Bringing justice into the environment

  • Climate and sustainability
  • Environment
  • Guest Feature

Professor Gordon Walker, Lancaster University 

In this piece, Professor Gordon Walker of Lancaster University discusses environmental and climate justice debates, as well as the role of social scientists in progressing both movements nationally and internationally. 

It has now become relatively commonplace to see environment, climate, energy and related topics combined with the term ‘justice’. On campaign posters, in activist discourses, in non-governmental reports and in some policy documents and political speeches, the terms environmental justice, climate justice, just transition and energy justice recurrently figure as key concepts or reference points – if filled out and made sense of in varying terms. It has not always been thus. Go back a few decades and it was rare for anything broadly environmental in character to be thought of through a justice framing. Questions of the social distribution of environmental bads and goods were little recognised or researched, fairness and inclusion in decision making were not key concerns, and how environmental matters were refracted through deeper foundations of discrimination, disadvantage and exclusion remained little examined.

That we have got to the point where justice is now visible and being made to matter to environmental concerns is at least in some small part down to the work of many academics and researchers across the social sciences, often connecting and collaborating with communities and activist organisations. The origins of the term environmental justice (those specific words in combination) are routinely traced to the emergence of the environmental justice (EJ) movement in the US in the 1980s. Bob Bullard was a key figure, sometimes described as the father of the EJ movement. A self-described ‘kick ass sociologist’ based in Houston, Texas, he along with other ‘academic-activists’ developed lines of analysis, undertook early studies evidencing patterns of disproportionate environmental burden on poor, black and marginalised communities and pushed for political responses. Key research was often undertaken with and within ‘not-for-profits’ and advocacy groups and the best academic analysis of what the justice in environmental justice should mean paid close attention to what activists on the ground were arguing and claiming.  Roll forward in time through many comings and goings of influence for the US EJ movement, and President Biden’s Justice 40 initiative along with the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (which includes Bob Bullard and other academics amongst its members) now reflects much that has been progressed through activist campaigning, supported by academic collaboration and critique over the past 30 or so years.

The idea of environmental justice did not though only have US origins. Whilst not necessarily using an explicit justice language, many other communities across the Global South and North resisting the destruction of their living environments or protesting that their health was being harmed by pollution and waste, had also long been making arguments about unfairness, inequality and discrimination. Political ecology, as a particular cross-disciplinary orientation to researching environment and resource issues reaching back into the 1970s, had a distinct concern for inequalities and rights at its core, arguing that ecological matters were necessarily political ones and paying close attention to dynamics of power and resistance. Recent moves to decolonise established ways of thinking about what it means to connect justice and environment have also pushed against any sense that there is one ‘US origin’ story to narrate, however significant that may have been within its specific context.

For the UK there was some learning from the US experience, but also home-grown dynamics at work. In the early 2000’s I was part of attempts to bring a justice framing into environmental debates, at a time when the then new Labour government was pursuing a concern for social exclusion and poverty that had been little present in preceding administrations. In projects commissioned by the Environment Agency we undertook country scale analyses of patterns of flooding, industrial emissions, air pollution and waste facility siting in relation to area-based deprivation. We ran an Economic Social Research Council (ESRC) and Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funded seminar series, contributed to a Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs commissioned evidence review, analysed the status of environmentally-oriented distributive analysis within policy appraisal tools in a project for Friends of the Earth. There was much transdisciplinary academic engagement and excitement. Established environmental NGOS began to develop ‘social’ orientations and the Scottish Government briefly adopted environmental justice as a key policy orientation. However, there was also significant caution and resistance and there was never any real equivalent to the emergence of the US EJ movement. The Environment Agency preferred to use the term ‘environmental inequalities’ in their work and commissioned research, rather than grapple with the difficult and politically sensitive concept of justice. The media were little interested, one newspaper editor at the time responding that there ‘was little news’ in an analysis showing that industrial pollution was concentrated strongly in deprived neighbourhoods. Policy interest wavered and moved on; other political concerns came to dominate often with little interest in the environment at all, let alone its relation to poverty, marginalisation and disadvantage.

Maybe, however, the seeds of a more enduring environmental justice agenda were put in place at this time, able to connect up with new political currents as they have emerged over recent years. International voices and agenda have certainly added their weight, particularly with climate justice becoming such a strong and repeated demand of climate action, moving from activism and academia into mainstream climate policy debates. Social scientists have in the background also continued to build the foundations of understanding and analysis. They have deepened the UK evidence base on the distinctly uneven social patterns of exposure and vulnerability to harm at national and local scales, particularly in relation to air pollution, but also the key climate risks for the UK of flooding and extreme heat. They have analysed how significant justice concepts have become to protest and activist groups, including, for example, those resisting the developing of fracking in Northern England. They have filled out in many different ways what the notion of a ‘just transition’ can and should mean for households, for those in fuel poverty, for young people, for those working in carbon-intensive industries.

There is much more to be done and it is encouraging to see terms such as inclusivity, equity, fairness and justice increasingly figuring in the research priorities and calls of key funding bodies for environment and climate research. Justice has now resolutely entered into the environmental agenda in the UK, the US and many other international contexts, and social scientists have much to contribute to keeping it there, filling out why it matters, what it should mean and how it should be progressed.

About the author

Gordon Walker is an Emeritus Professor in the Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University. He is the author of many publications on environmental justice and inequality and community energy initiatives which involve embedding renewable energy at the local level. Gordon was until recently co-director of the DEMAND Centre at Lancaster University, which focusses on end use energy demand reduction

Image credit: Markus Spiske, Unsplash