What is Environmental Justice?

The environmental justice movement grew in response to the disproportionate environmental burdens communities of color and low-income communities bear including pollution, industrial production and processing facilities, landfills and power plants. Simultaneously these communities often have fewer environmental benefits like parks, gardens and green spaces, while facing inadequate health care, access to healthy food, less political power. The Environmental Justice Movement leverages the gains and protections from the American Civil Rights movement and recognizing discrimintaion also happen in terms of environmental benefits and burdens. One major environmental justice win was Executive Order Executive Order 12898, passed in Feb 1994 by President Bill Clinton, requiring federal agencies to “make achieving environmental justice part of [their missions] by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.”

environmental justice sea level rise

One key tenet of the environmental justice movement is that it operates from a broader interpretation of ‘environment’ than has historically been used by the environmental movement; one that includes human habitats: places where people live, work and play. To someone involved with environmental justice, your home, office, or school playground is just as much a part of the environment as rivers, forests, National Parks and remote wilderness areas are. For example, the concern for clean water is not limited to rivers, lakes, and streams. It also includes the water coming from the tap in your kitchen, which may contain contaminants if your home has lead pipes or if the water comes from an unregulated source, such as a well serving a small or transient population.

environmental justice clean air

Often it is the affected communities themselves that initiate and lead efforts to address environmental injustices. The most well known example is that of Warren County, North Carolina. In 1982 residents of this predominately African-American county protested the siting of a landfill for PCB-contaminated soils in their community. Today there are numerous non-profit organizations and government agencies that assist communities facing environmental justice issues.

Several universities have also created environmental justice resource centers and/or offer courses related to environmental justice. Our Energy & Climate Justice Programs emphasize the social equity components of sustainability with the Eco-Social Justice Team providing events and trainings, and the Eco-Social Justice Leadership Certificate Program providing CU ctudents with the opportunity to learn more about how social and environmental issues overlap. Many of the students working at the Environmental Center have gone through this program which is helping us reshape these conversations in a more inclusive way.

Join our mailing list and stay up to date about EJ happenings and news on campus and in the broader community. Contact the Eco-Social Justice Team or Program Manager, Michelle Gabrieloff to sign up or request a training.

Check out: 17 Principles of Environmental Justice

Photo of CU students and community members brainstorming solutions to Boulder's environmental and social equity issues                           environmental justice