Advocates, Scholars of Color Call for Bold Action to End Environmental Racism

Alina Gonzalez
Allison Stevens

April 14, 2021

Scholars and advocates of color last week hailed the Biden administration’s efforts to ensure that disadvantaged communities reap the benefits of federal climate investments — but added that the administration must be held accountable for following through on it.

“This is our moment,” said Shalanda Baker, deputy director for energy justice at the U.S. Department of Justice and a Member Scholar with the Center for Progressive Reform who is on leave while serving in the administration. 

Others said the administration’s efforts don’t go far enough and instead called for an overhaul of governance, philanthropy, and an economy that exploits people of color and the planet.

The comments came during a day of dialogue among public officials and climate justice scholars, organizers, and funders representing the Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) community. Participants emphasized the importance of climate justice and culturally responsive climate action at an upcoming environmental summit in honor of Earth Day. 

At the heart of the conversation was a provision in a recent executive order to direct 40 percent of benefits of certain federal environmental investments to disadvantaged communities. The provision — known as the Justice40 Initiative — also calls for the development of an “environmental justice scorecard” to identify target communities, track investments in them, and support equitable decisions across the government. The initiative is embedded in an order President Biden signed into law in his first days in office.

“We need to move from optics to action,” said Sherri Mitchell, founding director of Land Peace Foundation. An important step “is to begin localizing efforts to those most ready, most capable, and most impacted by the issues that need to be changed.” 

Rhiana Gunn-Wright, climate policy director of  the Roosevelt Institute, agreed. “For the Justice40 commitment to be successful, there actually has to be a level of coordination with local, state, and sub-local that hasn’t existed.” 

In short, she said, the United States is in a transformative period that requires transformative solutions.

Others pointed to numbers. Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE, a Latino advocacy group in Brooklyn, said the 40-percent figure should be a floor, not a ceiling. “At a minimum, we have to be advocating to increase investments to frontline communities to at least 50 percent,” she said, especially “considering the legacy of extraction in our communities and how it has ended up literally in our cells, which is why we are susceptible to COVID.”

Black and Brown people have died from the virus at higher rates than white people.

To get at the roots of racism and injustice, Denise Fairchild, president and CEO of Emerald Cities Collaborative, called for a recognition of the diverse voices that are often left out of the conversation — one that is not from the viewpoint of a capitalistic mindset. 

“Our values are not Western values of consumption,” she said. Rather, “they are about family. They are about community. They are about collective economics. We are the leaders in this and have to bring our values to the forefront.”

A Message of Hope

Baker opened the day on a note of optimism, calling this moment in history a rare opportunity to increase access to affordable energy and new technologies, build wealth in Black and Brown communities, and create a workforce that lifts people out of poverty, she said. The Justice40 Initiative, she added, will help rebuild the country “from the bottom to the top.”

Former Secretary of State John Kerry, the administration’s special envoy for climate, and other top climate officials, including Gina McCarthy, the administration’s national climate advisor; Rep. Alma Adams of North Carolina; and Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, echoed the point and renewed pledges to address racism and justice in a “whole-of-government” approach to climate.

The Biden administration recognizes the disparate impacts of climate change and that advancing environmental justice is key to advancing racial, economic, and healthcare justice, Kerry told participants. “Too many communities have been sidelined, redlined,” he said. “This administration seeks to lift them up, to address their concerns.” 

Markey, who chairs a key environmental panel in the U.S. Senate, pointed to a massive green economic plan that would direct 50 percent of investments to “frontline” communities.

The event was held on April 8 in preparation for the upcoming climate summit, which will focus on the economic benefits of stronger climate action, such as job creation and technological innovation, and the importance of a “just transition” to a new economy built on clean energy. 

Invited participants include leaders of countries responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions (the leading cause of climate change) as well as those that are demonstrating leadership and innovation in combating climate change and those that are especially vulnerable to its effects. The summit, to be held on April 22 and April 23, is seen as an effort by the United States to “rejoin the world” in mitigating the effects of climate and ocean change. 

Biden took a major step toward that goal on his first day in office, when he signed an executive order to rejoin the Paris Agreement, an international treaty that aims to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius — a goal Kerry told participants is still alive. The United States withdrew from the accord during the Trump administration.

“Environmental justice will be achieved when every single one of us is empowered to protect ourselves and our communities from climate impacts and when together, we pull the planet from the brink,” he said. “Make no mistake, it will take all of us to tackle this issue.”

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