As a follow-up to Rebecca Newman’s post earlier this week, this is an edited and updated version of the chapter on environmental justice that was written by Bill Scott and Paul Vare in their 2018 book: The World we’ll Leave behind: grasping the sustainability challenge. As ever with our blogs the views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Association.

On February 11th 1994 the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, issued Executive Order 12898 which directed all US federal agencies to develop a strategy that “identifies and addresses disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.”   The executive order required the US Department of Justice to promote the equal enforcement of all existing civil rights, health, and environmental statutes.[i]  

Environmental justice is defined by the US Environmental Protection Agency both in terms of fair treatment, but also in relation to the meaningful involvement of people in decision-making – all people regardless of race or ethnicity, gender or sexuality, origin or income.  The Clinton executive order was felt necessary because of mounting evidence that poor, disadvantaged and marginalised people across the United States had the odds stacked against them when it came to [i] ensuring necessary environmental goods, such as clean air and water, and [ii] avoiding a whole lot of environmental bads, such as bad housing, poor food, pollution of all kinds but particularly nuclear and toxic wastes, hazardous industries, and injurious practices.  

The USA is far from alone in facing such problems, although not all countries are keen to face up to them.  Generally speaking, the more open and democratic a country is, the more likely it is that environmental justice policies will be in place, along with actions to promote them.  The European Union has only recently taken environmental justice seriously, and even now ClientEarth, a group of campaigning lawyers, claims that no individual or campaign group has ever been given permission to bring an environmental case against an EU institution to the European Court of Justice.[ii]  This is despite the right to be able to do this being enshrined in the UN Economic Commission for Europe’s Aarhus Convention.[iii]

Environmental justice is a broad term and covers many aspects of life.  Whilst air, soil and water pollution are significant environmental justice issues, so are poor access to healthy affordable food, inadequate affordable transport links, the ready availability of fuel, and protection from environmental disasters such as earthquakes and tsunami.  Famine and drought are ultimate environmental justice issues.  It’s generally poor people who face such problems, as wealth, usually allows people the scope to do something about the issue; often, this is the ability to move house if necessary to a geographical area not so affected.  Something else that enables people to resist the imposition of problems, whether by government agencies or business, is the ability to self-organise at community levels and fight back.  In this sense, environmental justice is a particular kind of social justice.  

At the launch of a new United Nations Environmental Justice Council, the UN Environment Programme’s Deputy Executive Director stressed this point, saying:“Social justice must go hand-in-hand with efforts to improve environmental sustainability. With its expertise and global reach, the new council will be a powerful global advocate for law, justice and good governance. It will give renewed impetus to efforts to secure the solid legal foundations on which an inclusive, low-carbon, resource-efficient green economy can be built.” The USA’s environmental justice movement is dominated by issues of race inequality, but campaigns around the world have different targets.  For example, in the UK the main issues are poverty and the environment, along with health inequalities and social exclusion.  

More widely, the Environmental Justice Foundation has sought to make a direct link between the need for environmental security and the defence of basic human rights.[iv]  The Foundation works internationally to protect the environment and such rights, and its campaigns have led to governments addressing forced child labour and human trafficking.  Successes also include bans on pesticides, the arrests of illegal (pirate) fishing trawlers in West Africa, and protection for coastal forests in Brazil.  They have also campaigned against cotton production in Uzbekistan that relies on child labour, and the mismanagement of water resources for crop irrigation.  The Foundation has successfully petitioned large retailers to stop selling Uzbek cotton.  

The University of Michigan has many case studies of communities across the world dealing with these issues.  These include the effects of copper mining in the Philippines, the building of the Three Gorges Dam in China, Maasai land rights in Kenya and Tanzania, and Aboriginal Rights in Australia’s Northern Territory, and the displacement of Indigenous People in Malaysia.

At the very highest level of international law we have the Rome Statute.  This focuses on “the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole” (also known as Crime Against Peace).  Currently there are four of these: The Crime of Genocide; Crimes Against Humanity; War Crimes; and The Crime of Aggression.

Since the 1970s, the understanding that ecological damage can threaten our peace and security has led to numerous United Nations committees discussing whether there should be a fifth, and in 2010, the environmental lawyer, Polly Higgins, submitted a proposal to amend the Rome Statute to include an international crime of Ecocide.[v] Higgins’ organisation, Eradicating Ecocide, defines this as:  “the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished.”[vi] The idea behind creating such an offence at the very highest level is that when someone or some entity commits this kind of crime, the International Criminal Court has powers to intervene. This has not yet been agreed.


[i] The US Department of Justice is a key part of the government of the United States:

[ii] ClientEarth are activist lawyers who are committed to securing a healthy planet.  Details of their focus on climate, health, energy, oceans, forests, business and democracy can be found on their website:

[iii] The Aarhus Convention establishes a number of rights for the public (both individuals and groups) with regard to the environment.  Details can be found on:  Put “Aahrus” into the search box.

[iv] The Environmental Justice Foundation is a UK-based charity that works internationally to protect the environment and defend human rights:

[v] Higgins, P. TEDx Exeter: Ecocide, the 5th crime against peace. Web link:

[vi] The Eradicating Ecocide website:


Paul can be contacted at: and Bill at:

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