Environmental Justice: A Primer

Environmental Justice: An In Depth Guide

Table of Contents



Environmental justice is a concept that focuses on the fair and equitable distribution of environmental benefits and burdens within society. It recognizes that people of different races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds may be disproportionately affected by environmental issues. This article provides a comprehensive primer on environmental justice, covering its definition, history, key principles, challenges, and future directions.

Definition of Environmental Justice:

  • Equitable Distribution: Environmental justice seeks to ensure that all individuals and communities, regardless of their background, have equal access to a healthy environment and are not burdened with disproportionate environmental risks.
  • Intersectionality: Environmental justice recognizes that multiple social identities, such as race, income, and gender, intersect and can compound environmental inequalities.
  • Civil Rights Movement: The environmental justice movement emerged in the 1980s, influenced by the civil rights movement, as communities of color and low-income communities fought against environmental disparities.
  • Health Impacts: Environmental justice advocates for the prevention and reduction of environmental hazards that can have adverse health effects, such as air pollution, toxic waste sites, and lack of access to safe drinking water.
  • International perspective: The principles of environmental justice are recognized globally, emphasizing the importance of international solidarity and cooperation in addressing environmental inequalities.

Historical Background:

  • Warren County, North Carolina: The siting of a hazardous waste landfill in Warren County in 1982 became a symbol of environmental injustice, sparking protests and laying the foundation for the environmental justice movement in the United States.
  • First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit: In 1991, a landmark summit was held, bringing together diverse activists and organizations to address environmental racism and advocate for environmental justice.
  • Environmental Justice Executive Order: President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898 in 1994, directing federal agencies to incorporate environmental justice principles in their decision-making processes and to address disproportionately impacted communities.
  • International Recognition: The principles of environmental justice gained global recognition with the emergence of the global environmental justice movement, addressing environmental inequalities on an international scale.
  • Continued Activism: Environmental justice remains a pressing issue, as communities continue to fight against the disproportionate impacts of environmental hazards.

Key Principles of Environmental Justice:

  • Community Participation: Environmental justice emphasizes the importance of inclusive and meaningful community participation in decision-making processes that affect their environment.
  • Precautionary Approach: The precautionary principle requires taking preventative measures to protect public health and the environment, even if there is uncertainty regarding the potential harm.
  • Right to Know: Environmental justice advocates for the right of communities to access information about potential environmental hazards and their potential health impacts.
  • Equity in Resource Allocation: Environmental justice calls for equitable distribution of environmental resources and benefits, such as access to parks, clean air, clean water, and healthy food.
  • Addressing Historic Injustices: Environmental justice recognizes the need to address historical injustices and systemic inequalities that have led to environmental disparities.

Challenges in Achieving Environmental Justice:

  • Disproportionate Pollution Burdens: Low-income communities and communities of color often bear a disproportionate burden of environmental pollution and contamination due to factors such as discriminatory land-use planning and industrial siting decisions.
  • Lack of Political Influence: Historically marginalized communities often face challenges in accessing decision-making processes, which can perpetuate environmental injustices.
  • Limited Access to Resources: Socioeconomic inequalities can limit the ability of communities to advocate for their rights, access legal representation, and pursue environmental justice claims.
  • Data and Information Gaps: Limited data and information on environmental hazards, health impacts, and demographic characteristics can hinder efforts to identify and address environmental injustices.
  • Institutional Barriers: Environmental justice efforts can face resistance from powerful industries or government institutions that prioritize economic development over equity and sustainability.

Future Directions:

  • Climate Justice: The environmental justice movement is increasingly focusing on the intersection between environmental inequalities and climate change, advocating for equitable solutions that address both issues simultaneously.
  • Policy and Regulatory Changes: Efforts are underway to strengthen environmental justice policies and regulations at the local, national, and international levels to address existing gaps and ensure equitable environmental protection.
  • Community-Led Initiatives: Grassroots movements and community-led initiatives are playing a vital role in advancing environmental justice by empowering communities and amplifying their voices.
  • Education and Awareness: Increasing public awareness about environmental justice issues and promoting environmental education can help foster a broader understanding of the importance of equity in environmental decision-making.
  • Collaboration and Solidarity: Building coalitions among diverse stakeholders, including academia, nonprofits, communities, and government agencies, is crucial for advancing environmental justice goals and achieving meaningful change.


Environmental justice is an essential framework for addressing and rectifying environmental inequalities that disproportionately affect marginalized communities. It requires equitable distribution of environmental benefits and burdens and ensuring meaningful community participation in decision-making processes. While progress has been made, significant challenges remain, requiring ongoing collective efforts to achieve true environmental justice.


(Please note that the web domains mentioned below are given without the https or www prefixes.)

  1. National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) – www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/national-environmental-justice-advisory-council-nejac
  2. United Church of Christ, Toxic Waste and Race at Twenty 1987-2007 – www.ucc.org/environmental_ministries_toxic_waste_and_race_at_twenty_1987_2007
  3. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice
  4. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – www.unep.org/our-work/environmental-justice
  5. Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) – www.ehp.niehs.nih.gov/topics/justice.html

Environmental Justice: An In Depth Guide