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Environmental Justice & Climate Justice defined

What is the basis in U.S. law for federal action on environmental justice? 

How does that differ from a broader definition of environmental justice in professional practice?

Against this backdrop, what is the definition of Climate Justice?





President Bill Clinton's March 1994 Executive Order #12898 remains in effect today. 

This historic statement noted:  "In accordance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, each Federal agency shall ensure that all programs or activities receiving Federal financial assistance that affect human health or the environment do not directly, or through contractual or other arrangements, use criteria, methods, or practices that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin.

"Each Federal agency shall analyze the environmental effects, including human health, economic and social effects, of Federal actions, including effects on minority communities and low-income communities, when such analysis is required by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), 42 V.S.C. section 4321 et seq. Mitigation measures outlined or analyzed in an environmental assessment, environmental impact statement, or record of decision, whenever feasible, should address significant and adverse environmental effects of proposed Federal actions on minority communities and low-income communities."

- excerpted from


This contrasts with the more broad definition followed by helping professions. 

For example, the following definition is adapted from the Council on Social Work Education's Commission for Diversity and Social and Economic Justice and Commission on Global Social Work Education Committee on Environmental justice, as follows:

"Environmental justice occurs when all people equally experience high levels of environmental protection and no group or community is excluded from the environmental policy decision-making process, nor is affected by a disproportionate impact from environmental hazards. Environmental justice affirms the ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, respect for cultural and biological diversity, and the right to be free from ecological destruction. This includes responsible use of ecological resources, including the land, water, air, and food."


Subsequently, Climate Justice moved into center stage

as the entire world became more aware of, and dedicated to addressing, the global challenge of climate change as an existential question for humankind.  The overlap with environmental justice has become increasingly obvious with the broad recognition that climate change is a force multiplier that profoundly expands and exponentially amplifies virtually all aspects of environmental justice.  One research center put it succinctly when they published:   

"Climate change is fundamentally an issue of human rights and environmental justice that connects the local to the global. With rising temperatures, human lives—particularly in people of color, low-income, and Indigenous communities—are affected by compromised health, financial burdens, and social and cultural disruptions. Those who are most affected and have the the fewest resources to adapt to climate change are also the least responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions—both globally and within the United States."

- excerpted from

Current federal laws

Which current federal laws are a front line of defense for communities in general and especially those seeking environmental justice & climate justice?


NEPA, 1969

The National Environmental Protection Act of 1969 has been called the Magna Carta of environmental legislation.   It established in law the idea that federal projects are required to consider report on their projected impact, established the system requiring Environmental Impact Statements [EIS]  For details see


CAA, 1970 

The Clean Air Act of 1970 -  -along with amendments in 1977 and 1990-  -  mark an historic advance in the executive branch's role in monitoring and regulating both stationary & mobile air pollution [from industry & from transportation, respectively].   Initially, the federal role was limited to funding research through the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955. Next, an early version called the Clean Air Act of 1963 authorized research on air pollution monitoring and control within the framework of the U.S. Public Health Service.  In 1967, the Air Quality Act further expanded federal action to include specification of emission inventories, ambient monitoring, and pollution controls.

But with the passage of CAA, 1970 sweeping comprehensive federal and state regulations began to enforce limits on air pollution, ushering in the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS); State Implementation Plans (SIPs);  New Source Performance Standards (NSPS);  National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAPs).  For details see


CWA, 1972 

The Clean Water Act [CWA, 1972] has become the common parlance for a significantly amended 1972 version of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, which was the first major federal law on the subject.   For details see


SDWA, 1974

The Safe Drinking Water Act [SDWA, 1974] established EPA authority over all water sources designated for human consumption both potentially and in actuality, encompassing both surface waters and underground water sources, establishing minimum quality standards and granting authority to regulate owners and operator of public water systems.  Amendments in 1996 amendments extended EPA authority to rely on the best available peer reviewed science to develop standards and conduct & review detailed cost/risk/benefit assessment.  For details see


TSCA, 1976 

The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976          

SCA addresses the production, importation, use, and disposal of specific chemicals including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), asbestos, radon and lead-based paint.

Various sections of TSCA provide authority to:

  • Require, under Section 5, pre-manufacture notification for "new chemical substances" before manufacture
  • Require, under Section 4, testing of chemicals by manufacturers, importers, and processors where risks or exposures of concern are found
  • Issue Significant New Use Rules (SNURs), under Section 5, when it identifies a "significant new use" that could result in exposures to, or releases of, a substance of concern.
  • Maintain the TSCA Inventory, under Section 8, which contains more than 83,000 chemicals. As new chemicals are commercially manufactured or imported, they are placed on the list.
  • Require those importing or exporting chemicals, under Sections 12(b) and 13, to comply with certification reporting and/or other requirements.
  • Require, under Section 8, reporting and record-keeping by persons who manufacture, import, process, and/or distribute chemical substances in commerce.
  • Require, under Section 8(e), that any person who manufactures (including imports), processes, or distributes in commerce a chemical substance or mixture and who obtains information which reasonably supports the conclusion that such substance or mixture presents a substantial risk of injury to health or the environment to immediately inform EPA, except where EPA has been adequately informed of such information.  EPA screens all TSCA b§8(e) submissions as well as voluntary "For Your Information" (FYI) submissions. The latter are not required by law, but are submitted by industry and public interest groups for a variety of reasons.


         for details see


EJ 2020 Resources

Nonetheless, the Environmental Justice Research Roadmap is a particularly invaluable downloadable resource interfacing environmental justice and science.  In brief, it highlights opportunities that can link environmental equity and technology.    


Communities can proactively look at data to examine the data on their exposures using EJSCREEN: Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool.

While flaws may exist, this tool allows a community to examine the types of pollution and those levels that are recorded, reported, and archived at EPA in a nationally consistent dataset, along with a means of considering both environmental and demographic indicators that may reveal patterns and/or help explain local health problems.  EPA does not protect a community, per se.  They collect the data and make it available so that communities can seek protection.  Communities and the helping professionals must be proactive in examining these data and demanding solutions where the argument can be made.






advanced readings on climate emergency

Since President Trump withdrew from the Paris Accords and most large nations have failed to enhance their commitments as expressed at the conclusion of COP 21, what is the status of climate change as an existential crisis?


EJ outside CJ

A vast array of EJ issues are multiplied and made more extreme by climate change, so we ask:  which EJ subtopics seem distant or unrelated to CJ?


#1  On Superfund sites we recommend starting with

CERCLA, 1980 refers to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act [aka Superfund], which established federal policy on closed and abandoned hazardous waste sites, liability of responsible persons, and a trust fund to provide for cleanup.    

For details see:

For a discussion of racial disparities in the Trump administration's retrenchment from maintaining and funding cleanup of Superfund sites, check out "Polluters Pay So Children Can Play"  Authors: Lois Gibbs, Maddelene Karlsson and Kenia French;  Contributions: Stephen Lester, Lauren Maranto, Elizabeth Goodiel; published by The Center for Health, Environment and Justice, P.O. Box 6806,  Falls Church, VA 22040        707-237-2249

On page 14 the authors' analysis of the Trump policy went on to explain:  "Overall, he’s largely ignored orphan sites. Orphan sites are in many ways the most vulnerable of Superfund sites, because without federal allocations to the Superfund program, there is no money to clean up these sites. These findings convey a focus on sites that have a clear cleanup plan lined up, and a departure from the innate purpose of Superfund, which is to clean up the most toxic hazardous sites, not just the ones that have an easy source of funding to pay for the cleanup."

On page 15 the authors went on to explain:  "What’s perhaps even more striking is that the large majority of sites targeted by the Trump administration are in predominantly white areas. 61.1% of Superfund sites Trump is working on are in zip codes where the population is mostly white. This is particularly significant because environmental pollution disproportionately affects people of color. A recent study, financed in part by the EPA, found that people of color disproportionately live near polluted facilities and breathe in polluted air, and thus suffer disproportionately from diseases caused by living in an unhealthy environment. According to EPA’s own data, 1/5 of all minorities in the US live within 3 miles of a Superfund site.50 The population within 1 mile of all Superfund sites in the US is composed 49.3% of minorities, and within 3 miles the population is 49.7% minority (if minority is defined as anyone who is not white, excluding white people who also identify as Hispanic or Latino).51 When looking at zip codes Trump’s Superfund sites are located in, the population is 41.7% minority, which is significantly less than the overall population makeup of who lives near Superfund sites. It’s important to keep in mind that analyzing zip codes vs. analyzing population within one to three miles is a different measurement, because zip codes can vary in size, but knowing that Superfund sites disproportionately affect people of color, it’s significant that Trump’s Superfund policy is mostly serving white people."


human face of climate change

What is the human face at annual meetings of COP [the Conference of Parties]

What is the human face of climate change on the ground?