A Shared Framework for Environmental Justice

On Thursday, October 15, 100 people from various faith communities across Maryland came together on Zoom and Facebook Live to learn about the history of and a shared framework for environmental justice. Our teacher was Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, North American Director for 350.org who opened the program with a talk on the history of environmental justice and a framework for using environmental justice as a lens for work on issues such as climate, energy, transportation, water and land use. Tamara is a leader, a lawyer, and a passionate advocate who shared that “her climate work on emissions, greenhouse gasses, methane, fracking and all things that have defined her environmental work in Maryland is a leaf on a branch of the tree of social justice.” 

The following are the takeaways from Tamara’s talk. 

Defining Environmental Justice

  • Environmental Justice is not a separate body of work. It is a lens that helps us see where there are inequities in many of society’s systems. Race often defines who benefits and who bears the burdens in the conduct of these systems.
  • The most likely determinant of being exposed to pollution is race. Environmental justice offers a lens that asks the question: are the people who are impacted most by certain policies also the ones who are visible, counted and part of the decision-making conversations. 

Environmental Justice Timeline

  • Communities began to mobilize about environmental justice from 1968-1982. They talked to their faith leaders and community leaders about the pollution being dumped in their front and backyards, and why the health of their families was being impacted without their knowing anything about it. 
  • In 1991, the faith leaders, community leaders, and farmers from these communities got together at the National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit to form a set of Environmental Justice Principles. This body of work has documented how the system has failed people of color. 
  • In 1994, President Clinton signed Executive Order #12898 that makes environmental justice a priority for the Federal Government. It is the only record on the books that says the Federal Government should use federal funds to convene investigations and share data to tell people what is happening to them. 
  • The road to justice is a lengthy one. It took from the 1960’s when communities started to talk about what was happening and asking why it was happening to 1994 for the federal government to respond. It was the work of many generations to get to this moment.
  • In 1996, the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice produced an analysis that informed the Jemez Principles of Democratic Organizing. The intent of these principles is to move decision-making to a bottom-up approach and to not make top-level decisions without considering the people who have to live with the consequences.  
  • In 1998, The Wingspread Statement/Precautionary Principles
    • “When an activity threatens harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically”
    • Precautionary Principles are not considered environmental justice history but it is relevant to this work. It demands that we think clearly about what the future might hold before making decisions 
  • At the federal level, the US is considered to have one of the most robust sets of environmental laws to protect the quality of the air, water and land. Unfortunately, we have been experiencing a period of rollbacks and even before the rollbacks, there were examples of limitations of these laws including demand and access to clean energy, highways and air pollution, climate change and flooding/mold, and electrification and storage. 

An Environmental Justice Framework to Move Forward

You can view Tamara’s full presentation and the Q&A here.

  • Tamara proposed the following definition for environmental justice emphasizing being in right-relationship with the people who are being impacted. 
    • “Ongoing and informed engagement between impacted people and decision-makers, as long-term partners, to determine a fair distribution of benefits and, if any, acceptable burdens.”
  • Tamara proposed the following operational framework to assess whether a situation is really being addressed from an environmental justice lens. 
    • Equity
      • In the distribution of benefits and burdens to all residents
    • Access
      • Proactively share information in a clear and timely manner and format with all those potentially impacted by the issue at hand 
      • Decisions-makers will reach out to potentially impacted communities at a time when community input can inform the process and decisions and not just make observations and react
    • Justice
      • In realizing everyone’s highest potential without the weight of barriers and biases. 
  • “No community or group of people should bear an outsized burden of environmental threats, ecological manipulations, or be excluded from decisions that determine their future for any reason, particularly for profit. Poverty is not biological. It is a function of design.” [of the system]
  • Equity is key to the environmental justice narrative because in the US we have a history of marginalizing communities of color. Tamara shared that in her neighborhood in Baltimore, the last racist housing policies were removed in 1985 but the practice of marginalizing certain groups started back in 1830 with the Indian Removal Act.  
  • To put this environmental justice operational framework into practice, we must be willing to shift and/or share power, recognize the leadership of communities who are impacted, work in participatory stewardship of land and resources, acknowledge the harm even if it can’t be fixed and work towards restorative justice.   

The Faith-Based Environmental Justice Training Program is a 5-week virtual training program to bring together communities of faith to learn about environmental justice, climate justice, and how to apply this learning in advocating for change at a local and state level in Maryland. This program is a collaboration of the Maryland Campaign for Environmental Human Rights (MDEHR), the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council, and its members including GreenGrace (Maryland Episcopal Environmental Partners) and the DE-MD (ELCA) Lutheran Synod.

RSVP here to join the conversation live. A recording of Tamara’s talk and Q&A session is available here.