Environmental justice: the intersection of social equality and environmentalism

The climate change movement will never win until we achieve social justice


Jessica Webb

3 years ago | 6 min read

The Black Lives Matter movement has once again brought the issue of environmental injustice into plain view.

The systems that created environmental injustice are also those that have oppressed BAME (Black Asian and Minority Ethnic) people for far too long. What’s more, social injustice is inextricably linked with tackling climate change, and we will accomplish neither if we do not solve both issues.

Environmental justice

The Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, colour, national origin or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.”

Environmental injustice is the intersection between social justice and environmentalism, with regards to the inequalities someone experiences in both categories.

Unfortunately, environmental injustice is rife today. More often than not, it is the poorest and most vulnerable communities that bear the brunt of environmental hazards caused by polluters.

These vulnerable communities, who are often BAME, do not possess the necessary physical or financial resources to protect themselves against environmental threats, like climate change.

This situation will not improve unless there is systematic change in political institutions, which prioritises BAME people and affords them adequate political protection against environmental hazards, and the chance to participate in decision-making processes.

US environmental justice campaign. Source: Susan Melkisethian

Modern-day examples of environmental injustice

Environmental injustices are happening everyday in underprivileged and under-represented communities who are struggling to raise their voices and be heard .

The most famous example of environmental injustice is of course the case of lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan, where African-Americans constitute 54% of the community.

State managers, in a bid to save money, switched the city’s water supply and exposed between 6,000 and 12,000 children to lead contaminated water and killed 12 people. Inadequate treatment and testing of the water was severely overlooked.

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission, a state-established body, concluded that the inadequate government response to the crisis was a “result of systemic racism”.

In the UK, an article published by Public Health England revealed that BAME people had between 10 and 50% higher risk of death of COVID-19 when compared to White British.

There are multiple and sometimes interconnected causes for this. Ethnic minorities disproportionately work in high-risk occupations, are more likely to live in densely populated and poverty-stricken neighbourhoods, and are more likely to suffer air pollution, which is linked to respiratory and cardiovascular conditions that significantly increases the risk of death from COVID-19.

Again, the higher prevalence of death from COVID-19 in BAME people is no coincidence. Deep-rooted social inequalities are partly to blame.

Shoppers on Brixton High Street, South London. Source: Andrew Testa, New York Times

Climate change and environmental injustice

Climate change is an environmental justice issue. Throughout the world, people who contributed least to climate change are the ones who will be worst affected and least able to adapt to its impacts. Mercy Corps estimates that between 2030–2050, 250,000 will die of climate change related causes each year.

The most vulnerable groups include 2.5 billion smallholder farmers, herders and fisheries who depend on the climate and natural resources for food and income. The increase in unpredictable weather patterns, changing seasons and natural disasters like hurricanes and flooding disproportionately threaten the poorest groups.

The Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures warned that in 2015, a third of the planet’s productive land has been lost over the past 40 years due to climate change and poor conservation, with more than 1.3 billion people utilising agricultural land that has become unproductive, leading to failed harvests, poverty and famine.

Environmental colonialism, which refers to the multiple ways in which colonialism has impacted the environments of Indigenous communities, has a role to play in the inequality that exists between developing and developed countries’ ability to fight climate change.

The Global North extracted most of the resources from their former colonies, by clearing mangroves, grasslands and rainforests in place of quarries, plantations and roads.

This has left developing countries with degraded natural environments that provide limited resources to deal with the climate crisis. The Global North must acknowledge its imperial past and undo the power structures that have contributed towards both racism and climate change.

Slaves cutting sugar cane in Antigua. Source: British Library


The causes of environmental injustice are often complex and long-established. According to the Natural England Commissioned Report, they include the historical locations of industry and communities, misguided regulatory policy, unequal regulation enforcement and unequal political power.

These factors are all intertwined. Low-income and minority groups and often under-represented in politics, and are therefore less likely to have their voices heard by the government.

The social inequalities embedded within society’s institutions, which perpetuate discriminatory practices based on skin colour, gender, sexual preference and financial status, must be torn down if we are to solve the climate crisis and achieve environmental justice. In the words of Marine Biologist Ayanna Elizabeth Johnson:

I need you to understand that our racial inequality crisis is intertwined with our climate crisis. If we don’t work on both, we will succeed at neither.

In the face of adversity, opportunities are created where communities can contribute towards the environmental justice movement, which encourages policy-makers to actively combat the root cause of environmental injustice.

Environmental justice movement

The environmental justice movement, which was pioneered by African-Americans in the 1980s, addresses the statistical fact that people who live, work and play in polluted environments are often people of colour or are poor.

Organisations and individuals have rallied both local and national government for environmental protection and social change, leading to some notable success stories both in the UK and USA.

In the UK, the London 21 Environmental Inequalities project, conducted by UCL (UK) aims to empower London’s socially deprived communities to use data effectively to monitor local sustainability and environmental inequalities and to improve accessibility of environmental information to Londoners.

This has sparked notable environmental justice discussions and empowered deprived neighbourhoods to engage in environmental inequalities.

In America, LeAnne Walters was a frontrunner in exposing the Flint, Michigan lead water pollution scandal. She is now campaigning to change the Lead and Copper Rule (a federal regulation which limits the concentration of these heavy metals in public drinking water) to protect users, as it was supposed to.

LeeAnne Walters displays water samples from her home in Flint, Michigan from 21 January and 15 January 2016. Photograph: Ryan Garza/AP

What can you do?

You can support the environmental justice movement by challenging environmental violations occurring in vulnerable communities. Signing petitions online and donating to a variety of causes is an excellent way to become politically active and voice your opinion!

Additionally, you can support your local MP who advocates for environmental justice policies and environmental conservation.

Ensure that these candidates recognise that inequality is at the core of environmental injustice and climate change, and that their policies aim to target this inequality. Research suggests that in the UK, the labour party contains the highest number of pro-environment MPs.

Finally, supporting NGOs who are fighting to serve marginalised communities and bring them to justice. Here are some examples of NGOs in the UK who work to solve environmental inequalities:

  • Friends of the Earth International work on a variety of environmental injustice issues, ranging from climate and energy, human rights, to forests and biodiversity. In 2001, they published a briefing on Environmental Justice with the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and they have also published a report on social exclusion and transport in Bradford, UK.
  • Groundwork UK, in a report called ‘Fair and Green’, examine the relationship between environmental problems, deprivation and social justice and focus on the issue of environmental inequalities.
  • Environmental Justice Foundation is a UK-based NGO that aims to resolve violent human conflict and associated environmental injustices in the Global South.
  • Wen is a UK-based grassroots organisation that aims to tackle issues relating to gender, health and the environment by taking action on issues that affect our bodies, homes and neighbourhoods.


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Jessica Webb







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