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Concept Deep Dive: The History of Climate Justice, Environmental Justice, and the Digital Rights Space
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January 3, 2022
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This article is a contextual accompaniment to the issue brief Environmental Justice, Climate Justice and the Space of Digital Rights, released in July 2022. You can read more about the project here.

Environmental justice “is 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.” (EPA 2021) With close ties to the U.S. civil rights movement, environmental justice has directly connected rights-based struggles, specifically racism and discrimination, to the unjust distribution of pollution. The history and terminology of environmental justice signify the systemic nature of these particular environmental transgressions, which offers insight into how environmental justice considered globally, might link intersecting societal issues as a root cause of environmental injustice, allowing for more intersectional considerations of interlocking problems. The movement has been studied and determined by sociologist scholars like Dr. Robert Bullard throughout the 1980s and then codified at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991 (Energy Justice Network 1991) and in the Jemez Principles of 1996 (Energy Justice Network 1996).  

Environmental injustices have proliferated since the industrial era and have been documented as part of legal cases related to labor beginning in the mid-20th century (Altman 2021). But specific localities mark the beginning of environmental justice as a broader movement, with protests in 1982 Warren County, North Carolina garnering national attention. The nonviolent protests, led by Black community members and built, in part, on organizing methods of the Civil Rights Movement, addressed the dumping of toxic chemicals via contaminated soil in their communities and lasted six weeks. There were other realizations of similar environmental injustices as early as the 1960s, with farm workers fighting for protection from harmful pesticides in the San Joaquin Valley and Black students protesting a dangerous city garbage dump in Houston (NRDC 2016). The environmental justice movement began to gain media attention in the 1980s and 1990s, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office released their first report on the siting of hazardous waste sites in 1983. In 1994, (U.S.) Executive Order 12898 focused federal attention on the environment and human health conditions of minority and low-income populations with the goal of achieving environmental protection for all communities (EPA 2021).

Bound by geography, centered on organizing efforts led by local communities on a specific polluting activity or facility, and done in the pre-Internet era, the earlier decades of organizing defined a period where there often weren’t as clear entry points for people outside a community to be involved in addressing localized environmental injustices. As digital technologies and the popularization of “participatory” (e.g. community and citizen science) forms of science increased, the tools through which communities collected their own data, partnerships between environmental justice communities, scientists, public health professionals, technologists, and others amplified. During early waves of the OpenGov and Civic Technology movements, numerous groups, including people from different backgrounds—such as technologists and designers—entered into this space. The scope has since widened to those outside of environmental justice communities through popular and civic action, as environmental justice gained the attention of the broader environmental movement (in select pockets), scientific institutions (e.g. American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange), and allies working across social and racial justice. Local organizations target specific polluters, corporations, and government bodies with lawsuits, popular campaigns, mutual aid, knowledge gathering and dissemination. There are also state-wide and national coalitions made up of nonprofits, community groups, and foundations that support frontline communities and advance favorable policy at the local, state, and national level [1].

The global climate justice movement, as described by a 2011 UN Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) paper, is a loose merger between three entities: the environmental justice movement, the global justice or anti-corporate globalization movement, and a group of radical international NGOs involved in United Nations (UN) climate talks (Gabbatiss and Tandon 2021). This characterization recognizes its international scope with a nod to its local impacts through the mention of environmental justice, but popular knowledge would recognize that climate justice has expanded to include considerations of many types of justices (i.e. capabilities, recognitional, distributive, procedural) across many disciplines.

The concept of climate justice is rooted in the idea that “historical and thus current, responsibility for climate change lies with wealthy and powerful people—and yet it disproportionately impacts the poorest and most vulnerable” (Gabbatiss and Tandon 2021). While the “wealthy and powerful” often become categorized based on national boundaries (i.e. industrialized nations that have been burning fossil fuels for centuries in contrast to Global South nations that have not historically relied on fossil fuels and are suffering the largest risks related to rising temperature), fossil fuel companies are also incorporated into the “wealthy and powerful”. Categorization of impacts can also extend to the individual, as Indigenous people (Schramm et al 2020), people of color (Patnaik et al 2020), women (Dunne 2020), disabled people (UNEP 2019), as well as younger generations, will bear the brunt of the climate crisis (Gabbatiss and Tandon 2021).

As a movement, climate justice was spearheaded by those who have suffered the most adverse impacts of the climate crisis (i.e. coastal and island nations and Global South nations), as well as by anticapitalist organizations within a global justice network, with a focus on debt, trade, and globalization. The 2002 Earth Summit in Johannesburg saw the codification of the Bali Principles of Climate Justice, organized and developed by the International Climate Justice Network, made up of various organizations including Third World Network, Oil Watch, Indigenous Information Network, and CorpWatch (Climate Justice Network 2002).

In the last 20 years, the youth climate movement has been especially concerned with climate justice as an intergenerational justice issue, and this informs the broader movement’s lean toward large-scale protest, coalition-based networking, and overall messaging strategy. While spearheaded by these two groups -- those impacted most adversely and youth -- the climate justice movement isn’t necessarily bound by geography, but is contextualized by it. 

Climate justice is inextricably linked with the institution of global climate diplomacy, and it is on this stage that the concept materializes in policy, especially in discussions of loss and damage (Pidcock and Yeo 2017), carbon markets, additionality (Michaelowa and Hermwille 2019), nationally determined contributions, and the global just transition. Climate justice is codified in the UNFCCC’s foundational documents and understanding, including the principle of “polluter pays” (Ward and Hicks 2018), which recognizes that developed nations have emitted a larger share historically and contemporarily, and thus, should take on bigger responsibilities in addressing climate change. “Common but differentiated responsibility” is a named principle in the UNFCCC-establishing treaty, indicating that while all nations should be addressing climate change, there are varying levels of responsibility and capabilities when it comes to cutting emissions. These principles provide the guidance for the treaty negotiations (e.g. Kyoto Protocol, Paris Agreement) at the annual Conference of Parties (COP), and are often the basis for contention, especially regarding nationally determined contributions.