Environmental Justice 101

What is environmental justice?

It might be summer, but that doesn’t mean school is out of session. This week’s class is “Introduction to Environmental Justice.” 

We live in a country, and a world, that says “It’s OK to value some lives more than others, that it’s OK for some people to have clean air while others struggle to breathe.” That has been both a conscious choice of some leaders and some corporations, and the unconscious but systemic results of the history and perpetuation of white supremacy and colonization. It is the poisoning of the water in Flint, and the hundreds of millions of tons of greenhouse gases that the United States has pumped into the atmosphere. These injustices disproportionately fall on low-income communities (and countries), Black, brown, indigenous and migrant communities, and women in all of these communities.

Environmental justice is the continuous, multilayered work to right those wrongs and to make different choices. It is the difficult task of bringing socioeconomic and racial justice lenses to environmental activism and to addressing climate change. It is not enough to merely reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is equally as important to make sure that the children who developed asthma from living in a neighborhood with a coal plant, or trapped between highways, have adequate medical care. And that these childrens’ neighborhoods are at the center of any plan to replace the coal plants, or to build public transit to replace the highways. Environmental justice demands that wealthy nations who have historically benefited the most from fossil fuel extraction and production (like the United States, Canada, Norway (where this author lives), England and Australia, among many others), must give compensation in the form of funds, technology, and other adaptation and mitigation assistance to those countries who have historically emitted less, but are already suffering catastrophic impacts from the climate crisis. These historically responsible countries must also cut their emissions more steeply and more quickly than the rest of the world; justice demands a corrected course of action moving forward and redress for the past injustices.



Why does it matter in 2020?

That was a trick question on your first quiz. Environmental justice has always mattered. It has never gotten the attention it deserves in national elections, because, as with most problems that impact Black and brown communities, women, immigrants, and vulnerable people, it is sidelined. Foreign policy is often conflated with “national security”, and not climate change and trade, so candidates aren’t asked about US emissions. Until the Green New Deal came onto the scene, Senate and House candidates were considered environmental champions for supporting the Paris Agreement, or merely acknowledging that climate change is real. Environmental justice wasn’t a constituent demand, or it was siloed into a niche area of concern.

That shouldn’t take our focus away from how dangerous and destructive Donald Trump, the Trump administration, and the Mitch McConnell-led Senate has been to achieving environmental justice in the United States and abroad. Indeed their policies, and their personnel, have been nothing short of disastrous, environmentally. The administration has, predictably, gutted and defunded the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice. It has stopped enforcing Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act violations; it has allowed construction of the border wall in sensitive environments; it has encouraged oil and gas exploration on sacred indigenous sites. Republicans’ assault on the environment and the climate endangers everyone, but it further perpetuates the racial and economic injustices that have given rise to the recent wave of protests.

What can you do?

Vote. It’s the bare minimum you must do to achieve any environmental justice after the 2020 election. You can find out how to request your ballot and vote from abroad here.

Get political. Find out who your congressperson is. Find out if they support the Green New Deal by researching their policies. If they do not, pressure them to, with calls and emails and tweets and comments on their social media channels. If they do, find out which policies they prioritize, and how they are working to implement them. If your congressperson is a Republican, find out if the Democrat running against them supports the Green New Deal. If they don’t pressure them to support it. If they do, volunteer to help get them elected.

Local action. Research who is doing the work of environmental justice in your area (both at home and abroad). Is there a group organizing against local fossil fuel infrastructure? Get involved. What do the zoning regulations allow in your neighborhood, compared to others nearby? If you find discrepancies that perpetuate environmental injustice, get your city council to change them.

Education. Do your homework on environmental justice. Find out if your local school district provides education on environmental justice. Demand changes to the curriculum if it doesn’t.

Activism. If you feel comfortable with non-violent direct action, think about attending a direct action (subject to safety guidelines during the pandemic!). Write letters to the editor of a local paper. If you’re a digital activist too, organize online with others to maximize your impact. Engage your representatives. Amplify campaigns and voices working on environmental justice. Be loud. Be persistent.

Environmental justice is a long haul campaign, and we must continuously do the work. The 2020 election can be a major milestone to set the stage for even greater progress, and it’s crucial to get involved and stay involved.