Environmental Justice

In the Bay Area, across the country, and around the world, low-income and minority communities bear a disproportionate share of the impacts of environmental degradation.

Low-income and minority communities are exposed to more unhealthy pollution1, have less access to parkland and other forms of nature2, and are underserved by public transit3. At the same time, climate-change impacts, from heat waves to higher food costs, disproportionately affect our most vulnerable populations4—a reality that will only exacerbate inequality.

The Sierra Club allies itself with communities affected by environmental degradation and works to achieve social justice for all. Only with a fully enfranchised society can we make the systemic changes necessary to protect the environment. To stop the pillaging of our lands and the poisoning of our air and water, we need to fight for a system that protects and empowers each individual.

Keeping out the dirtiest fossil fuels

With supplies of "conventional" crude oil dwindling worldwide, Bay Area refineries are scrambling to retrofit their facilities so that they can bring in and refine the dirtiest and most dangerous crudes5, such as toxic Canadian tar sands and explosive, fracked Bakken crude. The Bay Area's five oil refineries—as with other local sources of pollution including toxic waste sites, smokestack industries, chemical plants, and busy freeways—are located in communities that are primarily made up of low-income and minority households.6

Astonishingly, today there are no facility-wide limits on what the Bay Area's oil refineries can spew into our air. The Bay Chapter is working with a coalition of local organizations to push for caps on refinery emissions of greenhouse gases, deadly particulate matter, and toxic pollutants. It's critical that we implement these limits on emissions before refineries can lock in their ability to refine the dirtiest crude oils. Emission caps will also give us a baseline of emissions that we can then work to bring down over time.

Access to nature

Access to nature is an environmental-justice concern, not only for equity but also to broaden the base and leadership of the environmental movement. The Bay Chapter's Inspiring Connections Outdoors (ICO) program—the first in the nation and a model for about 50 more in other Sierra Club chapters—is an all-volunteer outreach program that provides wilderness experiences for at-risk individuals who might not otherwise have them. There is a growing trend in ICO nationwide to take the conservation efforts within our work to a new level—at the same time that conservation-minded folks bring renewed recognition of outings as a key way to inspire people to become environmentalists and activists.

Explore outings of the Bay Chapter’s ICO Backpacking and ICO Rafting sections.

Environmental justice in housing and transportation

The Bay Chapter supports affordable housing throughout the Bay Area. When people can afford to live near where they work — particularly in transit-rich, walkable urban areas—there is an aggregate reduction of sprawl and greenhouse-gas emissions7. Constructing multiunit housing sited compactly within urban areas requires fewer resources than does building suburban single-family houses8. An ongoing Chapter effort is making sure that new housing is distributed equitably in all parts of the Bay Area and not just concentrated in areas of high minority population, leading to increased segregation of housing and transportation.

Read more about our efforts in the areas of transportation and compact growth.


(1) Environmental Protection Agency, EJSCREEN: EPA's Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool.

(2) Alessandro Rigolon and Travis L. Flor, "Access to Parks for Youth as an Environmental Justice Issue: Access Inequalities and Possible Solutions," Buildings, 2014, 4, 69-94.

(3) Eric Mann, "An Environmental Justice Strategy for Urban Transportation," Race, Poverty & the Environment, Vol. 12 No. 1, Winter 2005.

(4) U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "Climate Impacts on Society."

(5) Greg Karras, Communities for a Better Environment, "Combustion Emissions from Refining Lower Quality Oil: What Is the Global Warming Potential?," Environmental Science & Technology, 2010, 44, 9584–9589.

(6) Janet McCabe, Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental Justice in Action blog, "Looking for Input: Displaying Data from Fenceline Monitors for Refinery Pollution."

(7) TransForm, "Why Creating and Preserving Affordable Homes Near Transit is a Highly Effective Climate Protection Strategy," May 2014.

(8) U.S. Energy Information Administration, "Apartments in buildings with 5 or more units use less energy than other home types," July 2013.

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