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Focus Areas

Environmental Justice

Ensuring equitable distribution of costs and benefits of environmental policy and decisions

The benefits of a clean environment and the burdens of pollution are unfortunately not shared equally in society. Racial, ethnic, and economic minority populations are often disproportionately exposed to air and water pollution and climate change impacts. The economic costs of environmental policies, whether from higher consumer prices or their impacts on labor markets, can also disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), impoverished communities, and women.  Though we all have a vested interest in a healthy environment, we do not all enjoy meaningful access to the decision-making processes that determine environmental policies and outcomes.  

Addressing these environmental injustices requires an understanding of where, how, and to whom these environmental inequities are occurring. It also requires the development of policies, institutions, and processes that facilitate the meaningful involvement of all impacted populations and communities to ensure equitable treatment. Effectively tracing the physical and economic incidence of environmental pollution and policies requires researchers and policy makers to integrate expertise from physical, environmental, geospatial, and social sciences.

What is Environmental Justice?

Environmental policy and laws have historically had a disproportionately negative impact on the most vulnerable populations. Environmental justice, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, 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. This fair and equitable treatment applies to both protections against environmental hazards and access to a healthy environment.

How Does RTI Support Environmental Justice?

At RTI, we draw on decades of experience characterizing the diversity of pollution sources to simulate how they respond to environmental policies.  Our physical and economic modeling teams develop and deploy simulation tools that map the responses of emissions sources to spatially refined pollution exposures and demographically explicit economic impacts.  Our team of environmental public health specialists apply state-of-science approaches to assess the health and economic burden of pollution exposures for different populations.  The spatial and demographic richness of our research helps our clients see the distribution and equity implications of environmental policy impacts clearly.

We are dedicated to conducting research that will help us all understand, quantify, communicate, and address key issues of environmental justice – improving the human condition through a cleaner, more just society. To this end, we have for example: 

  • Developed a specialized household-level geospatial database of the US population which helps to visualize connections between socio-economic characteristics and environmental indicators at a high level of spatial resolution.
  • Developed a tool to estimate how increasing tree cover in urban areas can reduce mortality rates among vulnerable populations during extreme heat events 
  • Examined how extreme heat projections related to climate change can disproportionately affect low-income and socially disadvantaged populations in North Carolina 
  • Examined how climate policies such as carbon taxes can impacts low-income households 
  • Worked with communities to develop vulnerability indicators that help them understand their risks from waste facilities and cleanup sites during and after extreme events such as floods and wildfires.