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Understanding Environmental Justice

Environmental problems, such as pollution and climate change, are often hardest on those who did least to cause them. That includes people of color and those with low incomes. Environmental justice, or EJ, is a way to address that problem.

A lot of things in life aren’t fair, and environmental destruction is one of them. It’s bad for everyone, of course, but it harms some people much more than others. People of color, older people, and those with less income and education bear the brunt of the damage.

Members of these groups are more likely than others to live in areas with polluted air or water. They also suffer more from problems caused by climate change, like extreme heat and flooding. And to make matters worse, they receive less funding from the government to deal with these problems.

Today, many environmental activists are attempting to right this wrong. And they’ve given a name to their efforts: environmental justice.

What is environmental justice?

The term environmental justice (EJ for short) refers to environmental laws and practices that protect at-risk communities. EJ policies aim to avoid putting additional burdens on those who have suffered most from environmental damage. And beyond that, they seek to correct the harm that’s already been done.

Environmental justice has two main requirements. First, environmental laws and policies must protect people of all backgrounds. No group should bear more than its share of environmental burdens based on race, age, income, or ethnicity.

Second, people must have a voice in decisions that affect their environment and health. This means that policy makers give members of affected groups a seat at the table when crafting laws. They seek input from the community about their decisions and take their concerns into account.

Why is environmental justice important?

Right now, certain groups are unfairly burdened by pollution and climate change. A 2021 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) names four groups particularly at risk in this country:

  • People of color, including Black, Native American, Asian-American, and Latino populations
  • People with incomes at or below 200% of the federal poverty level
  • People without a high school diploma
  • People age 65 and older

People in these groups—which overlap considerably—are more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards. They’re also more likely to have other health problems that increase their risk. Policy makers sometimes refer to these at-risk groups as EJ communities—communities in need of environmental justice.

Low-income and minority people have generally played the smallest role in causing pollution and global warming. Yet they’re the ones paying the price because they lack the resources to defend themselves from these dangers. This is the fundamental injustice that environmental justice seeks to correct.

Minorities protesting unfair environmental treatment

What types of risks does environmental justice address?

EJ communities face health risks on account of:

  • Air pollution. EJ communities are more likely to live in areas with poor air quality. Black and Hispanic Americans have, respectively, 56% and 63% more exposure to air pollution in their lifetimes than White Americans. This pollution results in higher rates of health problems such as asthma. The EPA report says Black Americans are 34% more likely to live in areas with high childhood asthma rates.
  • Water pollution. Exposure to polluted or unsafe water is also a bigger problem for EJ communities. One well-known example is the city of Flint, Michigan, where most residents are non-white. For years in the 2010s, residents were exposed to lead and other unsafe chemicals in their drinking water.
  • Toxic waste. There are countless examples of higher toxic waste levels in EJ communities. One area of Louisiana, home to mostly low-income Black residents, has so much harmful waste that it’s known as “Cancer Alley.” Native American lands have been used for nuclear waste dumps, toxic uranium mines, and nuclear tests. And in one Chinese town that processes toxic electronic waste, over 80% of all children have lead poisoning.
  • Climate hazards. The 2021 EPA report focuses on how climate change affects EJ communities. It says these groups are more likely to live in areas affected by extreme heat and flooding. They’re also more likely to have their work hours cut on account of heat. And a warming world increases the risk of asthma, which is already higher for these groups.
Air pollution in a low-income area

What are the main goals of environmental justice?

The environmental justice movement arose out of the 1960s civil rights movement. Its leaders have historically come from Black, Latino, Indigenous, and low-income communities—the groups most affected by environmental harm. The movement has three distinct but related goals:

  • Highlighting the problem. The movement draws attention to the ways environmental damage harms EJ communities more than everyone else. Making people aware of the problem is the first step toward fixing it.
  • Creating safer environments. The EJ movement aims to help create safer environments for at-risk communities. This can mean stopping big polluters—landfills, oil refineries, power plants burning fossil fuels—from locating nearby. It can also involve cleaning up waste and pollution in affected areas.
  • Crafting fairer policies. Finally, the movement seeks to give EJ communities a say in local policy making. Giving them a voice helps them prevent future decisions that damage the places where they live and work.

What are some examples of environmental justice?

In 1982, Black activists in Warren County, North Carolina, held a protest against a proposed hazardous waste landfill. They failed to block the landfill but succeeded in drawing national attention to the issue. Many people consider this the birth of the EJ movement. Nearly 20 years later, the community finally received funding to clean up the landfill.

More recently, EJ activists have led successful campaigns against:

  • The Norco Shell refinery. From 1989 through 2000, activists in Norco, Louisiana battled a polluting Shell oil refinery in their neighborhood. They enlisted the aid of scientists and the media to show how much toxic gas the refinery was emitting. Shell finally agreed to cut its emissions 30% and relocate the residents who lived nearest the plant.
  • The Curtis Bay waste incinerator. In 2010, students in the Curtis Bay neighborhood of Baltimore organized to protest a proposed waste incinerator. The area was already heavily polluted, and the new incinerator would have greatly increased the problem. Their five-year campaign ultimately succeeded in blocking the project.
  • The St. James Parish plastics plant. In 2018, the town of St. James Parish, Mississippi, approved a plastics manufacturing plant in a low-income Black neighborhood. Residents organized to protest the plant, which would have released a million pounds of toxic waste each year. In 2019, the company behind the proposed plant withdrew its application.
Protestors fighting against climate change

How does environmental justice relate to environmental racism?

The term “environmental racism” refers to the many ways environmental damage disproportionately affects people of color. In the U.S., this often takes the form of discriminatory zoning laws, land use policies, and other regulations. The way these policies are written tends to divert polluting projects, such as landfills, into minority neighborhoods.

This problem also affects other parts of the world. For centuries, Western nations have built mines and oil and gas wells on colonized land. The colonizers reaped the profits, while the people living on the land paid the price. In more recent years, Americans have often “dealt with” harmful waste by shipping it to poorer nations.

Environmental racism is a form of systemic racism. This is not the same thing as personal racism—one person discriminating against another based on race. It’s a much more insidious type of discrimination that’s built into our social systems. The laws that promote systemic racism are often neutral on their face, making no mention of race. But their effect is to harm people with less power, which often means people of color.

Environmental racism is one of the problems environmental justice seeks to correct. It’s not the only one, because EJ isn’t solely about race. It also aims to protect people who suffer environmental harm based on age, income, or education level. But generally, it makes sense to think of EJ and environmental racism as two opposing forces.

What's the difference between climate justice and environmental justice?

Climate justice is one facet of environmental justice. Like other environmental problems, climate change doesn’t hurt all people equally. People in the so-called Global South—the poorer and hotter parts of the world—suffer most. And even within wealthier nations, the risks are greatest for minorities, low-income people, older people, and children. This is doubly unfair, since these groups are least to blame for the emissions that cause climate change.

Climate justice means helping those most harmed by global warming. It involves recognizing how global warming hurts less privileged groups and pushing for policies that address the problem. This includes both ways to reduce global warming and ways to help people adapt to a warmer world.

Protestors with a sign that reads, "Climate Justice Now"

Why is environmental justice crucial to the future of environmental activism? 

The environmental movement has long been dominated by White people. This means environmentalists as a group aren’t always aware of the problems faced by communities of color. And they may not recognize how their proposed solutions help or harm these communities.

For instance, one way to fight global warming is to make all nations around the world reduce their energy use. This makes sense in many Western countries, but it would be devastating for regions struggling with energy poverty. They would be sacrificing their economic growth to battle climate problems caused mainly by developed nations.

The only way to be sure environmental solutions help everyone is to give everyone a seat at the table. Disadvantaged groups need to have a voice in crafting policies that affect their homes and lives. Otherwise, we may end up solving environmental problems only for the most powerful—which is no solution at all.

Why the future of environmental justice is uncertain

Environmental justice has been getting a lot of attention in recent years. The Biden administration has established a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and an Office of Environmental Justice. All 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, now have some sort of EJ legislation.

However, many of these laws are weak. They acknowledge the problem of environmental racism but do little to address it. And even stronger laws aren’t always enforced. For instance, New Jersey’s EJ law says polluting facilities can’t go in “overburdened communities” unless there’s a “compelling public interest.” Yet so far, that has failed to stop a proposed natural gas power plant in Woodbridge. Under the law, this is an overburdened community, but the state has taken no action to block the plant’s construction.

Ways to promote environmental justice

A man holding his "I voted" sticker

What can you, as an individual, do to promote environmental justice? First, be aware of the issue. Learn about environmental problems in your area and who suffers most from them. Once you understand the problem, you can start working to be part of the solution. That can mean:

  • Talking to government officials about how their decisions affect EJ communities.
  • Writing letters to newspapers and posting on social media about EJ issues.
  • Voting against politicians and boycotting companies who promote pollution in EJ communities.
  • Donating to or volunteering for EJ organizations.

You may think your voice won’t make a difference. After all, one person’s actions are just a drop in the bucket. But put that one drop together with others, and it can become part of a tidal wave of change.

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