Looking Back and Moving Forward on Environmental Justice: Harvard Law School Environmental Law Society Hosts National Conference

By Sam Caravello, Gen Parshalle, and Cecelia Segal


For decades, grassroots activists and their allies have worked to end environmental disparities between communities. The environmental justice movement, which grew out of the civil rights movement, questioned why low income communities and communities of color are beset by more polluting industries, suffer higher rates of asthma and cancer, and enjoy fewer environmental amenities like parks and access to nutritious food.

Twenty years ago, 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 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, demonstrating recognition of environmental justice as a critical issue deserving government attention. For more details see EJ Milestones and Accomplishments: 1964-2014, a report by the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University.

In recognition of the 20th anniversary of President Clinton’s Executive Order, the Harvard Law School Environmental Law Society (HELS) will be hosting the National Association of Environmental Law Societies (NAELS) 26th Annual Conference on March 28–29, 2014, with the theme “Environmental Justice: Where Are We Now?” The conference will focus on three themes: progress on 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 will feature speeches from 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 U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, worked with communities to help draft the President’s Executive Order on Environmental Justice. The conference will also feature seven panel discussions, each focused on an important aspect of environmental justice advocacy. Topics will range from strategies for achieving environmental justice to food justice and access to clean energy.

The EPA has been instrumental in helping HELS plan and prepare for the conference. In addition, EPA staff and other federal partners will facilitate breakout sessions on March 29. These sessions will engage conference attendees—students, academics, and community activists—in a productive discussion about milestones achieved in environmental justice and strategies for improvement and moving forward. We will share the outcomes of these discussions more broadly with federal representatives after the conference.

Although much progress has been made over the past twenty years, there is still plenty of work to be done. Living in an environmental justice community can have a severe impact on health and quality of life. Zip code is a strong predictor of health, and 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% of California zip codes most burdened by pollution contain 32% of the state’s toxic cleanup sites. Meanwhile, a recent NAACP report notes that African Americans spent $41 billion on energy in 2009, but only held 1.1% of energy jobs and only gained .01% of the revenue from energy sector profits.

There is clearly a need for continued action to work towards achieving environmental justice goals. The 2014 NAELS Conference promises to make a valuable contribution to the conversation on environmental justice by reflecting on past challenges and successes in the movement, and by bringing together current and future advocates to plan for the next 20 years of work in the field.

To learn more about the 2014 NAELS Conference, please visit the HELS website for the conference. To learn more about environmental law at Harvard Law School, please visit the Environmental Law Program website.

About the Authors: Sam Caravello, Gen Parshalle, and Cecelia Segal are students at the Harvard Law School, class of 2015.