Opportunities for Increasing the Impact of NASA’s Earth Observations along Environmental Justice Dimensions

This working paper outlines ways that NASA can use its data products to promote environmental justice and overcome the barriers faced in the use of satellite data to influence decisionmaking.



April 11, 2023


Working Paper

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2 minutes


Environmental justice (EJ) is an important social priority and has become a policy goal at the federal level. Executive Order 14008, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, requires all federal agencies to develop programs, policies, and activities to address the disproportionately high adverse environmental impacts faced by marginalized communities. This raises the question of how NASA can increase the impact of its scientific outputs along EJ dimensions. How can the agency’s existing data products be leveraged to enable progress on EJ-related questions? What new scientific information can NASA produce to help reduce environmental inequities?

Many of NASA’s earth observations (EOs) offer complete geographic coverage and thus have strong potential to help systematically quantify the unequal burden of environmental harm and promote the equal enforcement of environmental law. For example, this report shows that using satellite-derived measures for monitoring compliance with environmental regulations could have potentially large equity implications. But despite recent efforts to increase the use of satellite data for such policy applications, satellite resources remain largely underutilized. While state and federal agencies are increasingly turning to satellite data for EJ research studies, these results often fall short of influencing decisionmaking (Holloway and Bratburd 2021). Barriers to use for EOs include difficulty in handling the native observations, a lack of trust in the accuracy of the data, and incompatibility of satellite-derived measures with legal compliance monitoring requirements (Prados et al. 2021).

Produced as part of the VALUABLES Consortium, this paper aims to outline ways that NASA can use its data products to promote EJ and overcome the barriers faced in the use of satellite data to influence decisionmaking. Importantly, the set of recommendations provided here is not intended to substitute for NASA’s direct engagement with EJ communities to learn what would be of most value to them, but rather is meant to complement these efforts by providing a perspective from the environmental policy community. Specifically, the insights that this perspective can provide are based on environmental policy scholars’ understanding of how scientific information, including remotely sensed information, plays a role in the formation of policy within a variety of economic, political, and social contexts. In addition, the recommendations here are informed by the literature on policy evaluation and knowledge of which kinds of policies have proven to be more effective than others, including those with EJ dimensions. This report focuses on four broad categories of opportunities for promoting EJ:

  1. leveraging EOs to reduce the inequitable burden of environmental harm
  2. making NASA’s data products more accessible to EJ communities
  3. developing new sensors and missions to fill EJ data gaps
  4. contributing to the development of quantifiable metrics to measure progress toward EJ goals

This set of recommendations builds on existing efforts at NASA to increase the impact of satellite data along EJ dimensions. In particular, NASA’s Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team (HAQAST) has a Tiger Team tasked with leveraging satellite data for EJ. HAQAST members are working with public stakeholders to identify communities disproportionately affected by environmental health risks, build capacity among EJ communities for using and interpreting satellite data sets, and increase the accessibility of satellite data for EJ applications. Additionally, in 2021, NASA announced a new funding opportunity providing an estimated $3 million in awards to advance progress on EJ domestically through the application of earth science, geospatial, and socioeconomic information. The aim of this document is to reinforce the need for this type of work at NASA and identify additional opportunities for advancing EJ using agency resources.


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