October 21, 2022
What the U.S. environmental justice movement can teach us about just global energy transitions
By Mariel Ferragamo

To make meaningful global climate progress, lower-income countries need just energy transitions. Supporting these will take changes in policy approach. The U.S. environmental justice (EJ) movement faces a similar challenge— but the solutions by community members and policymakers on EJ issues can offer lessons on how to get there worldwide.

5 Shared challenges

The EJ movement addresses a nuanced, unique set of issues centered on “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people” to create equal access to opportunity. The global fight for just energy transitions parallels this principle and its major challenges:

1. Lack of access to a right and/or unequal exposure to harm disproportionately hurts disadvantaged communities.

Environmental Justice: In the United States, some of the most egregious examples of communities lacking access to basic human rights like clean air or water have drastically impacted disadvantaged populations. Flint, Michigan is one of the most commonly referenced instances. In 2014, negligence causing mismanaged water treatment exposed 100,000 people in Flint (over half of whom were African American) to severe contamination. Another is “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana— a roughly 80-mile stretch of predominantly minority residential land that hosts over 150 petrochemical plants and refineries— named for its residents’ extreme likelihood to develop cancer.

Energy Transitions: The same type of disproportionate impact plays out with a lack of access to another human right— energy. Where communities lack access to electricity, they either go without, making them inherently more vulnerable to many risks, or if they can afford to, rely on self-generation using resources that cause severe localized pollution, which is even more detrimental to their health.

2. A lack of access to a right or unequal exposure to harm prevents economic development and prosperity.

Environmental Justice: Exposure to environmental harm hinders economic development, perpetuating the poverty cycle. For example, communities of color in the U.S. often have higher energy bills due to historic redlining pushing communities into “heat islands” compounded by less weather-proofed homes. When communities in the U.S. are faced with poorer environmental conditions like these and lack nearby health facilities or access to coverage, this ultimately leads to people needing more emergency healthcare at a higher cost. This only perpetuates the poverty cycle that communities face as a result of environmental racism.

Energy Transitions: For populations facing global energy poverty, a lack of energy and  infrastructure hampers job creation, industrialization, and other economic activities such as global trade – locking in poverty.

3. Discriminatory policy puts undue economic burdens on certain communities.

Environmental Justice: The unequal effect of discriminatory policy creates higher bills, imposes proportionately higher taxes, and results in less restitution after disasters for already disadvantaged communities. In the U.S., redlining was a discriminatory economic policy that segregated neighborhoods pushed minority communities into more hazardous and costly living environments, and the effects of this abolished policy still impact communities today. Even policies with better intentions may still pose a challenge. A solar investment tax credit in the House of Representatives version of the 2021 reconciliation bill is a recent example of a policy designed without income diversity in mind. Meant to incentivize home solar installations, it actually excludes many lower-income and minority households from receiving any benefit though they most sorely need it.

Energy Transitions: Similarly in energy-poor communities across the world, policies adopted by development organizations to reduce emissions can disproportionately hurt poor countries if it means they can’t access solutions to address energy poverty or development. Experts have even called this the international version of redlining.

4. Affected communities are blocked from influencing policy.

Environmental Justice: The U.S. has not broken through the ‘green ceiling’ when it comes to minority employment and leadership roles in environmental work. Excluding the communities most affected from policymaking, decision-making, and advocacy represents a top barrier to implementing the mission of environmental justice.

Energy Transitions: In global climate conversations, poorer countries are consistently the minority when it comes to shaping vital frameworks, and subsequently do not feel heard or represented in negotiations.

5. Communities are seen as the problem when they’re actually the victims.

Environmental Justice: In the U.S., those who breathe the most polluted air aren’t the ones who pollute it. Yet it’s often assumed that because they face poverty, these communities are less interested in environmental issues— while in reality, they are most affected.

Energy Transitions: While emissions mitigation must be a global priority, we can’t ask the 1 billion people who’ve contributed just 0.55% of emissions to mitigate much more, and we must acknowledge their climate goals as earnest and ambitious.

How environmental justice successes could pave the way for just energy transitions

EJ champions and governments have modeled successful ways to navigate core challenges – many of which also apply to the fight for just energy transitions.

1. Creating policy that has clear and specific goals and definitions

As public attention on both environmental justice and a just energy transition has grown, various organizations and politicians have added these concepts to their agendas with sweeping declarations and lofty goals— but with no accompanying explanation on how they will follow through. In environmental justice reparations, the policy is often too vague in terms of guidelines and definitions, causing it to either be largely unimpactful or misinterpreted and enabling funds to be channeled elsewhere.

Similarly, pledges to step up “new and additional” climate finance sound ambitious but are nearly impossible to interpret. Climate finance is often double-counted or re-labeled to be considered “new,” for example— which may satisfy a public pledge, but not the true need for climate finance. Thus these policies sound like progress, but in reality, inadvertently deceive their very mission of achieving justice.

The White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council recently established by the Biden administration is working to make definitions clearer, for example, the guidelines for who is considered a “disadvantaged community” and the specificity in goals via their “Justice40” initiative to provide 40% of benefits from federal programs specifically and only to these disadvantaged communities. Better, more well-defined policies or initiatives with clear and specific expectations of who is involved and how can be really helpful when designing international aid policy for energy-poor countries that need climate finance.

2. Engaging the directly affected communities to shape policies

Often one of the reasons for vague, over-promising pledges is that governments implement well-intentioned policies without actually consulting or integrating the beliefs or needs of the impacted communities. The crux of both environmental justice and a just energy transition is agency— ensuring that impacted communities and populations are the ones making decisions.

At times, well-intentioned policies can be more harmful, such as when global energy poverty aid is restricted to stringent limitations on paper that just doesn’t work on the ground. When government leaders act on these issues without engaging the right communities, often the solution doesn’t fit, and the impacted communities even further distrust the government due to a mismanaged attempt to help that sounds genuine but leaves out real representation and visibility in the policymaking process.

A leader should actively engage with the affected communities in a meaningful way, and where possible make them a part of leadership. One model of this is the “Environmental Justice for All Act” proposed by U.S. Representatives Raúl Grijalva and Donald McEachin. After months of regular engagement with EJ activists, they invited hundreds of activists to a convening at which they launched a public online forum to discuss priorities and provide feedback for an EJ bill— and are still working with these communities even after the bill’s introduction.

This could serve as a model of how governments and institutions can make sure community members exert leadership. In climate and development discussions, international institutions should ensure more balanced representation in key analyses, such as IPCC report authorship. Countries can also incorporate public consultation of all communities when developing strategies such as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and development finance institutions (DFIs) should seek a wide array of input before instating policy on best practices for the region.

3. Closing data gaps to expose areas for policy action

Data helps point out the problem and find the solution, but only if it provides an accurate picture— and if there’s no data, it’s easier not to see a problem at all. When it comes to EJ issues, the lack of data or misinterpretation makes it hard to know the extent of the damage. And similarly, in policy discussions around just energy transitions, a lack of good data makes it very difficult to craft smart, individually-tailored national approaches.

California’s government recently set a good example of data collection and knowledge sharing, when local districts started monitoring air quality after a state law required annual reporting in pollutant-risk areas. Their model focused not only on closing the gap but also on ensuring that these communities receive the information themselves. Recent air quality data collection efforts in Texas also show how the impact of data can provide both communities and the larger policy agenda with the knowledge to make informed decisions.

In energy-poor countries, the lack of data is a significant barrier to global understanding and even local policymaking. Efforts to mandate support for data collection across all communities would provide critical insight and empowerment to the communities that need better representation to make their case in the energy transition.


Not only do these movements’ similarities mean each can be an example for the other, but they can (and should) be achieved in tandem. Addressing the environmental injustices of the past and creating an equitable future with just energy transitions is essential for reaching a sustainable, equal-opportunity world. There’s a lot of work to do in both— but following examples of meaningful change like these are a chance to put the world on this path.

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