Environmental justice seeks to redress inequalities of environmental burden, namely anything that constitutes an environmental risk to health. The concept began in the United States in 20th. It is also termed just "sustainability." The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA 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."
Examples of environmental injustice include exposure to pollutants and unequal distribution of land and living space. The EPA's aim is to ensure people from all walks of life enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental burden and that they have equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment.
Although the original environmental justice movement began in the 1980s, there was increasing awareness of the environment and environmental hazards following World War II, due to fear of health risk from nuclear weapons. The movement is closely linked to the American civil rights movement of the 1960s as environmental injustice overwhelmingly hits low-income communities, often communities of color. Research has shown, for example, significantly higher levels of lead and byproducts of pesticides in blood samples taken from Mexican Americans and African Americans than in white Americans.
There are numerous incidences of landfills, incinerators and other potentially toxic facilities being placed near minority communities. Studies have shown that enforcement is less rigorous in these communities than in predominantly white communities. Lack of political and economic power is one of the reasons why environmental injustice flourished; one concern is the lack of representation in environmental, governmental and private groups.
The environmental justice movement began as a reaction to hazardous wastes and other toxic chemicals that were seen to be imposed upon communities of color. Activists began to emerge from these communities and in 1982 the term "environmental racism" was coined by racial justice campaigner Dr. Benjamin Chavis during a month-long protest against a chemical landfill in Warren County, North Carolina. The protest was unsuccessful but as a result of the action there was greater public awareness of the cause, which gained the attention of national civil rights leaders and environmentalists. It also led to Warren County being recognized as the birthplace of the movement.
In 1983 a report was carried out by the U.S. General Accounting Office into the siting of hazardous waste landfills across eight southern states. The report found that a quarter of the sites were located in low-income, minority communities. This report was followed by further significant research on the subject, which revealed considerable environmental problems facing these communities.
In 1991 the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit saw more than 600 attendees meet to discuss these issues. The group comprised mainly of African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, and Native Americans; there were also a number of representatives from other countries. One of the results of this meeting was an agreement to: "build a national and international movement of all peoples of color to fight the destruction and taking of our lands and communities."
The inequitable distribution of environmental hazards is by no means limited to one country; it is a global problem. There is a major issue with the shifting of environmental pollution from industrialized to developing countries in Africa, South America and Asia. This is aggravated by inadequate or non-existent environmental regulations or a lack of motivation to enforce the law in this area. Governments in developing countries have also tended to sacrifice environmental protection in favor of economic prosperity. It should also be noted that these countries are also more vulnerable to climate change.
Ironically, while the burden of environmental injustice is borne by poor populations, industrialized nations are responsible for the greater proportion of environmental damage. For example, the United States is said to be responsible for 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gases; in contrast, per capita emissions of greenhouse gases in developing countries are comparatively low.
Across the globe, groups have formed to address the problem of environmental injustice. Among the problems they face are the wide-reaching effects and causes of the problem. There may also be a resistance to change from some governments.