President Biden Has Promised to Fight Environmental Racism

A coalition of climate, Indigenous, and racial justice groups at the Climate Justice Through Racial Justice march in New York, September 2020.

John Lamparski/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In what could potentially be a turning point in the fight against environmental racism, President Biden has promised to allocate 40 percent of the benefits from federal climate investments to disadvantaged communities. Such a commitment, known as Justice40, is long overdue, but now the real work begins: ensuring the funds get to the people who need it most while being as effective as possible in righting historical wrongs and helping communities thrive.

While the United States as a whole has made major strides to improve air and water quality, many communities still face unacceptable amounts of pollution. To cite just one troubling fact, people of color, who make up 30 percent of the general U.S. population, represent 56 percent of the people living near toxic chemical and waste facilities.

“The Justice40 Initiative has the potential to deliver positive benefits to environmental justice communities,”says Nicky Sheats, a board member of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance. “However, we must all work very hard to ensure that these benefits are tangible and that they go to the communities that need them the most.”

One of the factors behind the government’s neglect has been its “top down” approach to environmental justice, which lacks sufficient consultation with the affected communities. Take President Clinton’s signing of Executive Order 12898 in 1994, for example. This was one of the most important steps the nation had ever taken toward environmental justice, and it has, undoubtedly, had positive impacts—it put EJ on the federal agenda, where it has remained. But research has proven that the order has had minimal impact on the equity concerns surrounding which toxic sites are getting cleaned up, due in part to inadequate outreach to local communities. Disturbingly, decades after the order was signed, “the most potent predictor of health [remains the] zip code,” according to noted environmental justice expert Robert Bullard.

To help make sure the government stays on course this time around, the Equitable & Just National Climate Forum, a coalition of environmental justice leaders and national environmental advocacy groups, provided a set of principles for the Biden administration to follow as it carries out Justice40. The recommendations are detailed and intensely practical, but they are essentially a commonsense guide to partnering with communities that have historically been left out of decision-making processes.

An oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, a city where petrochemical complexes are one of the worst emitters of benzenes in the country.

David Goldman/AP

First, the administration must develop a data-based approach to identifying the communities suffering the greatest burden of environmental racism, focusing resources on areas where exposure to pollution overlaps with socioeconomic burdens. While the federal government has the tools to begin this process, the Trump administration essentially left those tools to rust, and updates are required.

Biden’s team has to develop a process for talking to communities. This sounds simple enough, but the government has yet to get it right. Even the National Environmental Policy Act, often called “the Magna Carta of environmental law” due to its public consultation requirements, hasn’t lived up to its authors’ promise. Periods for notifying communities and soliciting public comments on projects like bulldozing a neighborhood for a new highway, allowing oil drilling on public land, or approving a pipeline through a national forest are difficult to track, and often only the best organized groups receive meaningful consideration and responses to their comments.

Still, in designing a community engagement process, there are many recent successful models to draw upon. The collaborative groundwork and community input incorporated into the crafting of the Environmental Justice for All Act, which was introduced to Congress this spring, is one example. In 2017, Listen. Lead. Share launched a statewide conversation in Illinois on clean energy and equity. And Biden himself has done good work in this area, convening regional environmental justice advocates during his campaign for president.

In updating environmental justice research tools, the administration should bring together scholars and affected communities. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s EJScreen was an impressive effort to show where environmental racism has impacted people the most, it is incomplete. Many at-risk communities are falling through the gaps. And since the government doesn’t have a consistent definition of what constitutes an environmental justice community, money for remediation doesn’t usually get to the right people.

For the program to work, there must be meaningful outreach to local communities, to make them aware of the opportunities to reduce their exposure to pollution and other environmental hazards. Agencies must also make clear what work the federal government will support and the criteria by which their success will be measured.

While the government has historically offered incentives to develop renewable energy infrastructure, those incentives haven’t traditionally flowed to low-income communities and communities of color. There must be a special fund to support implementation of green technology, in recognition of the fact that the government’s historically modest incentives simply aren’t enough to make adoption of advancements like solar panels or electric vehicles possible in much of the country.

Finally, there must be a clear and public mechanism to track the administration’s progress. This is a hopeful moment for communities, and advocates are optimistic that real change is coming, but they will work tirelessly to ensure that President Biden fulfills his promises.

The road ahead is long, but we are finally traveling in the right direction. Now, let’s ensure that everyone is with us on the journey toward justice.