Social Justice, Climate Change and Large Environmental Nonprofits in the U.S.

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Erik, W. Johnson, Washington State University

I am a sociologist who has been interested in US environmental movements since my days as an undergraduate student in the early 1990s. Over the course of my career, case studies documenting local conflicts over the siting of hazardous facilities and the unequal distribution of environmental harms across racial and economic categories have been the dominant theme in sociological research on the US environmental movement. I took a different approach for my dissertation research, completed in 2004. I assembled information spanning 1960-2000 for a sample of roughly 1,000 national environmental organizations to assess what the population of environmental organizations does. This “population” based approach to research is common in studies of other social movements, but rare in the case of US environmentalism.

What struck me in my early professional research and what has continued to do so, is the strong disjuncture between sociological studies of the US environmental movement and what environmental organizations actually do.

Environmental justice has been the clarion call of environmental movement researchers since the mid-1990s, and the environmental justice (EJ) movement has made tremendous strides in bringing attention to important social inequities in the distribution of costs and benefits of environmental pollution. The environmental justice movement is not really part of the US environmental movement though. Dorceta Taylor, Robert Bullard, and others have consistently shown that EJ is rooted primarily in communities of color who organize in the tradition of civil rights. Researchers consistently find that environmental justice advocates often eschew the very label of environmentalist, a term they identify with well-resourced organizations who care more about wildlife than human lives. Systematic research on the environmental movement from the early 2000s, including my own, reinforces this point, finding that only a tiny fraction of mainstream environmental groups address issues of social justice. Wildlife and natural resources groups, which hardly appear in the pages of sociological journals, continue to dominate the movement both numerically and in terms of resource accumulation.

When I saw a flyer advertising a virtual conference aiming to bring together a diverse group of scholars to examine the nonprofit sector’s role in combatting climate change, my spidey senses were tingling. One of the basic questions posed for the conference was: To what extent have environmental nonprofits come to focus on climate change? My contribution to the conference and forthcoming NVSQ special issue, written with multiple graduate student coauthors, asked this question as well as a corollary: To what extent has environmental justice been centered within environmental nonprofits? One long-standing aim of environmental justice activists has been to garner more consistent attention to issues of racial and social justice within the environmental nonprofit sector. As the climate crisis intensifies, it is likely that environmental nonprofits will face increased pressure to attend to the intersections of climate change and environmental justice.

What we Did and What we Found…

In my research with Azdren Coma and Sam Castonguay, we utilize the most recently available 2016 IRS tax filings from 5,413 registered US environmental nonprofits to ask about the extent to which environmental organizations focus on issues of climate change and environmental justice (singularly and together). We examine characteristics of individual organizations that are associated with a focus on issues of climate and environmental justice, and identify the issue niches in which they compete. Information on organizational characteristics comes from datasets maintained by the Urban Institute and we scraped text on organizational mission statements and descriptions of primary activities from 2016 tax filings maintained by Open990. Automated text analysis procedures were used to locate environmental nonprofits in six distinct issue niches.

Our key finding is in the patterned way that issues of climate and justice are distributed across different segments, or niches, within the environmental nonprofit sector. Despite prominent threats to a wide variety of species from a changing climate, wildlife groups are by and large highly unlikely to address climate change or environmental justice. The underinvestment in both issues is so notable that one of our reviewers asked if wildlife groups are really even part of the environmental movement any longer.

Groups focused on sustainable economic development and those whose issue foci span multiple categories are the most likely to attend to issues of environmental justice and climate change together. Energy and natural resources groups, while attentive to climate change, are decidedly unlikely to mention issues of environmental justice in mission statements or yearly aims. In this, our findings reflect what other scholars have concluded are two different climate movements: one a coalition of corporate and civil society actors focused on market-oriented “clean growth” policies, and one focused on issues of environmental justice that are not easily incorporated into free market policy.

Overall, we find that 8% of the 5,413 groups addressed climate change and 10% attended to issues of environmental justice. As two of the greatest environmental challenges to our country, the increased focus on these twin issues is notable. The disjuncture between what environmental organizations do and what sociologists care about seems to be narrowing, and that’s a good thing.

And So…

One question our research raises is about the role of wildlife groups in the environmental movement moving forward. Wildlife groups control large resource pools and potentially tie the environmental movement to more conservative constituents than other sectors of the movement. These groups are widely credited with helping to launch the 1970s “Golden Era” of federal environmental policy, but today appear distinct from the movement writ large, both in our work and in the work of others who explore inter-connections among movement actors. This raises an important question about our collective ability to address the key environmental and social challenges of our time: which movement actors will be part of the solution, and which will sit on the sidelines?

Read the full article here: Johnson, E. W., Coma, A., & Castonguay, S. (2023). Characteristics of Large Environmental Nonprofits That Identify Climate Change and Social Justice as Focal Concerns. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, doi. 10.1177/08997640221138264.

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