When most of us think about the environment, we tend to conjure certain images. Clean waterways and national parks full of trees or wildlife come to mind, especially since environmental news often focuses on polar ice caps melting in the Arctic, deforestation in the Amazon and animals close to extinction. How often, however, do we think about the human communities in our own backyard and where we fit into environmental issues? When climate change doesn’t seem to affect you directly, it can be easy to overlook. This is where environmental justice comes in.

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a person in yellow holding a protest sign that says "Save our planet"

What is environmental justice?

The United States Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as “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.” This goal will become reality “when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.” This intersection between environmentalism and social justice forms an important branch of activism that focuses on people’s right to live safely without environmental hazards.

Related: 5 growing environmental nonprofits to support in 2020

Concerns linked to hazardous waste sites, failing infrastructure and money-saving policy changes in vulnerable communities continue to plague the environment and the humans who live there. Low-income communities and communities of color are especially at risk; think Flint, Michigan, when a 2014 policy change led to at least 100,000 people losing access to clean water.

Additional examples of environmental injustice remain plentiful. Low-income communities are more likely than the overall population to be affected by climate change threats (such as flooding), due to inadequate housing. A 2018 study by the Environmental Protection Agency also found that air polluting facilities burdened Black communities at a rate 1.54 times higher than the overall population. Throughout the country, there are even neighborhoods without access to healthy food, and communities with toxic waterways and soil due to oil and gas extraction.

a power plant spewing emissions into the air

How to help

All of these environmental injustices can be daunting, but there are ways to help. Especially with social media, something as simple as raising awareness of an issue can have a lasting effect. You can also show your support by getting involved with or donating to environmental justice non-profits.

One of the best ways to help is by backing socially-equal conservation policies and the organizations or politicians supporting them. WE ACT is an organization that helps low-income communities of color fight harmful environmental policies while participating in the creation of fair environmental policies. Green For All works to uplift the voices of low-income communities and people of color in the climate justice movement and fights to build a green economy that lifts people out of poverty. The NAACP also has an Environmental and Climate Justice Program to support community leadership in addressing environmental injustice and its disproportionate impact on communities of color and low-income communities.

Take the time to challenge unjust laws and violations of environmental policies in marginalized communities, too. EarthJustice believes that law is the most powerful tool for environmental change. The non-profit public interest environmental law organization supports an experienced legal team that represents their clients from small towns to large organizations (for free) in the fight against environmental injustice.

a protest sign reading "Earth is more valuable than money"

Environmental justice work doesn’t stop there

Indigenous communities are also disproportionately exposed to environmental contaminants, often due to federal and state laws that make it easier for extractive and polluting facilities to access tribal lands. A 2012 study even found that Indigenous American communities face disproportionate health burdens and environmental health risks compared with the average North American population. Organizations like Cultural Survival, which works to advance the rights and cultures of Indigenous people, and the Indigenous Environmental Network, an alliance of Indigenous peoples who fight to address environmental and economic justice issues, help educate and empower Indigenous people while raising awareness for their environmental protection.

Other facets of the environment, such as the agricultural sector, also experience injustice. The National Black Farmers Association is a non-profit organization representing African American farmers and their families in the U.S., focusing on issues such as civil rights, land retention, education, agricultural training and rural economic development.

a protest sign reading "Fight today for a better tomorrow"

A new generation leading the way

Especially in recent years, with young leaders addressing the environmental tolls that harmful practices reap upon the planet, several organizations for young people have made tremendous strides in environmental justice. The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led organization, advocates for political action on climate change and works to help elect leaders who stand up for the health and equal wellbeing of all people. Similarly, the Power Shift Network mobilizes the collective power of young people to fight against environmental racism by stopping dirty energy projects and campaigning to divest from fossil fuels.

Images via Pexels