“To be poor means that you are living in environments that you don’t control,” said Donna Givens Davidson, president and CEO of Eastside Community Network in Detroit, and a new faculty member in the Earth Institute’s Master of Science in Sustainability Management program. “And it means that people who have more power and money have a way of using those environments for dumping, using those environments for waste. And then, because you don’t have political capital, you don’t even have the means to say, ‘Let’s create buffers and protect ourselves.’”
The recent winter storm and subsequent blackouts and water issues in Texas left over four million homes without power and running water. Not surprisingly, low-income and communities of color were hardest hit. When a crisis hits, people in marginalized communities with substandard and neglected infrastructure do not have the money to buy a generator or check into a hotel; they suffer the worst impacts of natural disasters and climate change. The Texas crisis is just the latest example of environmental injustice.
Environmental justice is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Many groups—such as Blacks, Latinos, Indigenous people, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, people of color, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, and low-income communities—have historically been underserved and have endured disproportionate harm from environmental pollution and the impacts of climate change. In 1994, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, directing federal agencies to “identify and address” the adverse environmental impacts of federal actions on minority and low-income communities. However, because it was not actually a law, communities had no legal recourse to fight if agencies didn’t act; today, many cases of environmental injustice remain and are now increasingly exacerbated by climate change.
In the U.S., African Americans die from asthma-related causes at almost three times the rate of whites. Half of all Latinos live in counties that do not meet EPA public health standards for smog; and 40 percent of Native American tribes are in Alaska where climate change impacts are jeopardizing livelihoods and infrastructure.
Environmental injustice increased under President Trump, as he cut funds for the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, which implements Executive Order 12989.
To increase opportunities for oil and gas drilling, he severed one million acres from the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, which Native American tribes sought to have created because they consider the land sacred. He approved oil and gas pipelines crossing Indigenous lands, kept a pesticide that harms farm workers on the market, and refused to strengthen air pollution standards. He also attempted to weaken the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires agencies to consider if a community faces cumulative impacts before approving infrastructure projects.
President Biden has promised that “Environmental justice will be at the center of all we do.” Historically, environmental justice issues were siloed in separate agencies. Recognizing that disadvantaged communities are plagued by cumulative problems, however, Biden plans to employ an “all-of-government” approach to ensure that environmental justice is a consideration in decision-making across the federal government. He has ordered every federal agency to review the state of equity in the agency and within 200 days, come up with a plan to remedy any “unequal barriers to opportunity” in policies and programs.
On January 27, Biden signed an executive order “to secure environmental justice and equitable economic opportunity.” Here are some features of his plan.
Under the new executive order, Biden will reorganize existing environmental justice groups within the federal government as the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council. Both groups will report to the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, who reports directly to Biden. The two new councils will be responsible for ensuring the all-of-government approach to addressing environmental injustice, strengthening Executive Order 12989, and developing a system for measuring its effectiveness, including a yearly published score card.
Biden will also create a National Climate Task Force headed by the national climate advisor, who will advise the president on domestic climate change policy; Gina McCarthy, former head of the EPA, will fill this new role. The National Climate Task Force, comprising the heads of the major federal agencies, will engage with all sectors of the economy — including state, local and tribal governments, workers and communities — to plan and carry out emissions-reduction strategies, increase climate resiliency and ensure environmental justice. It will empower and work with community leaders on dealing with persistent cases of environmental injustice, and enable underserved communities to more easily access credit and capital to help them “build back better.”
Biden is instructing the Justice Department to increase enforcement against polluters, and ordering all agencies to address any disproportionate environmental injustice that results from their policies or programs.
He says he will make sure that states more effectively monitor pollution in vulnerable communities and install new monitors that track real-time conditions so that the public is immediately informed of problems. The EPA will also be required to let community residents know whenever toxins are released into the environment, and engage community members in a remediation plan.
Biden has promised that low-income and communities of color will get preference in grant programs. In addition, he has created the Justice40 Initiative, which aims to give 40 percent of the benefits of federal investments in clean energy to underserved communities. This could take the form of electrification projects, sustainable housing, supporting community-shared solar, training programs for green jobs, or remediating historic pollution.
Because climate change impacts health, especially in low-income and communities of color, Biden plans to create and implement a National Crisis Strategy to address each type of climate change impact including heat waves, sea level rise, air pollution, wild fires, and hurricanes and help vulnerable communities develop emergency plans to deal with them. The strategy will also likely compel the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide disaster relief more quickly to underserved populations.
Within 100 days, the Office of Science and Technology Policy will be required to produce a report identifying the best approaches for improving air and water quality. Biden will urge states to require emissions reductions to improve air quality in disadvantaged communities. He promises to improve water quality and declare PFAS (toxic fluorinated chemicals used in nonstick pans and waterproof jackets), which have been found in dozens of U.S. city water supplies, a hazardous substance and establish standards in drinking water. He will also ramp up testing for lead in drinking water and make water bills more affordable for low-income communities.
An environmental justice leader weighs in
Givens Davidson believes Biden’s policy plans are first-rate. But she also questions how the actual experiences of impacted communities can be translated into policy, especially in cases where current laws allow the injustices to continue.
For example, a Fiat Chrysler plant adjacent to Givens Davidson’s community in Detroit, which has the highest asthma rate in the state, wants to expand. Fiat Chrysler applied for a permit to increase pollution in the area, but it had to find a way to mitigate the increase, so it agreed to offset the added pollution by reducing air pollution in a nearby suburb, while increasing pollution in Detroit. “It was determined that there were no laws that would stop them from opening this plant or for increasing pollution here,” said Givens Davidson. “There were no laws in place that would demand they really buffer the area. There are no laws in place that would demand that they install air filters in childcare centers and schools and community centers. I want to see policy that makes it a norm that when you’re going to have industrial operations in areas close to residential populations, these are things that must happen by order of law to protect people.”
To truly change environmental laws and reallocate funds, however, Biden will need the cooperation of Congress. And getting Congressional buy-in may prove difficult given the current composition of Congress, with Democrats holding only slim majorities in the House and Senate. “I think, it’s going to be really hard to get this [changing laws] through Congress, as currently structured, because there’s so much pushback,” said Givens Davidson. “There’s resistance at every single level to all of these things in Biden’s plan. But I think it’s ambitious. I think that’s good. You should be ambitious.”
Still, there are many aspects of Biden’s plan that can be executed by the EPA and other agencies in the executive branch as they have significant leeway to determine which abuses to investigate and remediate and how aggressively to go after violators. In addition, Biden has nominated and appointed proven environmental justice advocates, women, and people of color in key positions, demonstrating the seriousness of his commitment to an all-of-government approach to environmental justice.
The all-of-government strategy
Here’s how some agencies can and will incorporate environmental justice into their operations.
Environmental Protection Agency
As Trump rolled back over 100 environmental rules, many under the jurisdiction of the EPA, almost 1,600 people left the agency. Michael Regan, the new head of EPA and former head of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, aims to restore the agency to a position of strength. As the first Black man to head the EPA, he has pledged, “We will move with a sense of urgency on climate change and we will stand up for environmental justice and equity.” He plans to strengthen the enforcement of environmental violations that have the most impact on underserved communities and create a community notification system providing real-time data on pollution.
Historically, the EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office has not adequately fulfilled its duties under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin in any program that receives federal funds. The Biden administration will ensure that civil rights are protected going forward, and attempt to reinstate the private right to sue so that communities can bring cases against violators themselves.
The EPA has an environmental justice tool, EJScreen, that combines environmental and demographic data to help identify vulnerable communities and potential environmental issues. Building on EJScreen, the chair of the Council on Environmental Quality is tasked with developing a more detailed and effective data-driven climate and economic justice screening tool to identify disadvantaged communities, and help produce interactive maps of these communities.
Department of Justice (DOJ)
The DOJ has already withdrawn nine of Trump’s policies that hindered environmental enforcement, many blocking certain measures to compensate disadvantaged communities for environmental injustice. Merrick Garland, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals, was appointed by Biden to head the DOJ as attorney general. He has expertise in environmental law and, in numerous cases, has protected the rule-making and enforcement power of the EPA.
Biden wants to improve coordination between the Department of Justice and the EPA, and has directed the DOJ to more vigorously enforce violations that impact disadvantaged communities. These cases are to be pursued to the “fullest extent permitted by law,” potentially including holding corporate executives personally accountable.
The DOJ is expected to create an Office of Environmental Justice, dedicated to protecting disadvantaged communities and coordinating enforcement with attorneys general around the U.S. The DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, which prosecutes cases against violators of environmental laws, may be renamed the Environmental Justice and Natural Resources Division. The department will also likely prioritize environmental justice cases that arise in other agencies.
Department of the Interior (DOI)
The DOI is responsible for protecting the country’s natural resources and cultural heritage, including the permitting of energy development on federal lands. Approximately one quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from the burning of fuels taken from public lands, so how these lands are managed can have significant climate implications.
Under the Trump administration, 550,000 acres of public land were opened for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — land that Indigenous communities consider sacred. Biden has since placed a temporary moratorium on developments in the Arctic refuge. Under his administration, the DOI plans to expand development of renewable energy production on public lands and in offshore waters, but it will need to do so in consultation with tribal governments, because the DOI is also responsible for honoring commitments that have been made to Native American and other Indigenous peoples.
Biden nominated Rep. Deb Haaland from New Mexico to be secretary of the interior. Haaland, who supported those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, is the first Native American Cabinet secretary and will oversee 500 million acres of public land and policies that affect 574 federally recognized tribal governments.
Biden has already ordered the DOI to review the downsizing of the Bears Ears Monument and other national monuments in consultation with tribal governments. He also revoked the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, which crosses Native American land that includes historic, cultural and religious sites.
He has pledged to reinstate the White House Tribal Nations Conference, whose mission is to improve economic conditions and create jobs for Native Americans and Alaska Natives. He has also promised to fulfill the obligations of tribal treaties, consult with tribes, and evaluate the impacts of agency decisions on treaty rights.
Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
Biden has ordered the HHS to create an Office of Climate Change and Health Equity, an interagency group to decrease the risks of climate change to vulnerable populations. The new office, along with the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Defense, will identify infectious diseases that could be worsened by climate change, assess their risks to all populations, and work to develop vaccines and other ways to reduce that risk.
Xavier Becerra, nominated to head HHS, will be the first Latino to lead the agency. He is known for expanding health care access, especially for low-income communities and women. As California’s attorney general, he established the first state-level environmental justice bureau, which supported communities opposing potentially polluting projects in their neighborhoods.
Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Biden promised to tackle agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions by incentivizing farmers to plant crops that store carbon. The USDA will likely prioritize giving support to Black farmers who were traditionally discriminated against by the department when loans and conservation payments, subsidies and disaster payments were meted out. According to the New York Times, African Americans run only 2 percent of all farms in the U.S. today; in 1920, they held 14 percent. The decrease is a result of years of racism and discriminatory lending and land ownership policies. For example, Black farmers received only 0.8 percent of the USDA’s loans between 2009 and 2016.
Black farmers were disappointed at Biden’s appointment of Tom Vilsack as USDA head. They feel that Vilsack, who served eight years as agriculture secretary under Obama, has a poor record on racial and equity issues. In response, Vilsack has said that he would “work to root out generations of systemic racism that disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous, and people of color,” will build a diverse team, and would consider creating a commission on equity.
Department of Commerce
The department’s mission is to promote economic growth and opportunity. Biden would like to double the $333 million budget of the department’s Economic Development Administration to help set up new clean manufacturing and technology centers in disadvantaged communities.
The Department of Commerce could also work with the USDA and DOI to expand broadband coverage to rural and tribal communities. This would enable these areas to have smart grids and to utilize data-dependent green practices in agriculture and forestry.
Department of Energy (DOE)
The DOE’s grants and loans can help underserved communities by funding community-owned solar projects, microgrids, or other clean energy projects, and providing weatherization assistance.
The DOE has also created a new position for deputy director for energy justice to ensure that energy policies related to transitioning away from fossil fuels don’t have disproportionate impacts on marginalized communities, and to ensure that these communities help shape the policies that affect their energy future.
Department of Transportation (DOT)
DOT secretary Pete Buttigieg has said that overhauling infrastructure will help with climate change, racial justice and job creation. He is expected to focus the new jobs created by these infrastructure improvements on communities that have suffered environmental injustice, and ensure that large infrastructure projects, like highways, no longer bulldoze through those communities. In addition, he will likely prioritize community engagement and projects like bike lanes, creating sidewalks in poor neighborhoods and ensuring cheaper transportation for workers.
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
HUD could improve low-income housing by raising standards for housing. In addition, HUD’s grants and financing programs could establish requirements so that portions of funding must be used to build low-carbon affordable housing. HUD’s Community Development Block Grant Program could require funding recipients to reduce building emissions and develop adaptation plans for climate change impacts.
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)
FERC regulates the transmission and sale of electricity and natural gas, and the transport of oil in pipelines across state lines. While FERC is not bound by Executive Order 12989, it must address environmental impacts through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA requires agencies to assess the environmental impacts of their proposed actions, find alternatives if necessary, and allow affected communities to weigh in.
Richard Glick, who was appointed FERC chairman, has created a new position for integrating environmental justice and equity matters into all FERC decision-making. This entails examining whether projects being reviewed by FERC have health or economic impacts on marginalized communities, and if so, determining how those impacts can be lessened. FERC is also revising a 1999 policy that guides its approval of gas infrastructure to include an assessment of how projects might impact marginalized communities.
What more is needed?
Givens Davidson praises Biden’s efforts to prioritize environmental justice. “I feel seen and heard when I see a lot of what he is saying,” she said. “He has done a great job… but let’s push him to do an even better job.”
Here are a few of the policies she would like to see Biden add to his environmental justice program.
- A housing policy that provides housing for the most vulnerable populations, and ensures housing equity.
- A water policy that prioritizes water as a human right, which means that systems are affordable, well maintained, and continuously funded.
- A plan to green America, using natural systems to manage stormwater and air pollution, since poor communities usually lack trees and, as a result, become heat islands.
“I think that when you look at environmental injustice, it’s not just this one thing,” said Givens Davidson. “You can’t fix factories and improve it. You can’t fix corporations and improve it. Our policy around how we resource low-income communities and low-income people must change, how we resource housing, and how we provide access to water, and to heat and cooling — it all matters. It’s got to be comprehensive.”
And sustainable, she added. “Sustainability would suggest that there is inclusive social well being at the end of any development process. Everybody benefits, we figure out a way to share benefit, and to share well. It’s a restructuring of our thinking and our values as American people.”