In the 1970s, environmentalism rose the forefront of the American consciousness, culminating in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and a slew of laws to curb pollution. But despite the push to clean up air and water, low income communities and communities of colors have still had to disproportionately bear the impacts of pollution and are now on the frontline of the climate crisis.
On Monday morning, Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee acknowledged this history of environmental racism and put forth his plan to address it while ensuring these communities are not again left to bear the burden of a degrading environment. The plan includes the creation of a new suite of federal policies, reshuffles the Council of Environmental Quality to focus on justice, and outlays $1.2 trillion in federal investments in frontline communities over the next decade. But environmental justice advocates also argued that Inslee or whoever the next president is will need to work as a partner with local communities to find solutions rather than dictate them.
The plan is the fifth major plank of Inslee’s presidential platform, which is completely ordered around addressing climate change in the face of a rapidly closing window to act. Earlier planks have focused on the economy, taking on the fossil fuel industry, and international relations. Together, they represent a holistic and scientifically realistic view of what’s needed to avert catastrophic climate change.
His new plank dips into addressing the unequal ways that communities of color have suffered from fossil fuel refining and production in their backyards and the impacts burning said fossil fuels will have on the climate. You need only look at the health impacts of redlining—a discriminatory federal practice that delineated communities of color as “risky” places to invest until the 1970s—or those of Hurricane Maria to see a legacy of environmental racism running throughout U.S. history. The Trump administration has kicked those trends into overdrive by rolling back pollution rules that again disproportionately hurt communities of color. And climate change will exacerbate risks further and create new ones. The plan, for example, highlights the risk of climate gentrification in places like Miami’s Little Haiti, which is becoming attractive to developers because it sits on higher ground and is less susceptible to sea level rise than other parts of the metro area like Miami Beach.
“The longer I’ve been at this—and I’ve been at this for a couple decades—the more I understand that both the climate crisis’ cause and to some degree its solution are parallel and intertwined with the causes of our racial disparities we suffered and the solutions to those problems,” Inslee told Earther. “[We have to] deal with inequity in our society at the same time to give us a shot at survival.”
That sentiment was echoed by Michelle Martinez, the coordinator of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, which said the plan would give “our future generations a chance at a career, at survival.” The solutions put forward in Inslee’s plan focus on improving monitoring pollution and socioeconomic data more closely as part of an equity mapping and screening process. A few states have implemented something like Inslee’s proposal, most notably California. Under Inslee’s plan, the federal government would identify communities that face disproportionate pollution and climate change impacts and cross-reference that data with socioeconomic and health data. Combining that data would help ensure federal policies around, say, transportation infrastructure or mining permits, wouldn’t further burden these communities. It would also allow an Inslee administration to provide resources for communities to mitigate pollution and risks from climate change.
Mustafa Santiago Ali, a vice president at the National Wildlife Federation and former head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Justice, told Earther that effectively doing this type of analysis requires good data—something which could be tough to come by in rural communities—on health, housing, transportation, and other categories tied to socioeconomic well-being.
“It can be a game changer if it’s done correctly,” Ali said. “You could have a very powerful tool, but you have to back that up with laws and enforcement.”
The plan also included just what kind of resources Inslee would offer. He previously announced his plan to spend $3 trillion in federal money over the 2020s to create a clean energy-based economy. Of that, the new climate justice plank outlays “at least” $1.2 trillion for frontline communities or 40 percent of the total. That percentage is borrowed from New York’s recently passed Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA), which outlays 40 percent of the money raised from carbon markets and elsewhere to be invested in marginalized communities.
In Inslee’s plan, the $1.2 trillion would speed the transition to zero emissions while ensuring disadvantaged communities can, well, take advantage of the new economy. Ali called it “a good foundation to work with,” particularly if it can galvanize private sector investments and help spur more minority owned businesses.
“We talk about new green economy, but less than 2 percent is owned by folks of color,” he said. “People need to see folks who look like themselves in that space.”
Elizabeth Yeampierre, the executive director of UPROSE, told Earther the 40 percent number came from an analysis by groups backing the CCPA, including hers. That analysis showed 40 percent roughly corresponded with the percentage of New York residents who are people of color as well as the percentage of New Yorkers living in households with incomes below $50,000.
“That may be different in other places,”she said, noting that the Inslee administration would have to fine tune how exactly it spread out funding for frontline communities to ensure fair access.
To that end, the plan includes calls for new advisory councils and turning the Council on Environmental Quality—a White House division found in 1969 to advise the president on environmental policy—into the Council on Environmental Justice. Peggy Shepard, the executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, told Earther that “[i]nstituting these offices will signal a tangible commitment, at the highest levels of government, to bring health, economic and racial justice to communities that have served as sacrifice zones for pollution, extreme weather events, and disparate environmental exposures on community health.”
Yeampierre also said those steps were good but still only represented a partial step toward true environmental justice. “It can’t be top down anymore,” she said. “Elected officials are no longer going to be expected to empower our communities but they must work in partnership with communities. We have power.”
This story has been updated with comments from Michelle Martinez.