facility or service, generally agreed to be necessary and for the common good, based upon the location of the given site. NIMBY can be applied to any number of public projects, such as the construction of schools, jails, or housing, but for the purpose of our class, we have limited this definition to facilities and services that are environmentally oriented. In particular, students researched a sanitation facility on the Hudson River, the development of wind power plants in Queens, and the Marine transfer station being constructed near Asphalt Green park in Manhattan.

A thorough understanding of a multitude of NIMBYs might lead one to adopt a second mindset, acronymized by BANANA: “Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.” It seems overwhelming, not to mention frustrating, when no matter where a bus depot, power plant, or bike lane is planned, the community in the area objects. They have their reasons — traffic, noise, pollution, health and safety hazards, and changes to the local landscape — but such projects are for a common good. They need to be placed somewhere, but in a city as crowded and growing as New York City, space is hard to come by.

This brings up the topic of environmental justice. When it comes to local NIMBYs, the issue is, mainly, where will environmental and energy facilities be constructed? What people live in the neighborhoods of these facilities, and how is the community affected by their placement there? What do people do about it? Similarly, we can expand the ethical discussion to a global scale. Who is responsible for funding climate change policies? What countries will be most affected by severe changes in climate? How can emissions be regulated fairly and efficiently? When these questions are explored, the pattern emerges that powerful, economically developed neighborhoods and nations do not feel responsible to host facilities or provide funds for preventative climate change policies. The result is poor neighborhoods, like Harlem and the Bronx, and developing countries, like India and much of Africa, carry a disproportionate weight of responsibility and adverse effects. This is worsened as forecasts for more severe climate changes are examined. As we shall soon see, climate change is of urgent and upmost concern, and what needs to be done with haste is the formulation of an international policy to protect the environment and reverse the “tragedy of the commons” that has begun.

Likelihood (in percentage) of Exceeding a Temperature Increase at Equilibrium

Stabilization Level (ppm of CO2-eq)
450 78 18 3 1 0 0
500 96 44 11 3 1 0
550 (doubling) 99 69 24 7 2 1
650 100 94 58 24 9 4
750 100 99 82 47 22 9

Reproduced from Posner and Weisbach, 2010, pg 18; data originally from Hadley Centre Ensemble of models

The Difficulties

Preparing for climate change is tricky business. It is hard to predict the changes in local climates, future emission patterns, and the rate at which changes will occur. What we do know is that slight global temperature changes can be devastating on the local scale. We also know that, since the industrial era, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 alone have increased from 280 to 380 ppm, and are currently increasing at a rate of 2 ppm per year. Finally, we acknowledge that slower rates of climate change give human more time to adapt to these changes.

But what we concretely know is too volatile to be the basis for policy. For example, the projected rate of increase in CO2 concentrations does not account for economic growth in the developing world or other greenhouse gas emissions that would contribute to climate changes. We can state several broad conclusions about climate change:

(1) Poor nations are likely to suffer the most from environmental changes, as poor countries tend to be located in the warmest regions of the world. These countries have extremely agriculturally based economies, and because they are still a part of the developing world, they are the most vulnerable to even slight changes because they cannot afford to adapt. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the IPCC for short, has created numerous “stories” which model various scenarios of economic developments to project many possibilities of emissions, which are then used to predict what areas will be most hurt with respect to the sensitivity of the atmosphere to these emissions. In the majority of these scenarios, no matter how intense climate change may be, the countries that are most at risk are poor nations, particularly those located in Africa and Asia.

(2) It is impossible to calculate how much any one nation is responsible for current atmospheric concentrations. The tendency to blame wealthy, developed nations is misguided, as developing countries today are emitting the same or even greater amounts of greenhouse gases. We will return to this conclusion when we consider arguments of environmental justice.

(3) People living in the future have more to gain from emission reductions now than people living now. Because emissions can be considered permanent additions to the atmosphere, their effects on the environment will be felt far into the future. Cutting emissions now will not provide immediate help, as it will no doubt be costly to change technologies, and, in poor countries, it will slow the rate at which their economies can grow and develop. However, immediate abatement will reduce the severity at which climate changes occur, thus benefitting future generations. In addition, people living in poor countries in the future are most likely to benefit, because poor countries are the most at risk. The one exception to this is that, if climate change is extremely severe, the future people of developed nations will be the best off because their economies can support adapting their ways of life, whereas poor nations will not be able to afford these changes.

(4) A successful climate change policy must ask all nations with significant emission levels to dramatically reduce their consumption of fossil fuels and other resources. To date, most of the developed world has agreed to reduce, or at least stabilize, their emissions, but only a small percentage have made good on these promises. However, large developing nations and the United States have made no commitments to protect the environment and continue to release obscene amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. For example, in 2005, the top five emitters of greenhouse gases were China, the US, Russia, India, and Japan; together, their emissions made up 51.2% of the global total. Without their participation in climate agreements, we cannot hope to successfully counteract global warming.

Scientific uncertainties make drafting climate treaties particularly challenging, despite the urgency to prepare for catastrophic damage. In order to secure the involvement of every nation in abatement efforts, each nation must believe they have something to gain from participating. If any country feels an unnecessary burden will be placed on them, they will back away from any commitments that are proposed. In the process of formulating policies, questions of environmental justice then become roadblocks that must be considered and dealt with.

Environmental Justice

When discussing environmental ethics, several types of arguments arise about who is responsible for the cost of preventative climate climate policies. The ones we discuss here will all be examined in terms of the IPAT equation, which explains any country’s effect on the environment as:

Impact = Population × Affluence × Technology.

However, every perspective has counter-responses, which has resulted in a standstill in the development of effective policies. Before we go on to explore international environmental conventions, it is helpful to touch upon environmental justice and the difficulties policy-makers face in moving forward.

Distributive Justice

The argument for distributive justice states that wealthy nations should bear the financial burden of climate change policies because they have the monetary resources to do so. We can justify this argument by looking at the IPAT equation; more affluent countries will have a greater impact on the environment, and this impression can work negatively (by worsening the current state of the environment) or positively (by cutting their emissions as much as possible). This discussion does not examine how these nations came to be wealthy, as the corrective justice argument does in part, but simply sees climate change policy as the ideal means to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor.
However, as Posner and Weisbach argue, climate policies with redistributive agenda “risk significantly raising the costs of emissions reductions or reducing their efficacy” (2010, pg 74). The Kyoto Protocol embodies this inefficiency. It calls for developed, wealthy nations to limit their emissions to certain levels over given time spans that differ from country to country, but asks nothing from developing countries. The agreement of both the developed and developing worlds to cut their emissions would arguably be the best course of action to prevent climate change.
In addition, developed countries are reluctant to give additional international aid to third-world countries for fear that their efforts will be lost to corruption in foreign governments. If funds intended for abatement in developing countries are misused, there is no system under which these governments can be punished. As New Yorkers, we witness and take part in the same relationship almost every day; how often do we give to those that panhandle for money on the subway or street when we mistrust of their intentions?

Corrective Justice

Corrective justice seeks to hold developed nations accountable for climate change, and thus holds them financially responsible to preventing further environmental changes and ameliorating the adverse effects from changes that have already taken place. Poor, underdeveloped nations argue that, since the Industrial era, developed nations have used excessive amounts of fossil fuels that wrought global warming.
Again, by examining the IPAT relationship, we can see that the technology is related to the impact on the environment. In the past, the two have been directly proportional; as technological advancements have been made, the effect on the environment has been increasingly detrimental as these technologies tend to use up more fossil fuels or electricity (which has a fairly low efficiency in terms of fuel consumption to electricity generated). Now, we are at a point in history at which we can perhaps invert their relationship. If we manage to use “green,” sustainable energy sources, we can further develop technologies that will strain the environment less.
The moral argument against corrective justice cites the inadequacy of collective responsibility as a means for determining justice. It is extremely difficult, for one, to identify exactly how much any nation is to blame for the changes in climate that have already occurred. Another problem arises when we find living generations guilty of emissions of their ancestors in the past. If we were to even take this type of justice one step further, we must account for how much each individual contributes to national emissions; by the corrective justice argument itself, it is not fair to hold one person, who does everything within their power to keep their carbon footprint as minimal as possible, accountable for the damages that another, who is not so environmentally conscious, incurs. Another NYC analogy to this type of justice is the Occupy Wall Street movement, in which “the 99%” – the general population – protest against the 1% – the wealthiest Americans and those seen most guilty for the economic recession – and the unequal distribution of wealth that is becoming more apparent in American society.

Forward-Looking Justice

On the other end of the spectrum, the forward-looking ethical arguments think that developing countries should bear most of the financial responsibility for abatement processes. “Forward” in this context does not refer to progressive justice, but is based in future projections of emissions. It is widely accepted that developing countries are rapidly increasing their emission levels, by using heavy-gas industries to compete in the global market. They are not committed to any international policies that would restrict these levels. Doing so does allow the economies of these nations to flourish, but it also means that they are climbing the ranks of biggest greenhouse gas emitters. In addition, the populations of these countries are increasing exponentially, while the population growth of developed nations is relatively stable. This means that, according to the IPAT equation, the impact of poor nations on the environment will increase with their booming population. The counterarguments to forward-looking justice are backwards-looking arguments, like distributive and corrective justice, which shift the blame away from the third-world countries that are trying to attain Western standards of living.

The International Stage

The United Nations has been hard at work to respond to the problems of climate change since it was first proven in the 1970s and 1980s that anthropogenic contributions to the atmosphere were destroying the ozone layer. Their leadership has played a strong role in facilitating global work towards protecting the environment, as we can see from the notable progress made at international conferences since this time. Let us examine what the international community has accomplished.

Montreal, 1987

In 1987, following research started by the Vienna Convention of 1985, the United Nations met in Montreal, Canada, to formulate solutions to the thinning of the ozone layer. The result was the Montreal Protocol, which stated that the use of chloro-fluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-depleting chemicals would be phased out by 2000. The policy was almost immediately successful, as it was relatively easy to adapt technology and find substitutes for these chemicals and because the use of CFCs in industry was very concentrated. The Montreal Protocol also lead to well-known legislative acts in the U.S., such as the Clean Air Act and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Rio de Janeiro, 1992

At the Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992, the global community convened to celebrate the success of the agreements made in Montreal and make further efforts to protect the environment. The policy that ensued made several statements regarding differentiated responsibilities between the developed and developing world. The Framework Convention, as it was called, asked all nations to stabilize their emissions of greenhouse gases to levels that would permit natural adaptations to changes in climate while also enabling economic development. Ultimately, their goal was to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic influences” on the environment. Under this arrangement, Annex I (developed) countries were advised to restrain their emissions to the levels defined by their 1990 emissions, while Annex III (developing) countries were only required to monitor theirs.

Kyoto, 1997

The most ambitious and most controversial international agreement made so far was the Kyoto Protocol. Unlike the Framework Convention, the Kyoto Protocol stateed that Annex I nations must reduce their emissions to below their 1990 levels by 2008-2012. The amount that they must cut averaged to about 5%, but varied from nation to nation so that larger emitters were asked to constrain their emissions even more. The Protocol also established several regulatory policies by which international levels of greenhouse gas emissions could be limited, including joint implementation, clean development mechanisms, and emissions trading. Joint implementation and clean development mechanisms allowed industrialized countries to earn emissions “credits” by implementing conservation projects in other industrialized or developing countries, respectively, while emissions trading allowed these “credits” to be transferred between developed countries. The number of credits was fixed, thus setting a cap on international emissions – at least to the degree of the protocol’s ratification and enforcement. If nations are not compliant in adhering to their limits, they must “make up the difference between its emissions and its assigned amount during the second commitment period, plus an additional deduction of 30%.”As this second period will begin in 2011, there has been no action as of yet to demonstrate how strictly the international community will hold itself accountable to these responsibilities.

Cancun, 2010

The Cancun Agreements of 2010 are of considerable weight because they marked the entrance of the U.S. into a committed climate change agreement. The United States had held off from ratifying the Kyoto Protocol because the government felt that the agreement would have placed an unjustified burden on them to not only reduce their emissions by as much as 8%, but to also fund projects in developing countries as an Annex II nation. However, their position regarding these issues changed as the U.S. promised in the Copenhagen Accord to do their part to help the environment. The Cancun Agreements set up the Green Climate Fund to help developing nations meet their targets, the Climate Technology Centre and Network to stimulate research into sustainable energy sources and specified technologies to best help people on regional and local scales, and the Adaptation Framework to address efforts beyond mitigation. Notably, this conference touched upon the adaptation of peoples to changes in climate, as well as the cost-efficiency of reduction efforts. These themes demonstrate a dramatic improvement in the way that climate change treaties are being handled to address the urgency of our present situation.

Durban, 2011

Most recently, the United Nations Climate Change Conference was held in Durban, South Africa in December 2011. The decisions made at this conference validate the attitudes of Cancun in that they continue to show an increased participation and commitment to protecting the planet. For one, the Green Climate Fund was created to exchange $100 billion from developed nations to developing countries to help them adapt to changes in climate. Secondly, the inefficiency of the Kyoto Protocol was addressed, in that many nations were apathetic about signing up for the second commitment period. Canada completely withdrew from the agreement, while Japan and Russia have discussed doing the same. It is predicted that only some European Union nations will hold to a second period, but they also are committed to their own emissions trading protocols besides Kyoto. The most promising agreement made in Durban was the timeline set out for writing the Durban Platform, the latest climate change treaty. Delegates agreed to have the policy written by 2015 for implementation by 2020. The platform creates the goal of maintaining global temperatures to no more than 2.0o C above pre-industrial levels, which the scientific community has encouraged to minimize risks. In addition, developing countries, like India and China, are included in this policy as they formally made commitments to reducing their emissions. This is a momentous step forward in international abatement efforts.

So Where Does NYC Fit?

As we move from our study of the global community and their work towards abatement and sustainability to the research into city NIMBYs done by our classmates, we thought it would be helpful to look into instances of similar NIMBYs around the world.

Almost anywhere new, “greener” energy sources are being investigated, there are NIMBY issues that arise. A little over a year ago when German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced an “energy revolution,” she didn’t realize that NIMBY opposition would come from every angle. City dwellers opposed the new infrastructure that the “green” energy required, due to space restrictions imposed by living in the city; they believed that there was simply no place for these new power sources and they detested the inconveniences that reconstructions would force upon them. Inhabitants of other areas that are so scarcely populated viewed new power lines as useless and sought to maintain the beauty of the natural countryside.

A recent article in the International Resource Journal, a publication that talks about natural resources such as gas, oil and renewable energy sources, spoke about the NIMBY opposition to wind farms in Britain. The most common reason people dislike wind farms is the prevalent one: that these plants disrupt the natural beauty. However, the article stated that there had been more NIMBY opposition to wind energy recently due to the increases in energy costs that come with “green” energy,

Despite the controversy that is stirred up by attempts to implement any new renewable energy, there are some countries that have plans to overcome NIMBY protests. For example, a couple of years ago, in response to opposition of wind turbines off the Scarborough Bluffs, along the shoreline of Lake Ontario, in Toronto, Premier Dalton McGuinty stated that he will use his power to impose new green technology throughout Ontario. He declared that “NIMBYism will no longer prevail,” and that the only objections the government would listen to would be safety concerns. Demark, has an innovative way of circumventing any NIMBY opposition to wind energy. Their government has come up with a co-operative system where residents can invest in wind farms. Some figures show that the return on the investment could be as high as 14%, which could go a long way in soothing NIMBY opposition. As a result of their policies, wind power satisfies as much as 20% of the country’s electricity demand, and 3.1% of Denmark’s GDP comes from clean energy technology. In other European countries, Germany and Spain produce 27.2 and 19.9 GW of power, respectively, from wind power (compared to Denmark’s 3.7 GW capacity), but this satisfies a smaller percentage of their electricity usage.

Another topic that often hears cries of NIMBY is waste management. Officials in New Zealand are looking for an alternate dumping ground for rubble from a major earthquake that hit Christchurch, New Zealand’s second most-populated city, after a site in Papanui, a suburb of Christchurch, was met with public NIMBY outcries. In addition, in November 2011, a group of Chinese homeowners protested against the building of a waste disposal plant in a densely populated neighborhood in Beijing. Furthermore, other options, such as waste incinerators, have been brought down due to NIMBY, leaving the government in Beijing to search for new ways to get rid of the 1,300 tons of waste produced there every day. In Taiwan, the government has offered compensation to the public in order to overcome NIMBY as they deal with the waste crisis. Public participation in planning the construction of incinerators has facilitated the use of this option.

From these comparisons, we have found that there are many parallels between common advice given to overcome local NIMBYism and successful global policies. The first way that NIMBYism can be fought is by correcting misinformation through public information campaigns. We can see this manifest itself internationally as the committees of the United Nations and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change annually collects and distributes research to world leaders, while also making their reports available to the general public. In this way, the public can demand change or continue their support, depending upon what policies work and which do not. Locally, city departments can also distribute statistics to the public when trying to win support for projects. Secondly, in order to overcome NIMBY, it is encouraged that policy-makers and the public take advantage of shared values and set aside conflicting ones. Generally, NIMBYs arise over projects that everyone concedes are part of the public good; the international community, under a “veil of ignorance,” would also agree that it is in each nation’s self-interest to take steps to ensuring their own development and safety with respect to climate change. If these mutual priorities take the place of selfish ones, it is more likely that effective policies would be enacted and within a relatively short span of time. Delays in these processes, locally and globally, could mean that neither party’s goals be met. From this point, we see that is also important that everyone should benefit from whatever decision is offered and made. If any one side of NIMBY believes that they are losing more than they are gaining, the issue will fail to be resolved fairly. For example, those that opposed the Prospect Park bike lane felt that they were giving up the aesthetic appeal of their neighborhood for a bike lane that was not frequently used by their community’s population, and that the bikers that did use the lane were reckless, making the area less safe for pedestrians and drivers. In their eyes, they were making a sacrifice that did not equate to benefits they were supposed to receive. In comparison, agreements that do not satisfy international paretianism are often opposed to by nations that carry an unfair burden of responsibility (which was why the U.S. did not agree to the Kyoto Protocol). Some ways to resolve these disparities are to offer incentives for investment or compensation. Finally, conflicts can be negotiated by giving a variety of options to chose from over what course of action to take. Perhaps local NIMBYs can agree to the placement of bus depots, sanitation facilities, or wind farms, if the city additionally constructs parks, sound barriers, or additional traffic lanes that will ease the burden on the neighborhood in question. Global treaties often give nations the choice between a variety of ways to earn and trade emissions credits and technologies that can reduce emissions.


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