Environmental Justice

The toll of climate change on human health is a serious environmental justice issue. Although all Americans are vulnerable to the health impacts of climate change, these impacts are not felt equally across the country. People of color, Indigenous peoples, low-income communities, immigrant groups, people with disabilities, children, pregnant women, and older adults are more susceptible to many of the health harms related to climate change and fossil fuel emissions.80 Ensuring that all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income are included and treated equally in the development, implementation, and enforcement of the laws and regulations mitigating the effects of climate change is crucial to protecting the health of all Americans.

Climate Impacts

Limited economic resources and deteriorating infrastructure are some of the barriers to communities’ ability to recover after experiencing extreme weather events, increasing their vulnerability to climate-related health effects. In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, many environmental justice communities experienced increased illness and injury, death, and displacement due to poor-quality housing, lack of access to emergency communications, lack of access to transportation, inadequate access to health care services and medications, limited post-disaster employment, and limited or no health and property insurance.81

In 2017, three hurricanes impacted the United States and caused severe damage. Yet, existing inequalities and the federal government’s abysmal response after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico resulted in long-lasting challenges to the island’s recovery. Puerto Ricans do not have access to many of the benefits of the Affordable Care Act and, therefore, rely on public programs like community health centers, Medicaid, and Medicare for healthcare. After the storm hit, these severely underfunded programs were not able to meet the health needs of the island.82 In addition, compared to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) response after hurricanes made landfall in Texas and Florida in the same year, there are vast differences in the number of supplies and personnel that FEMA deployed to Puerto Rico. These discrepancies compounded with the widespread disruptions to already fragile medical systems on the island likely contributed to Hurricane Maria being one of the deadliest storms in U.S. history.83

In some areas of the country, climate change is permanently displacing people from their homes, creating climate refugees. In Alaska, the loss of sea ice due to abnormally high temperatures and unusual weather patterns is causing dramatic coastal erosion, threatening the existence of 31 Native coastal and river communities. In the small village Newtok, for example, erosion and flooding threaten the safety and wellbeing of residents and have forced many of them to relocate.84 Off the coast of Louisiana, repeated devastation from multiple hurricanes, the loss of landmass due to sea level rise and erosion, and oil and gas development are also forcing residents of bayou communities to relocate or make plans to relocate if these conditions continue to worsen.85 

Policy failures in areas outside of public health and environmental policy have also led to environmental injustice due to climate impacts. Evidence suggests that redlining policies of the 20th century, which segregated cities and diverted investments away from communities of color, have led to urban heat islands that continue to disproportionately impact these neighborhoods.86 Redlined neighborhoods in more than 100 U.S. cities are more likely to have fewer trees and parks that cool the air and more asphalt and highways that radiate heat. On average, these neighborhoods are 5°F warmer than non-redlined districts, leading to a higher risk of heatstroke and other heat-related illnesses for these residents.87 Even cities that have enacted policies to combat the effects of past housing discrimination policies still experience differences in temperatures of as much as 12.5°F between historically redlined neighborhoods and non-redlined neighborhoods.88 As the effects of climate change lead to more days of extreme heat, these communities will feel the greatest impact.

Pollution Impacts

Low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to be located near polluting industries and be exposed to polluted air.89 People of color are nearly twice as likely as white people to live within one mile of chemical facilities, and children of color make up more than two-thirds of the children that live in this zone.90 A study of the burden of PM-emitting facilities on surrounding communities found that people living in poverty had 1.4 times more exposure to PM pollution than the overall population, and people of color had 1.3 times more exposure.91

In Imperial County, California, residents suffer from poor air quality due to high levels of ozone pollution from Mexicali, a large city across the border in Mexico. It is well-documented that residents of Imperial County experience above average rates of asthma, and high poverty and unemployment rates and language barriers prevent residents from receiving adequate medical care. Yet, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) waived requirements under the Clean Air Act to clean up the air in Imperial County because much of the air pollution comes from across the U.S.-Mexico border.92 

Researchers have also found that environmental justice communities are disproportionately located near oil and gas facilities. For instance, over 1 million Black people live in counties with a risk of cancer from toxins emitted by natural gas facilities above EPA’s level of “concern,” and more than 6.7 million Black people live in the 91 counties in the U.S. with oil refineries.93 Wells, pipelines, and compressor stations are disproportionately located in low-income, non-white, and marginalized communities, where they may leak gas, generate noise, and endanger health while producing no local benefits.94 The location of these oil and gas facilities is undoubtedly a contributing factor to the 138,000 asthma attacks and 101,000 lost school days that Black children experience each year.95

In addition, the transportation sector places an excessive burden of air pollution on environmental justice communities. A study of air pollution from cars, trucks, and buses in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic found that communities of color are exposed to 66 percent more PM2.5 pollution than white communities96; and an assessment of the health burden of vehicle emissions in New York City concluded that high poverty neighborhoods are disproportionately impacted by ozone and PM2.5 pollution.97


80Crimmins et al., supra note 1, at 249.

81Id. at 253.

82David Blumenthal & Shanoor Seervai, What Hurricane Maria’s Death Toll Reveals About Health Care in Puerto Rico, Tʜᴇ Cᴏᴍᴍᴏɴᴡᴇᴀʟᴛʜ Fᴜɴᴅ (June 7, 2018), https://hbr.org/2018/06/what-hurricane-marias-death-toll-reveals-about-health-care-in-puerto-rico.


84Geof Koss, 'We cannot wait.' Sinking Alaska village finds new home, E&E Nᴇᴡs (Sept. 4 2019), https://www.eenews.net/stories/1061110713.

85Annie Snider, Letter from Louisiana: ‘It’s Not Going To Be Alright’, Pᴏʟɪᴛɪᴄᴏ (Sept. 1 2017), https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/09/01/harvey-texas-louisiana-floods-relocation-215565.

86Brad Plumer & Nadja Popovich, How Decades of Racist Housing Policy Left Neighborhoods Sweltering, N.Y. Tɪᴍᴇs (Aug. 24 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/08/24/climate/racism-redlining-cities-global-warming.html?campaign_id=9&emc=edit_nn_20200824&instance_id=21556&nl=the-morning®i_id=96909927§ion_index=2§ion_name=three_more_big_stories&segment_id=36808&te=1&user_id=ab7270241d0d903428af42eb1eace88a.

87Daniel Cusick, Past Racist ‘Redlining’ Practices Increased Climate Burden on Minority Neighborhoods, Sᴄɪᴇɴᴛɪꜰɪᴄ Aᴍᴇʀɪᴄᴀɴ (Jan. 21 2020), https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/past-racist-redlining-practices-increased-climate-burden-on-minority-neighborhoods/.


89Ihad Mikati, Disparities in Distribution of Particulate Matter Emission Sources by Race and Poverty Status, 108 Aᴍ. Jᴏᴜʀɴᴀʟ ᴏꜰ Pᴜʙ. Hᴇᴀʟᴛʜ 480 (2018), https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2017.304297.

90Amanda Starbuck & Ronald White, Living in the Shadow of Danger: Poverty, Race, and Unequal Chemical Facility Hazards, Cᴛʀ. ꜰᴏʀ Eꜰꜰᴇᴄᴛɪᴠᴇ Gᴏᴠᴇʀɴᴍᴇɴᴛ (2018), https://www.foreffectivegov.org/sites/default/files/shadow-of-danger-highrespdf.pdf.

91Mikati, supra note 89.

92Charles Corbet, Fighting for Clean Air in Imperial County, California, Lᴇɢᴀʟ Pʟᴀɴᴇᴛ (Aug. 27, 2020), https://legal-planet.org/2020/08/27/fighting-for-clean-air-in-imperial-county-california/.

93Lesley Fleischman & Marcus Franklin, Fumes Across the Fence-Line: The Health Impacts of Air Pollution from Oil & Gas Facilities on African American Communities, Cʟᴇᴀɴ Aɪʀ Tᴀsᴋ Fᴏʀᴄᴇ (Nov. 2017), http://www.catf.us/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/CATF_Pub_FumesAcrossTheFenceLine.pdf.

94Philip Landrigan et al., The False Promise of Natural Gas, 382 N. Eɴɢʟ. J. Mᴇᴅ. 104 (2020), http://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMp1913663.

95Fleischman & Franklin, supra note 93.

96 In the Northeast, Communities of Color Breathe 66% More Air Pollution from Vehicles, Uɴɪᴏɴ ᴏꜰ Cᴏɴᴄᴇʀɴᴇᴅ Sᴄɪᴇɴᴛɪsᴛs (June 27, 2019), https://www.ucsusa.org/about/news/communities-color-breathe-66-more-air-pollution-vehicles.

97Kheirbek, supra note 78.