Environmental justice has the White House's attention, building on 40 years of struggle – but California suggests new funding won't immediately solve deeply entrenched problems

A new office within the Environmental Protection Agency is bringing increased attention to a once-obscure concept: environmental justice.

The Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights will distribute funds designated to help communities that are systematically overexposed to air pollution, contaminated water and other environmental harms. The money – between US$45 billion and $60 billion, depending on whom you ask – was authorized as part of the Inflation Reduction Act enacted in August 2022.

I describe environmental justice as a goal of sustainable, healthy societies in which all people have plentiful access to environmental goods and equitable – but minimal – exposure to environmental risks. The movement coalesced in the late 1970s and the 1980s when working-class and Indigenous communities, along with communities of color, organized across the U.S. against environmental hazards that threatened their health.

My new book, “Evolution of a Movement: Four Decades of Environmental Justice Activism in California,” documents this struggle in California starting in the 1980s. It shows that despite many wins in the state, actual environmental justice remains elusive.