For decades, grass-roots activists and their allies have worked to end environmental disparities between communities. This “environmental justice” movement, which grew out of the civil rights movement, questioned why low-income communities and communities of color host more polluting industries, suffer higher rates of asthma and cancer, and enjoy fewer environmental amenities like parks and access to fresh produce. Twenty years ago, the government began to respond.
In 1994, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898, which made environmental justice a national priority and gave activists hope that politically underrepresented communities overburdened by environmental harms would soon have a voice and a vehicle for bringing about justice. State governments began responding, too. In 1994, only four states addressed environmental justice by law or executive order. Today, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have some form of environmental justice law, executive order, or policy.
But the goal of environmental justice continues to be elusive. For example, too often the heaviest environmental burdens and the highest percentage of low-income and minority residents are concentrated in the same zip codes. The California EPA reports that the 10 percent of zip codes most burdened by pollution contain 32 percent of the state’s toxic cleanup sites. Meanwhile, a recent NAACP report notes that African-Americans spent $41 billion on energy in 2009 but held only 1.1 percent of energy jobs and gained only .01 percent of the revenue from energy sector profits.
In recognition of the 20th anniversary of President Clinton’s Executive Order, the Harvard Environmental Law Society (HELS) hosted the National Association of Environmental Law Societies (NAELS) 26th Annual Conference, on March 28 and 29, 2014, titled “Environmental Justice: Where Are We Now?”
The conference focused on three themes: progress toward the goals of environmental justice, the social justice aspects of today’s national and international environmental movements, and strategies to ensure that environmental justice is a priority in future environmental work.
The two-day conference featured addresses by leaders in the field, including former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson; Dr. Robert Bullard, known as the “father of environmental justice”; and Professor Gerald Torres, who, as counsel to then U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, drafted the President’s Executive Order on Environmental Justice.
“The Origins of the EJ Movement:” A keynote address by Dr. Robert Bullard, Dean, Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University
HLS students bring broad vision to conference
In 1994, Richard Lazarus was named to the Environmental Protection Agency’s newly created federal advisory committee on environmental justice. Among its responsibilities: helping implement President Bill Clinton’s executive order on environmental justice. But the task force’s first act, recalled the Howard and Katherine Aibel Professor of Law, amounted to a coup. Then-EPA chief Carol Browner’s decision to have the head of a state agency lead the group was “a major misstep” said Lazarus, and the committee promptly rejected her choice. “You don’t put the head of a state agency in charge of anything to do with environmental justice.” Read more at the Harvard Gazette
The conference featured seven panel discussions, each focused on an important aspect of environmental justice advocacy.
The first panel addressed the question, “What is Environmental Justice?” Panelists included Kalila Barnett, executive director of alternatives for Community & Environment; Sheila Holt-Orsted, environmental justice activist; Hilton Kelley, founder and CEO, Community In-power & Development Association; and Richard Marcantonio, managing attorney, Public Advocates.
The second panel, “Strategies for Achieving Environmental Justice,” was moderated by HLS Professor Richard Lazarus. Panelists included Steve Fischbach, staff attorney, Rhode Island Legal Services/Environmental Justice League; Albert Huang, senior attorney, Natural Resources Defense Council; as well as Brent Newell, legal director of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment; and Benjamin Wilson, principal at Beveridge & Diamond.
HLS Professor Jody Freeman, who served in the White House as Counselor for Energy and Climate Change in 2009-2010, introduced Lisa P. Jackson, former EPA Administrator and current vice president for Environmental Initiatives at Apple, who delivered a keynote address.
The EPA was instrumental in helping Harvard’s Environmental Law Society plan and prepare for the conference. In addition, EPA staff and other federal partners facilitated breakout sessions on March 29. These sessions engaged conference attendees—students, academics, and community activists—in a productive discussion about milestones achieved in environmental justice and strategies for improvement.
Adapted from an NAELS blog post.
The Green Carpet Awards is a biennial celebration of Sustainability Leaders at Harvard. This event, in tandem with Harvard Heroes, recognizes the outstanding efforts of teams and individuals across Harvard to create a healthy, more sustainable campus. This year, Harvard Law School’s Environmental Law Society was recognized for a Green Carpet Award for hosting an Environmental Justice Conference.
In a time when hot button topics such as fracking can overwhelm the conversation in sustainability, the Environmental Law Society pushed for a broader dialogue in the environmental community to bring attention to the commonly overlooked, but very important topic of Environmental Justice.
This is the first time that the Law School is hosting the annual National Association of Environmental Law Societies Conference. And their topic is timely as it is the 20th anniversary of President Clinton’s Executive Order on Environmental Justice. President Clinton’s Executive Order focused Federal attention on the environmental and human health conditions in minority communities and low-income communities with the goal of achieving environmental justice. We applaud the Environmental Law Society for addressing this important issue and for highlighting the links between the environment, human health and well-being, and social justice.