Appendix F: Glossary of Environmental Justice Terms

Activists and advocates often create new terminology to describe issues and concepts related to environmental justice.
Here are some terms that have become more popular in the years preceding this publication. Some terms refer to tangible circumstances and others are aspirational concepts for envisioning a better world.


Defined Terms


Climate Justice

Climate justice[1] is the remediation of the impacts of climate change on poor people and people of color, and compensation for harms suffered by such communities due to climate change. It has global and domestic implications.

Climate justice advocates recognize that climate change (now and in the future) disproportionately affects those in low- or middle-income countries in Africa, Asia, Oceania, Latin America, and the Caribbean who contributed very little to the problem of climate change in comparison to nations like the United States, European nations, and China. Around the world, those with the least ability to respond to the impacts of climate change—the poor and people of color, including island nations and indigenous peoples—will continue to bear the brunt of its effects.

In the United States, climate justice advocates recognize that the poor and people of color in this country will suffer the deepest impacts of climate change, given our legacies of legalized segregation, redlining, and disinvestment that have often left communities of color and the poor on land and in economic circumstances that make them the most vulnerable to climate change. Adding to the disproportionate burden, such communities typically lack the economic resources to easily recover from climate change related events.


Disaster Capitalism

Disaster Capitalism[2] is the phenomenon of wealthy individuals and corporations exploiting crises to privatize public goods and services while less resourced people are focused on daily survival. Examples of Disaster Capitalism include the privatization of the energy system in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and the privatization of the public school system in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.


Energy Affordability

Energy Affordability[3] is a metric that indicates whether energy costs are low enough to allow a household to pay for other basic needs (food, shelter, clothing and medical care). Two households in different parts of the country can have identical incomes and energy costs, but one of them could have less Energy Affordability if the cost of living is relatively higher in their area.


Energy Assistance

Energy Assistance[4] is an umbrella term describing different types of programs aimed at reducing energy insecurity and burden and increasing energy affordability. These programs typically take the form of direct cash assistance (bill discounts, low-income rates, donation programs, crisis assistance), conservation (low income energy efficiency or weatherization programs to help customers use less energy) or programs that help customers set up payment plans for overdue energy bills (sometimes called “arrearage management”).


Energy Assistance Need

Energy Assistance Need[5] is the total dollar amount of unaffordable customer energy bills in a given area. Understood differently, Energy Assistance Need is the portion of customer energy bills that exceed a set energy burden threshold on an annual basis for all the customers in an area. While Energy Affordability and Energy Burden look at individual households, Energy Assistance Need looks at all the customers of a utility or in a particular area together.


Energy Burden

Energy Burden[6] is how much of your household income you pay for energy. It typically ranges from close to zero to over 15%.


Energy Democracy

Energy Democracy[7] refers to the idea that communities should have more of a voice and role in decision-making about their energy supply. Energy Democracy can be used synonymously with Energy Equity, but some groups use Energy Democracy to mean that communities should own and control their sources of energy production directly.


Energy Equity[8]

Energy Equity relates to how accessible and affordable the energy supply is across a population. Typically, low-income households pay a larger proportion of their incomes for energy than other customers. Energy Equity will exist when there the benefits and burdens from energy production and consumption are distributed fairly across the population.


Energy Insecurity

Energy Insecurity[9] describes the vulnerability of a household to not making energy bill payments on time, being charged late payment fees, and being disconnected from utility services. Another way to think about Energy Insecurity is the inability to meet basic household energy needs.

In general, Energy Insecurity correlates highly with Energy Burden (households who pay a higher percentage of their income for energy are more vulnerable), but assistance programs can reduce Energy Insecurity for households with a high Energy Burden, and households with a low Energy Burden can experience Energy Insecurity due to other economic crises, like the loss of a job.


Energy Justice

Energy Justice[10] is a broad concept that is closely related to Energy Equity. Energy Justice includes, but not limited to: Energy Burden— the expense of energy expenditures relative to overall household income; Energy Insecurity—the hardships households face when meeting basic household needs; Energy Poverty—a lack of access to energy itself; and Energy Democracy—the notion that communities should have a say and agency in shaping their energy future.

Like Energy Equity, Energy Justice seeks the equitable sharing of benefits and burdens involved in the production and consumption of energy services, fairness in energy decision-making, and informed citizen participation.


Energy Poverty

Energy Poverty[11] is defined by the U.N. Development Program as the “inability to cook with modern cooking fuels and the lack of a bare minimum of electric lighting to read or for other household and productive activities at sunset.” Tens of thousands of Americans on Native American reservations live without access to basic electricity services.[12]


Environmental Justice

Environmental Justice[13] is both an activist movement and field of scholarship that confronts the fact that communities of color often face disproportionate environmental burdens, and environmental laws do not satisfactorily protect such communities from environmental harm.


Environmental Racism

Environmental Racism[14] refers to the way in which minority group neighborhoods (populated primarily by people of color and members of low socioeconomic groups) are burdened with a disproportionate number of hazards, including toxic waste facilities, garbage dumps, and other sources of environmental pollution and foul odors that lower the quality of life. All around the globe, members of minority groups bear a greater burden of the health problems that result from higher exposure to waste and pollution. This can occur due to unsafe or unhealthy work conditions where no regulations exist (or are enforced) for poor workers, or in neighborhoods that are uncomfortably close to toxic materials.


Food Justice

Food Justice[15] refers to healthy food as a human right and seeks to remove structural barriers to that right. Food justice efforts (generally led by indigenous peoples and people of color) work toward universal access to healthy food and toward an end to the structural inequities in access to healthy food that lead to unequal health outcomes.

Some things to be considered from a Food Justice perspective include access to healthy, nutritious, culturally appropriate food; ownership and control of land for food production, credit, knowledge, technology and other resources; the constituent labor of food production; what kind of food traditions are valued; and how colonialism has affected the food system’s development.


Food Sovereignty

Food Sovereignty[16] refers to people’s right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define and control their own food and agriculture systems.


Food System

A Food System[17] is the entire path that food travels from crop or livestock production all the way to digestion in the stomach. This includes the growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consuming, and disposing of food.


Just Transition

Just Transition[18] describes a hypothetical transition away from the ‘extractive’ fossil-fuel economy to a new, ‘regenerative’ economy (sometimes described as a ‘circular economy’) that provides dignified, productive, and ecologically sustainable jobs; democratic governance; and ecological resilience.


Water Equity

Water Equity,[19] like Energy Equity, refers to the unequal distribution of the benefits and harms of water and wastewater systems, including floods and droughts. Water Equity advocates seek fairness in access to safe, clean, and affordable drinking water and wastewater services and the benefits of those services, and resilience to water risks from climate change.

[1] Initiative for Energy Justice, The Energy Justice Workbook,  (last visited Sept. 9, 2020); Daisy Simmons, What is ‘climate justice’?, Yale Climate Connections (2020),

[2] Editors, A Primer on Disaster Capitalism, Our New Normal, In These Times (April 16, 2020),

[3] Hassan Shaban, Learn the Lingo: Six key energy equity concepts,

[4] Hassan Shaban, Learn the Lingo: Six key energy equity concepts,

[5] Hassan Shaban, Learn the Lingo: Six key energy equity concepts,

[6] Hassan Shaban, Learn the Lingo: Six key energy equity concepts,

[7] Initiative for Energy Justice, The Energy Justice Workbook,

[8] Partnership for Southern Equity, Just Energy,; Anmar Frangoul, The WEC’s energy trilemma: What is it?, CNBC (Oct. 13, 2016),

[9] Hassan Shaban, Learn the Lingo: Six key energy equity concepts,

[10] Initiative for Energy Justice, The Energy Justice Workbook,

[11] Hassan Shaban, Learn the Lingo: Six key energy equity concepts,

[12] Aaron Larson, Did You Know There Are 60,000 U.S. Citizens Who Lack Access to Electricity? Power Magazine (Oct. 1, 2020),

[13] Initiative for Energy Justice, The Energy Justice Workbook,

[14] Vann R. Newkirk II, Trump’s EPA Concludes Environmental Racism Is Real, The Atlantic (Feb. 28, 2018),

[15] FoodPrint, Food Justice,

[16] FoodPrint, Food Justice,

[17] International Food Policy Research Institute, Food Systems,

[18] Initiative for Energy Justice, The Energy Justice Workbook,

[19] US Water Alliance, The Pillars of Water Equity,