Environmental racism is real - and climate solutions need to involve vulnerable populations, experts say
- Environmental-justice advocates are helping shape government policies on climate solutions.
- Policies need to consider communities that are the most vulnerable and suffer environmental hazards.
Low-income and racialized communities are the most vulnerable populations in the climate crisis, and they're much more likely to suffer from climate disasters. Environmental-justice advocates are working to ensure that climate solutions from government policies address vulnerabilities that cause this disproportionate suffering, such as illegal basement housing.
Environmental-justice advocates are working to ensure that government policies about the transition to a greener economy are for everyone, including the people who've suffered the most from pollution and climate disasters in the past.
During a Climate Week panel on the roots of environmental justice in government action and policy on Thursday, panelists also said that a cleaner and greener economy needs to include low-income and racialized communities in determining the solutions, as well as give them a fair share of the economic gains.
The panelists highlighted the specific ways that communities of color suffered from different environmental issues, as well as the work needed to make sure these communities are included in budget discussions and new government investments. Issues identified as having disproportionate climate effects on low-income and racialized communities include housing, frontline workers in agriculture, and energy providers during cold snaps. Negative climate effects include air pollution, flooding, poor transit access, and fewer parks.
"Environmental racism is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color," said Peggy Shepard, a cofounder and the executive director of the community organization WEACT for Environmental Justice.
In January, President Joe Biden signed an executive order focused on the climate crisis. It included an initiative to have 40% of the overall benefits from specific federal investments going to underserved and underinvested communities, including in areas such as clean energy and energy efficiency; clean transportation; affordable and sustainable pollution reduction; training and workforce development; and clean water systems and wastewater systems.
"We've already been working with agencies on how we can meet this goal through the delivery of their programs," said Dr. Cecilia Martinez, the White House's senior director for environmental justice.
Corporate leaders should also be aware of environmental-justice laws such as the one signed in New Jersey in September 2020. As a result of the bill, permit applications for a large variety of facilities - including incinerators, gas-fired power plants, solid-waste depots, and landfills - would require evaluation of environmental and public-health effects by the state's Department of Environmental Protection.
"According to the law, it is in the public interest for the state to limit the future placement and expansion of these facilities in these overburdened communities," said Olivia Glenn, New Jersey's deputy commissioner for environmental justice and equity. "In other words, we have to do what our advocates have long shared: advance a triple bottom line of social, environmental, and economic benefits. These three are not mutually exclusive."
Corporations also need to be aware of how recommendations from members of the environmental-justice community could continue to shape regulatory policies well into the future. "Being a partner with government is critical, but so is being able to stand there and evaluate how the government is doing and how accountable they are to the public," Shepard said.
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