🌎 Explainer: Environmental Justice

Willow Beck
Quinn Emmett
November 23, 2022
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Why is Environmental Justice Important?

Today, in another episode of what happens when unfettered capitalism meets white supremacy - environmental racism! Cities segregated by race and income over the years due to policies (choices) such as race-based zoning and poor land use planning have more industrial sites, ports, and hazardous waste polluting the air and water in poorer neighborhoods.

If you are relatively wealthy (and statistically, white), there’s a good chance your experience of the city you live in is vastly different than the experiences of those living in the neighborhood on the other side of the freeway. Your socioeconomic background - and the socioeconomic background of those around you - is directly correlated to the number of green spaces, access to grocery stores with fresh and healthy food, and the distinct lack of oil wells.

Often the factories polluting the air in these neighborhoods also provide a livelihood to the people who live there. But the majority of the wealth incurred from this labor and production does not stay in the community.

Environmental justice definition

Environmental justice is experiencing vastly different air, water, and life quality (and higher rates of death and disease) than wealthy communities.

Environmental justice is defined as the social movement addressing the well-documented fact that poor and marginalized communities are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards. Whether it’s the prevalence of oil drilling sites directly linked to redlined communities, a freeway cutting through a neighborhood causing higher asthma rates, or sea level rise in Tuvalu, the folks least responsible for the rapidly deteriorating planet are usually impacted first and worst.

Environmental justice examples

It shouldn’t surprise you (unfortunately) that due to the colonial practices of the past couple hundred years, environmental injustice is not unique to the US. Indigenous peoples everywhere, people in the Global South, and poor communities across many developed nations experience systemic environmental racism, whether by design or neglect.

The environmental justice movement in the US started as a part of the Civil Rights Movement, such as the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968. And the problem persists today, from Cancer Alley to the recent water crisis in Jackson.

At the global level, we call it climate justice. For perspective, the top 10 emitters are responsible for two-thirds of global emissions, while the bottom 100 countries only account for 3.6 percent of emissions. 86% of emissions come from half the world’s population. 2 million people have died in the past 50 years due to climate-related disasters, and 91% of those people were from low and middle-income countries.

Before the Paris Agreement in 2015, countries in the Global North were pushing to limit warming to 2 degrees instead of 1.5 - a difference that meant many island nations would disappear beneath the rising ocean. Nations that have contributed least to climate change in terms of historical and current emissions, have to deal the most with rising sea levels and increased extreme weather events. In response, the UN has created the Green Climate Fund, which wealthy countries are SUPPOSED to pay into to help low-income countries respond to climate change impacts and invest in climate-resilient development.

Climate justice needs to be baked into climate change mitigation and adaptation plans so those that have done the least to contribute to climate change aren’t left behind (so let’s go ahead a cross a few people colonizing Mars off the list of options to “save humanity”).

What You Can Do

Go deeper into Environmental Justice

Solutions to environmental racism often come from within the impacted communities themselves. We have been privileged to speak with many of the people on the front lines of this work in various podcast episodes.

Here are some episodes where you can continue to listen and learn:

  • Episode 56 - What’s It Feel Like To Be Asked To Save the World?
  • Episode 61 - How Do We Atone for Poisoning Generations of American Minorities?
  • Episode 84 - How is Climate Change (Already) Affecting Immigration to the USA?
  • Episode 96 - A Just Alternative to Climate Disaster and Gentrification
  • Episode 147 - Why is Environmental Justice Journalism Important?


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