For the last four years, the Trump Administration has rolled back environmental regulations and denied the existence of climate change. President-elect Biden, however, made climate policy a central tenet of his campaign. In his first 100 days, he has promised to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and enact his $2 trillion clean energy plan, which includes a focus on environmental justice communities. With the final breakdown of the Senate in the hands of two Georgia runoff elections, climate advocates may be looking at a less than ideal federal landscape.
Tina Johnson, Director of The National Black Environmental Justice Network, and Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, North America Director at 350.org, joined Climate XChange for our December Deep Dive Webinar to discuss the future of climate policy and environmental justice under the Biden Administration.
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin
Toles O’Laughlin classifies her work as “developing strategic interventions to increase support for a multiracial, multigenerational environmental movement that can respond to the crises of climate as a design problem, with redesign.”
With the election of Joe Biden, we are entering into an integrated era of climate politics. The climate arena has changed immensely in the past four years since the signing of the Paris Agreement, and the United States will be returning to a different climate movement than it left after the election of Donald Trump.
Coming out of this election, we have a clear climate mandate, an opportunity to re-enter the global arena of climate policy, and a thriving domestic agenda to address sustainable jobs, aging infrastructure, and human health in the time of the pandemic.
In the absence of federal support for climate policies, states and cities have held the line. With the new administration, there is the potential for the federal government to breathe life into these states that are facing immense debt and the costs of climate impacts.
Communities have also held strong throughout these past four years by protesting the siting of polluting projects in their neighborhoods, building mutual aid networks, and setting up a new era of leadership with diverse and young voices.
Despite these successes, Toles O’Laughlin emphasizes that “gains don’t mean power without a great deal of effort” and “climate momentum must be converted to climate action.” Even though we have a more favorable administration to climate change, we cannot stop pushing for ambitious and just climate policies. She exclaims, “If you’re tired, take a nap. January comes, and we begin again.”
Toles O’Laughlin also notes that even when we have had administrations who were more supportive of climate movements, we have not been able to solve basic questions of environment and health. Specifically, we have always struggled with providing clean energy access to everyone, decreasing air pollution around highways, dealing with climate-induced flooding and mold, siting of polluting facilities, and with electrification and storage.
With this context, Toles O’Laughlin urges us to “Rebuild, Repair, and Reinvest.” First, she looks at rebuilding, which looks like reimplementing and passing new standards to regulate polluting industries, creating intergovernmental cooperation, and to set government purchasing power and procurement standards.
Second, we need to repair cities and states. This means retooling climate plans to include health and safety, adjusting the definition of clean energy in existing policy, and encouraging the regrowth of local commerce with restorative models, financing, and debt forgiveness.
Third, we need to clear a path for reinvestment that recognizes systemic harm with antiracist policy. This entails building local capacity to encourage diverse ambassadors for sustainable energy, setting targets for implementation that match harm for gains in the climate decade, building in partnerships that anticipate concrete climate action in communities least likely to engage, and funding rebelliously especially where communities have been subject to predatory systems and blocked from grants.
This model should be underscored with the assumption that, “no community, group, or people should bear an outsized burden of environmental threats, ecological manipulation or be excluded from decisions that determine their future for any reason, particularly for profit.”
The National Black Environmental Justice Network (NBEJN) relaunched this year in June with the collision of two urgent issues facing the Black community: the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 and police brutality. Its goal is to “strengthen coalitions and commitments to fight on multiple fronts to eradicate underlying conditions that create and perpetuate disparities and vulnerability.” NBEJN envisions “a world where Black people live in communities free from the vestiges of systemic racism and environmental degradation with full access to opportunities for building a quality life for Black children and families.”
With this context, the Trump administration has rolled back air pollution protections and stalled climate action, which has directly impacted communities of color. However, state, local, and tribal governments have taken meaningful steps to increase climate ambition and increase renewable energy production.
In this new political moment, environmental justice needs to be front and center. “Zip code is still the most potent indicator of health and wellbeing in the United States” and “race is still more potent than income in predicting the distribution of pollution.” Specifically, Black Americans are significantly more at risk of living in an environmental sacrifice zone with immense health danger.
Climate change will only exacerbate the environmental burdens felt by communities of color by increasing the number of bad air days. It will also subsequently widen the racial wealth gap. Decades of racist redlining have contributed to urban heat island disparities for communities of color. Redlining has also exacerbated the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 in Black communities.
States and local governments have taken steps to address environmental and economic injustice. These actions have been most successful when driven by the leadership of frontline communities who have organized, built power, and achieved the solutions they defined for themselves. Despite some successes, many actions have fallen short and much work is needed at all levels of government in conjunction with environmental justice advocates.
Federal environmental justice policy was developed more than twenty years ago and no longer serves the country’s needs moving forward. The 1994 Executive Order 12898 meant to address environmental justice on a federal level is rarely used to implement meaningful policy.
President-elect Joe Biden has made strong commitments on environmental and racial justice, but he needs to fulfill the commitments he established on his campaign. Specifically, in his Build Back Better plan, Biden committed to establishing an Environmental and Climate Justice Division in the U.S. Department of Justice, overhauling the EPA External Civil Rights Compliance Office, mandating new monitoring in frontline and fenceline communities, establishing interagency teams to partner directly with communities, tackling water pollution in a science-based manner, and targeting investments with the goal of delivering 40% of the overall benefits to disadvantaged communities.
Overall, systemic racism cannot wait to be addressed for all other issues to catch up. We need transformative policymaking from the Biden administration as was promised in his Build Back Better proposal.
Should carbon pricing play a role in future climate policy?
“Until we charge enough that your business will close if you are hurting people, then it’s not high enough,” says Toles O’Laughlin. Until that is the outcome of pricing carbon, we are essentially subsidizing the harm of people who have been set aside to be sacrificed. “What we are actually pricing is people’s lives, and it’s totally inappropriate.”
Johnson seconded Toles O’Laughlin’s thoughts and emphasized that the definition of equity can vary significantly from person to person. She thinks that there is an assumption with carbon pricing that it’s all fair, that people are compensated and that equalizes their exposure. However, she stressed that, “Most people that are living in a chemical corridor would much rather have their health than a check.”
Communities of color, not industries, need to examine a policy and decide if it’s equitable and just. Until that is addressed, it is difficult for vulnerable communities to come to the table on carbon pricing. Oftentimes, policies are written and then presented to people, so that when the reaction is not wholeheartedly in support, the writers of the policy claim that residents don’t understand the policy. But really what’s not being understood is the impact the policy will have on communities on the ground. The thought processes of policy writers and researchers cannot supersede the reality of people’s lived experiences.
Carbon pricing mechanisms in the United States have not achieved inclusive consent to the point where vulnerable communities feel represented and heard by them.
Where do we go from here?
Four years of environmental regulation rollbacks and climate denial from the Trump administration has taken its toll on the American people and our international reputation. The election of President-elect Joe Biden has given us a light at the end of the tunnel with the most ambitious climate plan ever put forward by a presidential candidate.
On paper, the Biden administration has shown a strong commitment to climate change, economic equality, and racial justice. However, it is up to us to keep the pedal on the gas to make sure he makes good on his promises. The planet can’t wait, and neither will we. As Toles O’Laughlin says, “If you’re tired, take a nap. January comes, and we begin again.”