California’s lessons for Justice40 — implementation matters

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Several members of the White House’s Environmental Justice Advisory council announced this month they will tap $14 million from the Bezos Earth Fund to create a program aimed at holding the Biden administration accountable for carrying out its own landmark environmental justice policy,

the Justice40 Initiative. They are raising a warning flag that the administration must make stronger, accelerated progress toward its promise to ensure that at least 40 percent of the federal investments in climate and clean energy benefit low-income communities and communities of color.  

California environmental justice leaders — advocating for those who are disproportionately harmed by climate change and dirty-energy — are raising a warning flag and plea of our own: When it comes to climate justice policies, implementation matters. The Biden administration must take a “grassroots up” approach with the Justice40 Initiative. Taking a “grassroots up” approach means getting the dollars directly to marginalized communities. Why is this so important? 

Frontline communities like mine are the birthplaces of innovative and practical climate solutions. Long impacted by dirty energy and the effects of climate change, we can be resourced to quickly scale up the solutions we are already implementing. We are best positioned to lead a just transition to a clean-energy economy.

In my community of South Stockton, my organization, Little Manila Rising, is working on a number of projects to both protect our impacted neighbors and clean our air. Our programs train residents for conservation careers, plant hundreds of trees where they are badly needed, as well as provide residents with real-time hyperlocal information about air quality conditions and provide in-home interventions to improve air quality. These actions have a direct impact on exactly the people and communities who should benefit from Justice40.

When it comes to climate policy, California is seen as a leader. But in the area of climate justice — addressing the disproportionate effects climate change has on marginalized and underserved communities — we have a long way to go. California’s signature environmental justice law, AB 617 — one of the few policies the Justice40 Initiative might look to for lessons learned and best practices — has delivered some benefits to frontline communities, but it isn’t living up to its potential. 

Unfortunately, AB 617’s implementation process missed the mark. I was a member of Stockton’s Community Steering Committee, which was supposed to work collaboratively with the San Joaquin Valley Air District to create an AB 617 community action plan. In my view, the AB 617 process discouraged community leadership, lacked adequate technical analysis to make informed choices, and it also lacked strategic alignment with the area’s worst pollution sources. The “top down” way in which the Air District presented the community with plans and directives simply did not work. 

The most important AB 617 failure has been that it has not delivered quantifiable, permanent and enforceable emissions reductions. Air pollution in South Stockton is now worse than it was before the AB 617 process began. The failures of AB 617 must not be replicated at the federal level.

Frontline communities cannot afford for the Justice40 Initiative to take the same disappointing path as AB 617. We remember — and still feel — the impacts of the Obama-Biden administration’s 2009 American Recovery Act: companies and organizations with shovel-ready projects who already had funding and connections to power were given federal stimulus funding. 

Let’s make sure funding goes directly to communities and is controlled by communities. The Biden-Harris administration will see a greater return on investment. We can do more with more.  

Dillon Delvo is the executive director and co-founder of the non-profit organization Little Manila Rising in South Stockton, California. Little Manila Rising seeks equitable solutions from the effects of historical marginalization on issues such as education, the environment, redevelopment and public health.

Tags Air pollution Biden Climate change Environment Environmental justice EPA Joe Biden Justice40 Pollution

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