Environmental Justice: More Than a New Buzz Word

Cartoon hands holding signs

I’ve been attending training and teaching college students about different aspects of sustainability and social justice for over ten years, but I am constantly learning new things.  Just this morning I was introduced to a term that I wasn’t familiar with: Environmental Justice.  Of course, I needed to find out what it is and why it matters.  Pretty quickly I realized that I’d somehow missed a pretty important buzz word that was showing up in news articles and speeches from political candidates of the 2020 election. And after spending the day surfing through the web, I realized that the term environmental justice (or climate justice, as some call it) is a concept that I have heard about before without the fancy term.  Now it’s my turn to break down this buzz word and talk to you about why it’s actually really important, especially to anyone who cares about sustainability and bettering the world.

Cartoon hands holding signs advocating for Climate Justice

What is Environmental Justice?

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, “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.”

Why is it a hot topic?

Environmental Justice in the News

Perhaps the question should be, why wouldn’t environmental justice be a hot topic right now? We cannot say that all people receive fair treatment or meaningful involvement when it comes to environmental laws, regulations, and policies. While that phenomenon is not new, it’s getting more attention than ever.

We have all seen the coverage related to Flint, Michigan’s water crisis. And the stories continue. Headlines from one website, The Conversation (2020), highlights nine articles related to environmental justice in 2020 alone with headlines such as “The risk of preterm birth rises near gas flaring, reflecting deep-rooted environmental injustices in rural America” and “Fine-particle air pollution has decreased across the US, but poor minority communities are still the most polluted.” These types of headlines make their way to mainstream media, as well, really highlighting inequity and the need for advocacy in the area of environmental justice.

Woke in 2020

Crowd of Black Lives Matters Protesters with Inspirational Signs Advocating for Change 

Black Lives Matter Protest, Century City, June 6, 2020
Photo By Brett Morrison

Image of Asian avatar with the message "I am Asian, but I am not a virus" 

Anti-Racism/ Anti-Xenophobia Sign, October 2020, NYC
Photo Credit: Kches16414 on Wikimedia.Org 

Chart demonstrating billionaires getting richer during covid 19; Bezos jumped from 113 Billion in March 2020 to 187 Billion in Dec 2020 

Black Lives Matter

We have to recognize that there were people who cared about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) before 2020, but there was a notable shift around these topics, particularly as it relates to racism, over the course of 2020 that continues into 2021 (Chavez, n.d.). This shift was largely tied to the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other black and brown men and women by police.  Additionally, 2020 was the year that saw a real growth in the Black Lives Matter movement (Smith, 2020), as evidenced by the protests across the US in the wake of the police killings of persons of color. 

Covid-19 & Financial Security

Another factor in this national awakening to injustice came from the impacts of the COVID-19 coronavirus. From xenophobia to the racial inequity of coronavirus (Oppel, et al, 2020) to the job crises of the working poor (Sen, 2020). As people lose their jobs and corporations get richer, people who were previously living comfortably have experienced what it’s like to struggle financially (Woods, 2020). In addition to individual people losing their jobs, small businesses are also struggling to stay afloat and unable to get support from the government while larger companies are getting breaks and receiving funds. Thus, a new population has directly experienced inequity and is now paying attention.

Covid-19 & Education

We also have a large number of woke teachers and parents as Covid-19 has closed many schools.  Teachers and parents alike are recognizing that the pandemic may result in increased learning poverty (Schrader-King & Ordon, 2020).  According to their article in World Bank, 72 million primary school children are at risk for not being able to read by age 10 and there is an increased risk of children in low and middle income countries to be living in poverty.  The news is filled with stories about heroic teachers.  These teachers carry lunches to their students who would otherwise be hungry.  There are also students who are going to great lengths to find access to the technology they need to complete their school work when the school buildings are closed. While teachers and those directly experiences the disparity already knew of its existence, many more are being faced with its reality in the wake of Covid-19.

Basically, environmental justice is a hot topic right now because a larger part of the US population is getting a taste of what has existed for a long time. And it’s a hot topic because people are recognizing that advocacy and activism are necessary to prompt the type of systemic change needed to ensure environmental justice.

How Can I Help?

Now that you are among those woke to environmental injustices and are hearing the call to act, you may be asking yourself “What can I do?” While we absolutely need systemic changes that come from laws, regulations, and policies, there are many things an individual can do to help.

Practice Active Bystander Intervention

It’s so tempting to think that someone else is going to do the work to right the wrong of environmental injustice.  It’s also completely understandable that you may not feel confident in intervening or know what you should do. But if you’re witnessing a situation in which people are not receiving the same treatment and access to decision-making as it relates to the environment, it’s a good time for you to figure out how to do something. Consider two of the following methods of intervention that work well in this type of situation:

Spread Awareness

One small action that anyone can do is to leverage their voice to spread awareness. Talk about environmental justice in your conversations, particularly as you’re engaging in discussion around politics.  Share information on your websites, blogs, social media accounts, etc.  You have an opportunity to educate others and make an impact. But remember, there are ways to talk about controversial things that will be productive and ways that will make others shut down. Be sure that you are getting your message across by keeping the dialogue open. If you need a refresher on what this type of conversation or messaging looks like, check out our blog post “Discussing Controversial Topics.”

Write your Representatives

Similarly, you can advocate for change by writing to your legislators. Write to your state representatives and let them know that you, as a constituent, want to see changes to environmental injustices that are impacting your state. Your representative has been elected to be the voice of the people; they can’t do that if they don’t know what the people desire.

Donate to/Volunteer with Non-profit Environmental Justice Organizations

Many people taking small actions can be truly powerful. It’s also impactful when groups organize and work together.  By cooperating they can  pool their resources and expertise to address their goals. Consider how you may work with or support the work of the following organizations:

  • Mothers Out Front
    If you are a mother and their tagline doesn’t speak to your soul, I can’t help you. If you’re not a mother, just trust that this is what your own mother would feel reading their tagline, “We build our power as mothers to ensure a livable climate for all children.”
  • Green America
    This is a not-for-profit member organization seeking “to create a socially just and environmentally sustainable society.” That goal sounds like utopia to me. It really is within our power to get us there! 
  • Earth Rights International
    This organization packs a powerful punch by focusing on climate justice related to “legal, economic, and political systems that favor wealthy and powerful institutions at the expense of local communities and sensitive ecosystems around the world.” Yes! This is what we need. 
  • Earth Guardians
    This group knows that children are our future! They have committed to train young people to “be effective leaders in the environmental, climate and social justice movements” 



Chavez, N. (n.d.). The year America confronted racism. CNN. Retrieved January 04, 2021, from https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2020/12/us/america-racism-2020/

Environmental Justice. (2020, December 07). Retrieved January 03, 2021, from https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice

Environmental Justice News, Research, and Analysis. (2020, November 22). The Conversation. Retrieved January 3, 2021 from https://theconversation.com/us/topics/environmental-justice-16305

Oppel, R. A., Gebeloff, R., Lai, K. R., Wright, W., & Smith, M. (2020, July 05). The Fullest Look Yet at the Racial Inequity of Coronavirus. The New York Times. Retrieved January 04, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/05/us/coronavirus-latinos-african-americans-cdc-data.html

Schrader-King, K., & Ordon, K. (2020, December 2). Pandemic Threatens to Push 72 Million More Children into Learning Poverty-World Bank outlines a New Vision to ensure that every child learns, everywhere. Retrieved January 03, 2021, from https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2020/12/02/pandemic-threatens-to-push-72-million-more-children-into-learning-poverty-world-bank-outlines-new-vision-to-ensure-that-every-child-learns-everywhere

Sen, K. (2020, August 18). Five Ways the Coronavirus is deepening global inequity. The Conversation. Retrieved January 3, 2021 from https://theconversation.com/five-ways-coronavirus-is-deepening-global-inequality-144621

Smith, E. D. (2020, December 16). 2020 was the year America embraced Black Lives Matter as a movement, not just a moment. Retrieved January 04, 2021, from https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-12-16/black-lives-matter-protests-george-floyd-coronavirus-covid-2020

Woods, H. (2020, October 30). How billionaires saw their net worth increase by half a trillion dollars during the pandemic. Business Insider. Retrieved January 04, 2021, from https://www.businessinsider.com/billionaires-net-worth-increases-coronavirus-pandemic-2020-7

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