Environmental Justice 101

By Bhavya Reddy, Member Relations Coordinator

What is environmental justice?

As if the impacts of environmental issues such as climate change and pollution weren’t bad enough, they can also affect some populations disproportionately more than others. For instance, research published in Nature Scientific Reports has shown that some countries that have emitted more greenhouse gases, including the United States, will experience fewer effects of climate change when compared to countries in Africa or island communities.

In addition to having unequal impacts on a global level, environmental issues can also impact populations differently within a community depending on factors like class, race, and more. For instance, as recounted by Bill McKibben in the New York Times, the Dakota Access Pipeline was initially

supposed to cross the Missouri just north of Bismarck, until people pointed out that a leak there would threaten the drinking water supply for North Dakota’s second biggest city. The solution, in keeping with American history, was obvious: make the crossing instead just above the Standing Rock reservation, where the poverty rate is nearly three times the national average.

This is an issue locally as well; within Westchester, there are a number of potential environmental justice areas (click here for more detailed maps):


As cited in the Washington Post, researchers at the University of Minnesota who were studying exposure to NO2 have shown that “the New York/Newark metropolitan area ranks as having the widest disparity in average exposure between lower-income minority census block groups and upper-income white ones across the entire metro area.”

The difference in NO2 exposure between races persisted even when controlling for income. Some possible explanations, according to Emily Badger of the Washington Post:

Many urban highways, for instance, were originally routed through minority communities that were politically easier to uproot than middle-class white neighborhoods. Rumbling highways and landfills also depress nearby property values, meaning that people who can afford to live elsewhere do, while those who can’t remain within their influence.

Environmental justice seeks to account for these differences and ensure that all populations’ voices are heard, no matter their gender, race, or other identities. According to the EPA:

Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

For a 3-minute crash course on environmental justice, check out the video below:

What can we do about it?

Curious about what we can do about environmental justice? Below are our notes about first steps we can take from a webinar by the Union of Concerned Scientists:

You can watch the full webinar below:

One key takeaway was to make decision-making processes as inclusive as possible, whether by reaching out to people through different channels or ensuring that information is available in different languages. The EPA’s Environmental Justice site includes additional resources on ensuring that environmental justice is included in decision-making processes.

Approaching issues from an environmental justice perspective leads to actions that are more inclusive of all community members!

Additional Resources


EPA’s Environmental Justice Site

WE ACT for Environmental Justice

NAACP’s Environmental Justice and Climate Justice resources, including additional reading on “Teaching Intersectionality and Climate Justice in our Classrooms

Green 2.0 (Formerly the Green Diversity Initiative), which also puts out a scorecard on diversity in environmental organizations


How Do We Talk About Climate Change After Hurricane Harvey?

Popaganda Episode: Environmental Justice

Revolutionary Fitness Radio: Environmental Justice in the South Bronx


In Planned EPA Cuts, U.S. to Lose Connection to At-Risk Communities” – U.S. News and World Report

Building an Inclusive Movement to Advance a Sustainable Planet” – Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

Environmentalism Was Once a Social-Justice Movement” – The Atlantic

Climate Change Is About To Make Gentrification Even Worse” – Vice

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