April 1, 2020 Cartoon Watanasirisuk

An Introduction to the Environmental Justice Movement

September 20th, 2019, New York City. Youth Climate Strike, an initiative that addresses the climate crisis and promotes environmental justice, led by Greta Thunberg. Credit: Cartoon Watanasirisuk.

Cartoon Watanasirisuk is Verdical Group’s Sustainability & Business Development Intern. She is currently a junior at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she is pursuing a double major in economics and biology & society.

This past summer I was in New York during the September climate protest that was initiated by Greta Thunberg. Having never participated in a rally of any kind before this, I was stunned by the number of people and the intensity with which they demanded actions for our climate crisis.

The climate crisis, where global warming and its consequences are causing extreme weather, rising sea levels, and threatening food production, is an obvious environmental issue. To a certain extent, we’re all in this together: the increasingly frequent wildfires in California and hurricanes in Florida cause damage across all neighborhoods no matter the land price per square foot. The ability to be resilient during these trying times, however, is a luxury. 

Climate change-induced natural disasters might not discriminate against who they affect, but the ability to afford rebuilding one’s house after it’s been destroyed or the ability to retain access to water during droughts reveal the unequal distribution of impacts different communities will suffer. The social aspect of climate change has historically been overlooked, but today the term “environmental justice” is being used  to promote the equal distribution of environmental benefits and burdens. The concept of justice extends beyond damages incurred by the climate crisis to include the effects of other environmental problems that might impact some communities more than others, such as exposure to toxins. 

Campaigns like the Youth Climate Strike and Fire Drill Fridays are social movements that demand that the climate crisis be addressed at the policy level. The logic is that if polluters, through incentives or regulations, become responsible for the waste and pollutants they create, less will be disposed into vulnerable, less affluent neighborhoods.

In the case of healthy buildings, making sure indoor air quality is clean and our buildings are energy-efficient and made from non-toxic materials come at some financial cost that not everybody can independently afford. I think this is where government policies could play a positive role— either in setting a standard for all buildings, as is the case for California’s CALGreen mandatory compliance, or by taxing polluters such that it will be more profitable to invest in sustainability. After all, pollution does come at a big economic, environmental, health, and societal cost. 

While these environmental justice issues, and many others, impact thousands of people each day, the spread of the movement has led to significant progress in beginning to tackle them. Participating in the Youth Climate Strike that day has made me hopeful for the future of our planet; when it comes to propelling meaningful changes, history tends to favor initiatives started by everyday people getting out and making their voices heard.