Choosing Life Over Liberty and Property: Environmental Justice in a World Ravaged by Climate Change


Harms to communities of color and poor communities are set to increase in light of climate change. These communities are vulnerable to climate-induced disasters largely because of historical, social and economic inequities. While this is generally true for vulnerable communities throughout the world, the scope of this Comment is limited to vulnerable communities within the United States. Any measure designed to help vulnerable communities in the United States must account for these inequities in order to be effective. Under Executive Order 13563, cost-benefit analysis (CBA) is mandated for use in all agency decisions. Yet, under CBA historical inequities that have contributed to present vulnerabilities are not taken into consideration, rendering CBA methods particularly ineffective in addressing harms wrought from climate change. Therefore, as a general rule, administrative agencies should not use CBA when making decisions to help vulnerable communities. As a general rule, agencies should focus on preserving life and liberty above preserving property. At the same time, a system that rigidly values life and liberty above property in every instance would fail to account for certain cultural and community held beliefs, as well as other historical factors that have contributed to inequity. Thus, agencies should value life above liberty in decisionmaking, except where there has been historic discrimination and non-economic value attached to land—such as community bonds inherent in the property/location or cultural or religious ties to the land. Where any or a combination of the aforementioned factors are present, agencies need to be more cognizant of liberty and should not automatically and forcefully remove people from their land to preserve life. Overall, agency decisions should: (1) be proactive; (2) account for historical harms and the interrelation those harms have with a given community’s ability to respond to a disaster; (3) take into account cultural values to help build community resilience; (4) be open to community feedback in order to be flexible; and (5) be future-oriented. Applying such a multifactored analysis will allow for the preservation of the most vulnerable communities without further entrenching past and present systemic harms.

About the Author

Presidential Fellow with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and 2020 graduate of UCLA School of Law, where I specialized in Critical Race Studies and served on the UCLA Law Review and Dukeminier Journal of Sexual Orientation and Gender.