“We need everybody who is able to join this cause.”

This is surely a familiar sentiment for anybody who works in advocacy. For years, it drove my thinking while working at Ceres, an organization that works with leading companies and investors to take on the most pressing sustainability challenges of our time. By fighting the climate crisis, protecting our water resources, and acting to build a more sustainable clean energy economy, it’s felt easy to take a lot of pride in this work. But this sense of pride can also create blind spots.

I had been so secure in the knowledge that I was on the right side of history that it was hard to see the gaps in my own thinking. Even as I called on everybody to join our cause, I too often was not hearing the voices of those who for a very long time had wanted me to join theirs—the cause of environmental justice.

Environmental justice is the fight of the people, families, neighborhoods, and communities who have for too long endured the worst pollution from highways, ports, landfills, heavy industry, and other dirty facilities and infrastructure. These communities are severely threatened by both the public health challenges of the pollution in their backyard and the future climate horrors that pollution across the globe will unleash—especially if they are not prioritized with the investments and resources to help them adapt to a changing climate.

To address environmental injustices, states must work to ensure environmental justice is built into the structures, bureaucracy, goals, and functions of government. Legislation should specifically define environmental justice communities in law based on criteria including pollution rates, income, and racial and other demographic data. Resources—financial and otherwise—should then be dedicated to these places. For example, New York recently pledged 35 percent of its investments to frontline communities. This kind of commitment makes it especially important for state law to concretely define environmental justice communities, so that the recipients of these dedicated resources do not change on the whims of any new administration.

Personnel is also critical to building an environmental justice bureaucracy. We are heartened to see states increasingly hiring staff and high-ranking officials across multiple agencies with expertise in, and a direct focus on, these issues. We also support the creation of non-staff advisory boards comprised of representatives of environmental justice communities to help guide policy—but only if they are structured appropriately. To fully benefit frontline communities, advisory bodies must be widely accessible to the public, with resources like staffing support and the level of decision-making and enforcement authority that ensures these communities have a real voice in setting policy.

Read the full article about environmental justice by John Carlson at Skoll Foundation.