Just Environments

Just Environments invests in collaborations between communities, students, and scholars based on research and data justice principles in order to explore solutions and practices to promote environmental justice.

The events of the past two years, from the COVID-19 pandemic to rising economic inequality to police brutality, have drawn unprecedented levels of interest from students, faculty, and staff at Duke University concerning issues of racial and social justice. As Duke begins a university-wide climate change initiative, many have called for increased attention on just transitions in energy, environmental justice, and climate justice. But many analytic approaches and policy-making processes for mainstream environmental problems focus on results and not the need for a just process itself.

Just Environments believes that the ways in which we study environmental justice are as important as the outcomes we achieve.

In the Just Environments Program, scholars, students, community co-researchers work together to understand the structural sources of environmental and climate injustices, thereby challenging the deeply held assumptions that perpetuate them. In taking this approach, we seek to avoid the long-standing trend of academic research that does not include community partners or incorporate corrective actions to redress and resolve environmental injustices. Employing the best practices from environmental justice studies and from the lived experiences of our partners, Just Environments collaborates with communities in ways that recognizes their depth of knowledge and implicit understanding. Without immediately privileging academic expertise, we recognize the right of community members with the greatest stake in the process to frame the problem and identify acceptable solutions.

Just Environments is a joint project of the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability and the Kenan Institute for Ethics. It formalizes long-standing community-engaged environmental and climate justice collaborations between the two institutes and impacted communities.

Just Environments also serves as a hub for scholars, students, staff, community co-researchers, and other external collaborators interested in working at the intersections of research and data justice and environmental and climate justice. It connects Duke’s schools and departments, community partners and other external collaborators, including the government and the private sector.


Kay Jowers serves as the director for Just Environments, guiding the program’s direction and ensuring we stay true to our commitments to research just approaches to environmental, energy, and climate justice. Her dedication to creating healthy, sustainable communities extends beyond traditional environmental concerns. She also focuses on generating research and policy solutions that ensure access to quality and affordable housing, food, green spaces, utilities, and more, offering a comprehensive approach to justice.

Before coming to Duke, Jowers honed her skills as an environmental attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center and the University of Denver’s Environmental Law Clinic. She brings this rich background in environmental law to her current work, where she strives to challenge deeply held assumptions perpetuating environmental and climate injustices.

Jowers holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a J.D. with a concentration in environmental law from Tulane University Law School, a master’s degree in environmental health sciences from the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, and a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of South Carolina. Her comprehensive education and experience uniquely position her to lead in the field of environmental justice and equity.

Senior Research Associate

Elizabeth Christenson-Diver

Elizabeth Christenson-Diver brings expertise linking research and policy, ensuring that our work is grounded in rigorous research and is making a real-world impact. Elizabeth informs the development of our projects and helps shape our overall research agenda.

Prior to coming to Duke, Elizabeth worked at the U.S. Department of State in the Office of Canadian Affairs as a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow developing recommended strategy for stakeholder, Tribal, and international government engagement regarding water and other environmental issues. As Policy Advisor for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, Elizabeth supervised the Department’s Environmental Justice Program and led the development (ongoing) of the North Carolina Flood Resiliency Blueprint engaging experts across the state.

She holds a Ph.D. and master’s degree in Environmental Sciences & Engineering from the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill where she documented water quality impacts from industrial hog operations in North Carolina. Prior research spans interdisciplinary topics including climate hazards, disparate access to water and sanitation infrastructure, disinfection in healthcare facilities, microbial water quality, and modeling sources of pollution.

Projects and Activities

The Duke Environmental Justice Lab, coordinated by the Duke Economics Department and the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability, facilitates multi-disciplinary computational research using a variety of social science methods to explore environmental inequality and environmental justice topics. The Lab includes undergraduate, MA and PhD student researchers who collaborate with external community partners, and scholars across Duke and UNC to co-produce actionable and policy-relevant research. 

Just Environments offers courses in environmental and climate justice, including the FOCUS course on Environmental Justice, Nationalism, and Institutions (ETHICS 190FS) and Ethics in Environmental Decision-Making (ETHICS 288S) once a year.

  • ETHICS 190FS uses organizational, institutional and social movement theory to examine the dynamics of contentions politics around environmental justice and government agencies’ failures to adequately incorporate justice in their practices.
  • ETHICS 288S, started as part of the PLANET Project, takes on a timely policy issue working alongside the decision makers and affected communities to surface complex ethical issues related to justice, with the goal of promoting more just and informed decision making. Past course topics have included the sourcing of Duke’s carbon offsets from biogas collected from factory farms in Eastern NC and the extractive nature of climate-related natural disaster research.