Environmental Justice, Socioeconomics, and the Importance of Environmental Data

Environmental justice and socioeconomics are essential to incorporate into climate change and resilience planning. Today’s blog will break down why, and touch on how data can serve as an asset toward increasing equity in communities who are suffering from environmental hazards.

What is Environmental Justice?

Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people—regardless of race, color, national origin, or income—with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

Environmental justice is achieved when everyone enjoys:

  • The same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and
  • Equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.

 – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The concept of environmental justice in the United States became prominent during the early 1980s. It was spawned as a result of North Carolina State officials authorizing the dumping of toxic waste and contaminating the water table of a nearby Black community. Today, environmental justice has become a component of many environmental agencies’ mission statements. Despite these advances, we still have a lot of work to do.

 Environmental injustices are embedded into society’s functioning. They exist on a global scale: the impacts of climate change are often felt more strongly by minority communities, when, in fact, these communities are contributing far less carbon emissions to the atmosphere than their wealthier counterparts.

A more concrete and well-known example of environmental injustice is the Flint Michigan Water Crisis. The majority of Flint’s population is Black, and about 45% of its residents live below the poverty line. During an ongoing financial crisis in 2013, State officials decided to temporarily supply residents with water from Flint River, a cheaper alternative, until a new pipeline was built. However, this water was notoriously contaminated, and it was not treated properly before being pumped to households, causing it to corrode the old water pipes and for lead to leach out from them. Despite protests and complaints from residents about the quality of their new water, the State did not officially acknowledge the emergency until over a year later. Nearly 40% of water samples taken indicated a very serious level of lead contamination, which caused permanent damage to thousands of children’s brain development. Flint residents rely on bottled water to this day.

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What is Socioeconomics?

Socioeconomics is a broad term that can be applied to any practice that considers the social implications of economic conditions, as well as how social and economic factors influence each other in general. It is often referred to with cases related to environmental risks. For example, the risk of climate change events–such as drought, extreme temperatures, or floods–could cause significant harvest failure, which would not only more negatively impact poorer farmers, but could lead to rising food prices, and particularly hurt the poorest communities. On the flip side, climate events could improve food system performance and thus socioeconomic conditions in some regions that would benefit from higher temperatures or less water.

Whereas environmental justice is more of a global movement and an objective, socioeconomics is more of an evaluation of preexisting circumstances, and is often combined with measurements. For example, the socioeconomic costs of natural disasters such as major floods are important to measure and address. These include the health impacts, interruption of public services, foregone production, and costs to businesses that are not typically included when assessing flood damages; normally only property and infrastructure loss are calculated.

Why is this important for resiliency and mitigating the effects of climate change?

Environmental issues as a whole cannot be solved without devoting substantial resources into disclosing the practices that create and maintain environmental injustice.

People are saying we have to make our communities more climate-resilient, but it has to be a resilience that cuts across race, class, and geography.

 — Dr. Robert D. Bullard, Texas Southern University 

When communities suffer disproportionately from environmental conditions, they are limited in their ability to advance forward. For example, when low-income households are disproportionately affected by natural disasters, this can force them to sacrifice spending on education and health care in order to support their basic consumption. As a result, poverty and poor health is often perpetuated within these communities.

Currently, most disaster aid programs are targeted towards compensations for property damages, which does not account for the socioeconomic costs mentioned previously. A more comprehensive acknowledgment of losses would provide the essential information that communities around the world need in order to adapt to extreme environmental events that are only worsening with climate change.

What is currently being done?

In 1992, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency implemented the Office of Environmental Justice. Environmental injustices also exist across the world; countries like the United Kingdom and Kenya have taken direct action, but many are far behind. Environmental justice is not a widely recognized topic, and it is not spoken of enough in contingence with environmental movements themselves. However, it is slowly gaining recognition, and many of the organizations that formed in the U.S. have expanded their efforts globally.

Specifically, in the context of how environmental justice is being integrated as a component of cities’ resiliency plans, New York City has an Environmental Justice Alliance that creates yearly Climate Justice Agenda documents that outline concrete plans and consecutive goals for implementing Climate Justice in their City. The main goals that make up their agenda include reducing greenhouse gases and localized emissions, advancing a just transition towards an inclusive, regenerative economy, and cultivating healthy and resilient communities. They even have a Waterfront Justice Map, a tool designed to reduce potential toxic exposures from NYC’s Significant Maritime and Industrial Areas (SMIAs), which are located predominantly in low-income communities of color, and which are exacerbated by climate change and storm surge in the area.

How can we use data to improve socioeconomics and environmental justice?

Emerging sources of high-resolution data could dramatically improve understanding of socio-economic impacts… At present, limited understanding of disaster losses means that most risk mitigation decisions are made without a full understanding of costs and benefits.

– Maura Allaire, Socio-economic impacts of flooding: A review of the empirical literature

A Baltimore case study conducted by NPR demonstrates how data improves policy. To determine the link between heat and income in U.S. cities, NPR used NASA and U.S. Geological Survey satellite imagery and combined it with U.S. Census American Community Survey data. In more than three-quarters of the cities measured, where it was hotter, it also tended to be poorer. The hottest neighborhoods in Baltimore were found to differ by up to 10 degrees from the coolest, and significantly, residents in the hottest areas have higher rates of chronic illnesses that worsen in heat. These maps have the power to inform anti-discriminatory zoning policies, advance goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and improve Baltimore’s Sustainability Plan. Baltimore has since implemented more green infrastructure, which largely consists of reducing the overall amount of pavement with permeable materials, and planting more trees.

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Socioeconomics is a topic that is integrated into almost all systems of society, which makes it difficult to parse out and address head on. However, enhanced data tools and methods improve our ability to target our actions in the correct areas, and in turn create more equitable and livable conditions for communities. In order for environmental injustices to decrease and socioeconomics conditions to improve, data is a critical component for achieving the efficiency and effectiveness we need–and we do not have any time to spare.

About the author

Paige Griggs

Stormwater Scientist

Talk stormwater with abbyrothman543@gmail.com