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Public Policy in North America: Minorities & Negative Environmental Effects

Disproportionate levels of health, education, and other palpable conditions associated with inequality levels in society is not a new discovery. However, with the growing attention paid to the effects of climate change and the more urgent need to maintain a healthy environment, there has been increasing awareness of the disproportionate environmental conditions of vulnerable and minority communities. This increasing awareness has also highlighted how slow moving the field is — articles from decades ago already highlight the environmental discrepancies between white or wealthy communities and poor or coloured communities. This is compounded by the fact that unlike the right to access healthcare and the right to an education, the right to a healthy environment is less concrete, yet has very tangible effects on quality of life.

A 1991 article in the Review of Black Political Economy defines the term environmental racism as, “the intentional or unintentional racial discrimination in the enforcement of environmental rules and regulations, which leads to the singling out of minority and low-income communities for the siting of noxious facilities.” In 2014, a Washington Post article aptly titled “Pollution is segregated, too” discusses how minorities in the United States experience environmental injustice, but the health effects have not been quantified, leading solutions to be evasive. The term environmental justice is defined in the 1991 article mentioned above as “seeking to redress inequitable environmental burdens, oftentimes borne by minority and low-income communities.”

Though the Washington Post article doesn’t specifically state the term environmental racism, it does highlight that poor people and communities of colour have long been the answer to who lives near environmental hazards, such as toxic waste sites, landfills, and congested highways. It continues to explain that research on health effects is limited to, “a single metropolitan area, or to those few places that happen to have good monitoring data on pollution.” One can imagine the public policy required to gather widespread big data on environmental discrepancies. Realizing environmental justice seems to remain elusive.

Canada is facing similar difficulties in implementing environmental justice policy in the long term. A 2008 research report for the Canadian Policy Research Network explains that a policy can only be implemented after the first two steps of adopting environmental justice as a policy goal and developing a framework for its address are completed. It contends that environmental redistribution is more complicated than similar taxation redistribution measures for social welfare and other forms of social services. Specifically highlighted is the danger, “perceived or real, of over-responding to disadvantaged communities” on this issue. This might elicit a negative response from, “more upwardly mobile communities who will feel less- served.” The research report concludes by highlighting that “grassroots must connect with leadership” in order for environmental justice to progress. It also demonstrates that Canadian society does not sufficiently maintain environmental justice as an item on its public policy agenda.

In 2016, an innovative clarification of environmental injustice was proposed in “Linking ‘toxic outliers’ to environmental justice communities.” It adds to the conversation by comparing not just privileged versus vulnerable communities, but also the effect that hyper-polluters have on lesser-polluting communities, which are, traditionally, communities of colour and low-income populations. They found that the solution may lie in “selective environmental enforcement, rather than sweeping initiatives.” Firstly, it highlights three ways in which environmental impact disproportionality is manifested: through some societies polluting more than others, some groups using more resources than others, and some individuals producing more harm than others. Through this, they found that there needs to be a focus not only on environmental justice but on polluter disproportionality. It is the role of the polluter which the study connects further with environmental justice than other works, yet it stops short of providing a policy suggestion.

Though recommendations for environmental justice policy are largely fragmented and inconclusive across modern literature, movements towards first steps of ensuring environmental justice are visible on countries’ policy agendas and awareness of specifics for further study of the issue are gaining momentum. As environmental policy as a whole becomes a bigger policy agenda item with the increasing awareness of the tangible, cross-boundary effects of climate change, the urgency needed to make real change might be created.


Denea Bascombe
Denea Bascombe is pursuing a Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. Her primary interests surround resource governance and security, and topics in political economy.

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