Environmental Justice


"Environmental justice" has entered the lexicon as the term of choice for describing the intersection of environmental and economic justice concerns, in particular, the impact of environmental degradation on the health and welfare of people of color, and low income and minority populations, both across national boundaries and within societies.

Across the world, poor people are affected disproportionately by environmental degradation. Two-thirds of lower-income urban dwellers across the globe breathe air that contains dangerously high levels of sulfur; 10 million poor children, according to the World Health Organization, die each year from drinking contaminated water; and poverty and social inequities contribute to the massive destruction of rainforests. In the United States, studies conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency, the University of Michigan and the United Church of Christ have indicated that communities of people of color and low income appear in highly disproportionate numbers as sites for hazardous waste landfills, incinerators and chemical factories, while being the least likely to be selected as sites for environmental clean-up efforts. These studies were validated and addressed in February 1994, when President Clinton signed an Executive Order on "Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority and Low Income Populations," which ensures that federal programs do not unfairly inflict environmental hardships on poor or minority communities.

COEJL supports a comprehensive and precautionary approach to protecting all members of the public from environmental health threats.

  • Equal Protection from Pollution and Degradation: COEJL affirms the right of all people to live and work in environments with clean air, land, water and food and calls on government to protect public health by establishing ensuring sufficient regulations and facilities to safely minimize, manage, and dispose of toxic, nuclear, and other hazardous wastes. COEJL calls on government to ensure that all communities have equal access to environmental clean up programs and equal protection from environmental hazards and the placement of waste disposal facilities, regardless of income, race, or ethnicity (“Statement of Principles on Environmental Justice,” 1995 JCPA Plenum).
  • Product Testing and the Right to Know: COEJL supports mandatory pre-market testing of potentially harmful commercial, industrial, and agricultural products and processes that may have the potential to harm the environment or public health before approval for production and use (“Energy and Environmental Priorities,” 2001 JCPA Plenum.). COEJL supports the mandatory labeling of consumer products regarding their toxicity and the provision of information about the toxicity of the chemicals emitted by industrial and commercial facilities (JCPA Agenda for Public Affairs, 1998-1999).
  • Pollution Prevention: COEJL favors measures that impose the cost of pollution remediation on polluters; provide incentives for pollution prevention; and promote the development of non-toxic alternatives to hazardous materials (JCPA Agenda for Public Affairs 2000 – 2001).
  • Public Health Research: COEJL supports the establishment of comprehensive registries for both disease and environmental exposure that will provide data for identifying environmental causes of disease. COEJL supports funding for research into the interactions between the genetic and environmental causes of disease (“Energy and Environmental Priorities,” 2001 JPCA Plenum). All feasible actions to ensure that personal health information is kept strictly confidential must be required by law and their implementation carefully monitored. (“Resolution on the Environment’s Impact on Public Health,” 2003 JCPA Plenum).
  • Nuclear Waste: COEJL supports the isolation of commercial and defense nuclear wastes in a manner that protects public health and the environment (JCPA Agenda for Public Affairs 1999-2000).
  • Regulatory Procedures: As cost-benefit analysis cannot adequately assess the “value” or quality of life, COEJL does not support its use as the primary tool for evaluating regulations and standards. Rather, the effectiveness of regulations for protecting the vulnerable, preventing harm, and safeguarding creation should serve as the primary evaluation criteria for regulations (JCPA Agenda for Public Affairs 1999-2000). COEJL opposes routine provision of compensation for loss of profits as a consequence of environmental or other regulation. (“Environmental Laws and Regulations,” JCPA Executive Committee resolution, 1995)

(From: COEJL's Environmental Policy Platform: March 2007)

Addressing the Needs of the Poor

Jewish tradition is founded on the principles of justice. The Torah teaches of the importance of pursuing justice (Deuteronomy 16:20) and includes a detailed program to ensure the equitable distribution of resources (Exodus 22:24-26; Leviticus 25:36-37; Deuteronomy 23:20-1, 24:6,10-13,17). Both climate change itself and policies taken to address it present a disproportionate burden on the poor. Domestically, rising energy and gas prices will unduly burden those with inelastic incomes. Vulnerable nations will have the least capacity to cope with the devastating impacts of extreme weather events, rise in sea level, drought, disruption of water and food supplies, impacts on health, and the destruction of natural resources. The Jewish commitment to justice demands that we support policies that address these inequities both in the United States and abroad. Domestically, federal policy should provide financial assistance to vulnerable populations (for increased heating and cooling costs, weatherization, and the purchase of energy-efficient appliances) and support employment training and opportunities in an emerging "green" economy. Internationally, the United States should provide funds to help vulnerable populations adapt to climate change. The United States should also look to transfer appropriate technology (e.g., drought-resistant crops, renewable energy technologies) and resources to mitigate and avoid the effects of climate change abroad.

(From: Jewish Community Priorities for Climate and Energy Policy)

Adopted by the NJCRAC Plenary Session, February 7, 1995

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In October 1991, a multinational First People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit was convened which highlighted the burdens of environmental degradation on these communities. Since that time, numerous groups representing people of color have organized around environmental justice as a primary agenda item.

The issue of environmental justice poses a dual challenge to the Jewish community relations field. In this context, environmental problems are explored for their economic, political and social justice implications. And while environmental degradation is a global problem with widespread implications for all humanity, the field is challenged to adopt policies that recognize and involve the most severely affected populations.

Fundamental to Jewish community relations is the fostering of conditions needed to ensure a society wherein all people enjoy equal rights, security, justice and opportunity. This commitment flows from Jewish religious mandates and tradition to pursue justice by equitable means. Moreover, it has been our experience that Jewish security flourishes in a society committed to such social and democratic values. The Jewish community also embraces a mandate to cherish, cultivate and protect the earth.

As activity around environmental justice increases among our intergroup and interreligious coalition partners, as federal environmental justice legislation continues to be introduced, and as concern for the state of the natural world grows, the NJCRAC has developed the following principles to guide our work in this area. These principles are intended to provide a consensus from which to articulate positions on legislation and to suggest a direction for coalitional action.

Environmental Justice Principles

The Jewish tradition, informed by primary Jewish sources and by contemporary Jewish insights, includes a mandate to cultivate, protect and nurture the environment. At the same time, the Jewish community has a long-standing commitment to social justice and equal opportunity.

Today, air, water, and land pollution, species extinction and climatic change are causing escalating environmental decay as well as widespread health problems, and evidence indicates that these problems disproportionately burden poor communities and people of color.

The Jewish community relations field therefore:

  • Affirms the right of all people to live and work in an environment with clean air, land, water and food;
  • Recognizes the obligation of government to protect the public health by ensuring the establishment of sufficient regulations and facilities to safely minimize, manage, and dispose of toxic, nuclear, and other hazardous wastes;
  • Affirms the right of all people to participate in the planning and implementation of regulations around environmental issues in their communities;
  • Calls for comprehensive strategies to be adopted and funded by local, state and federal government to address the environmental degradation currently suffered by affected communities;
  • Calls on state and federally supported agencies to ensure that their programs do not inflict disproportionate environmental harm on the poor, on minority groups, or on people of color, and that these communities have equal access to environmental clean-up programs;
  • Calls on the public and private sectors to engage in practices that contribute to the development of a healthy economy and a sustainable and livable environment; and
  • Reaffirms its own commitment to engage in education and advocacy around environmental protection and environmental justice.

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