Environmental Justice created by students at the university of connecticut

Defining Environmental Justice

What is Environmental Justice?

Based on the definition provided by the Urban Planning Department at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, environmental justice is the right of all people and communities to equal environmental protection under the law and equal involvement in environmental decision-making processes. It is the right to "live, work, and play in communities that are safe, healthy, and free of life-threatening conditions."

Read the Principles of Environmental Justice here. While these principles are not agreed upon by everyone in the movement, this has been a standard guide for advocates for decades!

Who are vulnerable populations?

Populations that are vulnerable have been disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards. Examples of such populations include people of color, people of low income, farmers, women, people with disabilities, people in the LGBT+ community, indigenous communities, coastal communities, migrants, refugees, religious minority groups, and other underrepresented, oppressed, and disproportionately-affected groups. Vulnerable populations are identified using demographic and environmental indicators such as exposure to air and water pollution and proximity to hazardous waste.

What is Environmental Racism?

Based on the definition provided by the Urban Planning Department at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, environmental racism is the concept that people of color, due to either "conscious design or institutional neglect, actions, and decisions", are burdened with disproportionate exposures to environmental hazards that affect their health, safety, and quality of life.

Why care about Environmental Justice?

Certain populations disproportionately face the consequences of environmental degradation and thus suffer from issues such as health complications, financial burdens, and social and cultural disruptions. What exacerbates the inequalities is the fact that these populations oftentimes do not have the power or resources they need to improve their environment and quality of life, even though they are least responsible for the damage.

In order to protect and create solutions for healthy and vibrant environments in the most just way possible, equal representation, meaningful involvement, fair treatment, and all aspects of environmental justice must be incorporated. Understanding and incorporating intersections between environmentalism and social issues can prevent past injustices from happening again, and also helps to address current human rights issues alongside environmental issues. To care about environmental issues equitably is to care about how they connect with broader social systems.

Click the Action Items button below to learn more about ways you can take action at the local to the national level to support environmental justice!

Climate Justice

Climate justice is an important topic within environmental justice and human rights that addresses the inherent right of people to a quality of life that is not disproportionately affected by climate change. According to the University of Colorado Boulder Environmental Center, climate justice is an issue that manifests at local to international levels and particularly affects people of color, people of low income, farmers, women, people with disabilities, people in the LGBT+ community, indigenous communities, coastal communities, migrants, refugees, religious minority groups, and other underrepresented, oppressed, and disproportionately-affected groups. Such populations are affected by compromised health, financial burdens and social and cultural disruptions, and oftentimes do not have the resources they need to adapt to the effects of climate change. The injustice is further exacerbated by the fact that these communities are often least responsible for the greenhouse gas emission and pollution that have resulted in the climate crisis we are currently facing. It is the people who have less impact on the environment that are being most affected by the environmental degradation we are witnessing today.

Overall, climate injustice addresses the fact that certain populations and countries:

  • Are the least responsible for yet the most affected by the climate crisis
  • Have less capacity and resources to deal with the impacts of the climate crisis
  • Will have to deal with the environmental, social, health, economic, and cultural consequences of the climate crisis for generations to come
  • Have less of a say than others in environmental decision-making spaces from the local to the international level

Brief History of the Environmental Justice Movement

Communities have been leading efforts against environmental injustices since even before the creation of our nation. Since then, history has seen Cesar Chavez fighting for Latino farmworker rights in the 1960s and African-American students protesting a garbage dump that took the lives of two children in their community in 1967. However, the Environmental Justice movement began to gain the attention of the mainstream US in the 1980s, as a result of the Warren County protests, which led to a research report published in 1987 entitled Toxic Waste and Race. It highlighted the disproportionate environmental degradation burdens that low-income people and racial minorities face that compromise their health, safety, and quality of living. Lois Gibbs and her advocacy work against the Love Canal in 1978 was also an important step in the Environmental Justice movement reaching the nation.

These cases catalyzed the growth of the Environmental Justice movement and advocacy groups started seeking action from state and federal governments to protect vulnerable populations and communities from facing the hardships, negative health, and poor quality of life caused by environmental degradation and pollution. People like Robert Bullard were instrumental in these efforts. Eventually, in the 1990’s, the federal government began to address these concerns through Executive Order 12898, which established offices to monitor, create resources, and address environmental justice in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other federal agencies. Protests against the Love Canal specifically lead to the creation of the EPA's superfund for cleaning up brownfields.

You can read more on the history of the Environmental Justice movement in the US here.

As a result of the growing and diversifying Environmental Justice movement, new frameworks are being developed at government and local levels to address the most pertinent environmental and social justice issues of today that lead to environmental injustice. However, a lot of change still needs to happen. These and other environmental injustice cases are still very relevant to today and need to be addressed while working to diversity and transform what and who the environmental sector even looks like today. By protecting environmental justice at the local to global levels, we can work towards a future in which all people, especially people from disproportionately-affected populations, are ensured their equal rights to a good quality of life and environment.

Environmental Injustice Case Studies

University Campus Case Studies

Environmental injustice due to the environmental consequences of campus greenhouse gas emissions and campus expansion

Food insecurity and why it is an example of environmental injustice

Housing insecurity and its relation to environmental injustice

Transportation and parking infrastructure issues and their relation to environmental injustice

Environmental injustices associated with the lack of environmental education opportunities

The environmental injustice of lack of black scholarship

Environmental injustice due to the underrepresentation of people of color and other marginalized groups in environmental spaces in institutions such as universities (ex. lack of representative volunteerism)

In an interview on student community service and involvement, Paul Young, the Associate Director of Student Services at UConn Hartford, stated that:

“Given our demographic of students i.e. large low SES population who benefit from social welfare programs, they tend to volunteer at lower levels than more affluent populations.”

Waterbury, Connecticut

Environmental racism is a form of injustice and disproportionately affects marginalized racial groups of people. In Waterbury, CT, community language barriers were not adequately addressed and the local community, which comprises a large Hispanic population, was forced to deal with poor environmental conditions due to pollution from a waste plant that they were not properly informed about.

Flint, Michigan

Flint, Michigan is a well-known current day example of ongoing environmental injustice. The Flint water crisis was exacerbated by poor community communication, a lack of transparency within the local and state government, and substandard water infrastructure management. Furthermore, there was a severe lack of response when the community, which is largely comprised of poverty-afflicted and black-majority populations, started reporting health issues soon after the switch of water source.

Learn more about the history of the Flint water crisis with this NOVA documentary.

Access more case studies on the intersections between water and environmental justice here.

West Oakland, California

Gentrification is a form of environmental injustice that has become increasingly more prevalent with the rise of urbanization. West Oakland in the San Francisco Bay Area is an example of a community composed of racial minority populations who disproportionately face environmental burdens such as groundwater contamination and air pollution due to “eviction, displacement, and community fragmentation”.

History of West Oakland

Health effects of air pollution in West Oakland

West Oakland Social social justice activists

Dakota Access Pipeline

The Dakota Access Pipeline is an example of environmental injustice against indigenous communities in the US. In 2014 a plan was proposed by Energy Transfer Partners to build an 1,172 mile underground oil pipeline carrying 470,000 of crude oil per day from North Dakota to Illinois. Soon after the pipeline project was proposed, many groups, including indigenous communities like the Standing Rock Sioux, raised concerns about the pipeline crossing through their culturally-significant land and under the Mississippi river, which serves as their main source of drinking water. Despite their protests, the pipeline construction continued and is currently in operation. In 2020, a US District Court denied permits to Energy Transfer Partners, determining that current permits violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and mandating that a comprehensive environmental review of the pipeline’s impacts take place.

A brief overview of the protest movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline

Cancer Alley, Louisiana

Environmental injustice can permanently affect a community for generations and can perpetuate other social injustices. Cancer Alley, Louisiana is an example of this. Cancer Alley is an 85-mile stretch housing more than 150 plants and refineries between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana. The local community, largely comprised of poverty-afflicted and black-majority populations, have had to live and raise families in the degraded and compromised environment. This has affected the health, safety, and quality of living for generations living in the area.

Puerto Rico

Low-income and rural populations in Puerto Rico are disproportionately affected by issues ranging from natural disasters to poor economic conditions. Recent issues of exposure to toxic coal ash pollution from power plants also excessively impact the health, safety, and quality of life of such vulnerable and underrepresented groups. Read more about this environmental injustice case here.

Pacific Island Nations

The Pacific Island Nations are one of the most recognizable examples of international climate injustice. These nations have to cope with warming ocean temperatures, sea-level rise, increase in the frequency of intense weather events, mass dying of marine life and coral, wildlife and habitat dislocations, saltwater intrusions into farms and freshwater ecosystems, costal erosion, and mass displacement and regional migration of people to higher altitudes. Despite the fact that the Pacific Island Nations are at high risk due to climate change, they have less of a voice in international environmental decision-making processes, perpetuating the environmental injustices they face.

More Case Studies

See the Environmental Justice Atlas and the EPA's Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool for a comprehensive list of current and historical environmental injustice incidents. Also refer to the Additional Resources section for more examples of important environmental injustice case studies.

Different Contexts of Environmental Justice

Global Context (UN Sustainable Development Goals):

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16- Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions, SDG 15- Life on Land, SDG 13- Climate Action all directly relate to environmental and climate justice. However, almost, if not all, the SDGs relate to environmentalism in some way. For example, SDG 3, Gender Equality, pertains to environmentalism because the active participation of women and women leadership is necessary when developing and supporting sustainable climate, energy, food, and urban solutions.

Learn more about the 17 SDGs and their connection to the environment.

Local Context:

Locally advocating for and supporting environmental rights as human rights and improving resources use, conservation, and sustainability are critical steps to ensuring the protection of environmental justice for all. Below are a few resources you can use to get involved in local, state, and national efforts to support and promote environmental justice.

Action Items for All

Complete an action on Project Drawdown Ecochallenge and inspire others to do so as well.

The Project Drawdown Ecochallenge.org partnership provides a platform that outlines actions you can do using 100 most impactful climate change solutions. Many of these solutions address environmental justice issues. Using the platform, you can earn points on actions you complete and see the collective impact of a global community of environmental justice advocates and changemakers just like you. Actions on the Project Drawdown Ecochallenge platform are organized by themes, such as Social Justice. Explore the Social Justice track, and be sure to visit others as well as actions that address environmental justice issues fall in all of the themed tracks!

Here are a few Ecochallenges that directly pertain to Environmental Justice:

  • Learn about local indigenous practices by attending a training, workshop, or presentation
  • Support indigenous people’s land management by donating to the Native American Rights Fund
  • Advocate for forest protection by contacting your representatives in Congress to implement policies that protect against deforestation
  • Remind your elected officials of the importance of restoring both private and public farmland in your region by contacting them
  • Support international clean energy efforts by donating to nonprofits that install renewable energy based-microgrids and clean cookstoves in low-income countries
  • Encourage public transportation use in your community by improving your local bus stop. Ideas include posting a stop schedule and adding plants, art, seating, and other resources

Host an Environmental Justice event in your community! For tips on how to host successful university campus or community-based events, you can use the UNA-USA Chapter Handbook.

Volunteer for a local food bank or join a local initiative that addresses community food deserts

Apply for social and environmental justice internships at the Sierra Club and other organizations

NOTE: A lot of these organizations listed below have mailing lists. You can sign up for their mailing lists and receive updates every month on how to participate in current campaigns/objectives! Or you can donate to these organizations:

Other online resources:

Tell your representatives in Congress to step up their commitment to climate action, clean air, and eliminating plastic waste to protect the world’s oceans!

Tell your governor that you stand with the US Climate Alliance.

Since a true understanding of environmental justice involves an understanding of social justice, access comprehensive resources that discuss important social justice issues like racial equity. For example, access Racial Equity resources by food justice organization Food Solutions New England and women justice organization Movement Strategy Center for further information on racial equity learning.

Connecticut Initiatives

Below are a list of local initiatives in Connecticut. If you live in another state, be sure to check if similar programs are available in your community!

Get involved or volunteer with local CT school and community environmental programs! Here are a few options for students in Connecticut:

Local high school student volunteers collecting water samples at a local Connecticut river (Photo by the UConn Natural Resources Conservation Academy)

Here are some other opportunities to get involved with environmental justice efforts:


This project would not have been possible without the support and guidance of UConn Professors Heidi Bailey and Laura Cisneros, UConn Extension Program Specialist Stacey Stearns, and members at the UConn Office of Sustainability including Rich Miller and Patrick McKee. This project would also have not been possible without significant help and contributions from UConn undergraduate students Natalie Roach, Mara Tu, Nicole Horen, Chloe Murphy, CTLCV Community Organizer Alex Rodriguez, and UNAGB Community Outreach Manager Margo Bailey. A sincere thanks to you all!

Contact Information

For more information or to reach out with any questions/concerns, fell free to contact Himaja Nagireddy at himaja_nagireddy@hsph.harvard.edu.

Created By
Himaja Nagireddy


Created with images by NOAA - "Looking Ice - perhaps a more appropriate name for Looking Glass Falls on this frozen day. " • Dan Stark - "untitled image" • Lawrence Makoona - "Climate justice for all flags at the Climate Strike Melbourne. Friend of the Earth International." • Patrick Hendry - "Took a walk on lunch break to create a collection of industry and “gas punk” type photos. " • Tobias Tullius - "Caught this on an early morning hike on a trip in NZ" • Ryan Jacobson - "This trip was interesting because my sleeping arrangement didn’t workout, so for a week I slept on a random dorm mattress, and used my camera bag as a pillow." • Vivianne Lemay - "Recycling is great, but how much of it is actually reused? How much of it is burned for energy? How much of it is sent off to far off countries? Learn more about recycling and how you can minimize your impact at www.sosplastic.ca or follow @sos_plastic on Instagram" • Nicolas COMTE - "untitled image" • Sterling Davis - "This is a vantage point seen often on social media, and I wanted to find it, but no one was forthcoming with the info. I started to use Google Maps 3D to try and locate where this was. I knew the ballpark—it had to be northeast of downtown. So after many attempts trying to find this cluster of palm trees, I eventually came across what had to be the location. This area, within Lincoln Heights, has lovely views but is off the beaten path. It was time for me to go make my photograph. That will never get old. I’ve loved that process ever since I was a kid. Here’s to many more in 2018!" • roman pentin - "untitled image" • Ehud Neuhaus - "untitled image" • Wim van 't Einde - "The Amercentrale is one of the electricityproducing plants in the Netherlands. The smoke from the chimneys are in a beautiful contrast with the clouds in the air." • Valdemaras D. - "Lofotens" • Adam Bouse - "Blue and white aerial view of the snow-covered Rocky Mountains" • Filip Zrnzević - "Fade ↟" • NOAA - "The view from Inspiration Point on Anacapa Island. " • Claudia Rancourt - "untitled image" • Dan Meyers - "When this gets a million views, I'm going to print out the stats and give them to the owner of this home. Random DIY signs are one of my favorite things. Think about it...what sort of intense need are these people satisfying when they decide the only course of action is to make their own signs and put them on public display? What's the story here? Why did they decide to have these face the 7-11 gas station? In all seriousness, I'm sure someone working in a mental health or suicide prevention field can make use of this stock photo. " • Matthew Smith - "Conifer sapling" • piotr szulawski - "untitled image"