Taking Aim at Climate Injustice: US Focuses on Environmental Racism in 2023
Katie Collins, CNET, January 12, 2023
“Cancer Alley” is an 85-mile stretch of land in Louisiana containing 150 petrochemical facilities situated near mostly Black, low-income residents who suffer from abnormally high cancer rates. It’s one of the starkest examples of environmental racism, or the disproportionate impact that pollution has had on minorities, particularly Black Americans. While the problem was recognized and named in the ’80s, it’s not until recent years that more attention has been given to this issue. Now the US is finally doing something about it.
Environmental racism is another version of redlining — practices that have discriminated against minorities seeking loans for better housing or even accessing higher internet speeds — which is uniquely an American problem. While not new — multiple studies have shown that historical redlining has created present-day air pollution disparities in US cities through the creation of environmental sacrifice zones — the issue, as part of the broader push for climate justice, is finally gaining momentum.
In 2021, decades after the problems in Cancer Alley were first identified, UN human rights experts were compelled to release a statement expressing their concern after further industrialization was planned in the region. “This form of environmental racism poses serious and disproportionate threats to the enjoyment of several human rights of its largely African American residents,” they said, noting it threatened the local residents’ right to life, health and an adequate standard of living.
The mission to acknowledge environmental racism hit a tipping point late last year, when President Joe Biden passed the Inflation Reduction Act, the most significant piece of climate legislation in US history. The bill channels billions of dollars into a clean energy future for the US, while benefiting jobs, industry and the country’s economy. But it also included a $60 billion investment to address the unequal impacts of pollution and the climate crisis on marginalized communities.
This money and assistance is long overdue. For many Americans living in low-income communities and communities of color, it’s already too late. Historic pollution from fossil fuel projects in the US has caused death and disease that has adversely affected these demographics for generations. These same communities are now bearing the brunt of the severe weather and disasters caused by the climate crisis on their homes and livelihoods.
Climate injustice is more usually associated with developing countries, many of which have done little to cause the crisis and yet are feeling its impacts most harshly. In reality, it’s a global problem that exists wherever there are inequalities. But it’s especially exaggerated in the US due to extreme wealth disparity, its legacy of colonization and racial segregation, the political clout of the fossil fuel lobby, as well as generations of denial about the creation of “environmental sacrifice zones” such as Cancer Alley.
Previous US presidents have acknowledged the problem, but Biden has been the first to center the climate injustice and environmental racism that have plagued low-income, Black and Indigenous communities for generations while making and enacting policy.
So far, this has largely been in the form of words and pledges, but the experts Biden has assembled on his White House Environmental Justice Council — many of whom have been campaigning for decades on the issues — are now waiting to see whether these promises will truly deliver for the most vulnerable and affected American communities. This coming year, as Biden enters the second half of his presidential term, will be the true test of his climate justice-focused policies.
Robert Bullard, who is known as the father of the environmental justice movement, said during COP27 that it was often the case that white communities ended up better off in the wake of extreme weather events, whereas Black communities became poorer. “In many cases in the US and around the world, disaster hits, but often the second disaster is the way the government responds to communities,” he said.
Within fossil fuel lobby groups and the Republican party, there are many who oppose the idea of a just transition to clean energy in a way that prioritizes the health and prosperity of marginalized communities.
Few are more outspoken against these threats than Senators Ed Markey, Sheldon Whitehouse and Ben Cardin. Like the three musketeers for US climate justice, the senators used their attendance at COP27 in November to speak about the Inflation Reduction Act and many of the obstructions they’ve faced throughout their political careers to justice-centered climate action.
It’s necessary for the US to express some “humility” over the fact that it took the country until August to pass meaningful climate legislation, said Cardin speaking at the summit. But, he added, climate justice is “part of the DNA” of the IRA and the bipartisan infrastructure bill, as well as being a principal objective across all domestic legislation introduced by Biden.
When Biden entered office, not only did he rejoin the Paris Agreement, but he signed an executive order laying out his intentions to prioritize tackling the issue, establishing the Justice40 Initiative to get money flowing into these communities. Then in September, he established the Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights, which will work under the Environmental Protection Agency to provide grants to communities suffering the effects of pollution.
These combined actions and initiatives represent a moment of reckoning for the US. After generations of sidelining and ignoring environmental racism and the climate injustices within its borders and territories, the country is now doing something.
The biggest challenge facing the US government right now as it pursues its mission to right the wrongs of historic environmental injustice is ensuring that the funding actually reaches the people it’s intended for — and that they get to decide how it’s used. A frequent problem, highlighted by Bullard, is that affected communities are only further disenfranchised when the government dictates the solutions.
This is especially true when energy companies present solutions such as transitioning to nuclear energy to communities who have been historically impacted by nuclear power plants. Speaking at COP27, Janene Yazzie, a member of the Navajo Nation and Southwest regional director for indigenous empowerment organization NDN Collective, explained how these kinds of solutions are unacceptable to people in her community.
“The whole principle of environmental justice is that those who are most impacted must be in the rooms, must set the tone,” Bullard said. “Many solutions can come from the communities that are being impacted.”