Screenshot: CNN

The historic CNN Climate Town Hall on Wednesday night covered many topics: abortion, education, and—you know it—justice. In fact, topics around justice came up at least 18 times, according to an Earther analysis of town hall transcripts.

Justice is key to solving the climate crisis. Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are already facing the brunt of climate change’s impacts even as they’re less equipped to handle it. Advocates argue that giving special attention to their needs will help alleviate not only their social ills but the rest of society’s, too.

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Eighteen is better than the little air time climate change, much less justice, has received at the Democratic debates so far this year, as Media Matters has noted. To arrive at this number, Earther took a close look at the transcripts of last night’s event and searched for five specific terms: environmental justice, climate justice, racial justice, racism, and just transition.

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Environmental justice was, by far, the most popular term candidates, moderators, and audience members alike preferred to use when discussing issues around equity, race, and class. In fact, within the first 10 minutes of the town hall starting, Julián Castro brought up environmental justice when asked about his plan for natural disasters, which left me both surprised and impressed.

“We also recognize that there’s a component of environmental justice at work here, too, because you all know that, oftentimes, the first folks to get flooded out are the poorest communities,” Castro said. “They’re often communities of color. They’re the ones that can least afford to deal with the climate crisis.”

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Climate justice, unfortunately, wasn’t mentioned explicitly at all. And this term is specific to the climate crisis. It was born out of the environmental justice movement but includes a narrow focus on the impacts communities face from rising sea levels, sinking islands, melting homelands, and extreme weather events fueled by warming temperatures. Environmental justice, on the other hand, has historically focused on the ways communities are battling pollution, toxic facilities, and segregation.

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Both, however, are manifestations of the energy communities of color and low-income communities have built to rebel against the more white, wealthy environmental movements that have historically ignored the human suffering happening amid an environmental crisis. I don’t expect CNN to understand all these intricacies, per se, but the lack of attention to this detail was a missed opportunity, Mustafa Santiago Ali, former environmental justice chair at the Environmental Protection Agency who now serves as a vice president at the National Wildlife Federation, told Earther.

“If I was one of the moderators, one of my first questions would’ve been to ask candidates to define environmental justice and climate justice,” Ali said.

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Same, Mustafa, same.

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The only explicit mention of racial justice and racism came from Elizabeth Warren and Castro though a number of other candidates—including Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar—did take the time to note that communities of color will face the impacts of climate change first and worst. Castro was prompted by a question, but Warren was one of the few to go deeper in response to a question about indigenous rights.

Yes, communities of color face detrimental impacts from climate change, but we don’t all experience them the same. Indigenous communities, for instance, have a special cultural and spiritual relationship to their land. They also have sovereign rights as tribal nations under treaties that the federal government has largely ignored in favor of corporate interests. Warren was clear she’d prioritize free, prior, and informed consent of tribal nations before approving any infrastructure projects (such as oil pipelines) on federal land that could, ultimately, impact tribal land after a member of the Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe in Louisiana’s Isle de Jean Charles told Warren about the lands her people are losing to rising seas.

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“On the policies about our relationship, our federal government’s relationship with our native tribes, it’s about respecting the tribe’s ability to take care of their own land, to be good stewards of the land,” Warren said during the town hall. “And a commitment as president that I will not approve any plans for the use of federal lands that are near tribal lands that can affect what happens on tribal lands or sacred lands that are sacred to our Native American brothers and sisters, that I will not do that without the prior informed consent of the neighboring tribes. I think that’s how we help tribes be the stewards of the land that they have been for generations and I know they will be for generations to come.”

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Not only are the impacts to them unique, but many tribal members also carry the traditional knowledge that could help us clean up this mess. How—if at all—these candidates plan to include indigenous or traditional knowledge in their climate plans never came up.

While there were some good moments around justice, both moderators and candidates failed to adequately address a number of crucial topics that include immigration, housing, transportation, and poverty. All these relate directly to climate change and justice. As Ali said, looking at the candidates’ plans through an environmental justice lens is critical to ensure that they won’t result in unintentional negative consequences for already-vulnerable communities. Doing that won’t only lift up these communities; it will leave everyone else in a better place, Ali said.

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“When you’re looking at the policies that the candidates are talking about, whether you’re the RNC or the DNC, the question is how does your policy help vulnerable communities move from surviving to thriving?” he told Earther.

That question never quite got answered Wednesday night, at least not to where I was satisfied. And it’s in part why Ali is part of a group putting together a presidential forum in October strictly focused on environmental justice. It’ll be the first of its kind—and it’s essential. If we’re going to make it through climate change, people need policies that’ll pull them out of poverty and hardship first. And they need proper protections to ensure other policies don’t push them deeper into the hole.

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