Celebrating wins and breaking down barriers on the long road to environmental justice
Every winter (except when COVID-19 made it problematic), a dedicated group of environmental justice activists makes our annual pilgrimage to Washington to push for progress on policies that protect the planet while improving health, safety and economic opportunity. This year’s trip includes visits with the White House Council on Environmental Quality, congressional leaders and staffers, key government agencies and environmental nonprofits.
After years of effort, we can see long-suffering environmental justice communities are finally shaping the nation’s environmental policies, and we celebrate those wins. After decades of developing our own homegrown solutions while calling for corporate accountability, clean energy and air, as well as secure infrastructure for our families, we are seeing meaningful policy change and substantial spending toward a more just and sustainable nation.
But at the same time, we must keep breaking down remaining barriers and calling attention to hidden pitfalls. We must make sure every community has what it needs to survive and thrive through the climate crisis. The road to environmental justice is neither smooth nor straight — and we still have a long way to go.
Take the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recent announcement of $100 million in environmental justice grants funded through last year’s Inflation Reduction Act. According to the Biden-Harris administration’s Justice40 Initiative, at least 40 percent of the benefits of federal climate spending should flow to communities that have suffered worst and first from fossil-fueled pollution and the effects of climate change. So, this $100 million in environmental justice funding is a big deal for community groups.
But there’s still no centralized database of Justice40 funding opportunities, nor any way to search new grant announcements to see if small community groups are eligible to apply. Surely, if restaurants can indicate gluten-free items on menus, the federal government can indicate which grants fit under the Justice40 framework and which welcome frontline community organizations.
Community-based environmental justice organizations need grants earmarked specifically for the work they are doing, and they need straightforward application procedures. We also need assurances that environmental justice funding goes to real environmental justice communities. Lately, federal government officials have been talking about funding for “distressed communities.” That sounds like it could include, say, a high-end golf resort hit by a hurricane that can suddenly call itself “distressed.” As research has shown, in counties where Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers assistance after major disasters, Black household wealth goes down, while white household wealth actually rises.
Especially at a time when distrust of government is being manufactured and even used to sow misinformation and divide the nation, transparency and accountability to communities is essential. Making information easy to find and reporting on progress and results promotes trust among frontline communities, and also among the vast majority of Americans who want bold action on climate.
In the case of Justice40, improving transparency and accessibility would allow both urban and rural communities to envision the benefits of addressing both the public health impacts of toxic pollution and the opportunities to revitalize communities that are inherent in the emerging climate economy. It would make success stories easier to share and replicate and harness government for the good of the people.
A few of the other issues worth highlighting include:
- The wood pellet industry, which seemingly pretends to be Earth friendly, but which reportedly pollutes the air, warms the climate, damages forests and targets low-income Black communities. This destructive industry even gets support from government agencies and some of the nation’s biggest environmental organizations.
- Making sure environmental justice communities are key players in the electric transportation revolution. We need infrastructure for electric charging stations, and we need affordable clean vehicles, including electric bikes. In communities that produce raw materials needed to electrify transportation — like lithium-rich Imperial Valley in California, where the population is 85 percent Latino — local communities must be involved in development planning and protected from resulting pollution, while benefiting from clean-energy advances.
- The need for agencies to collaborate on environmental justice. For example, if an environmental justice community keeps flooding in severe rainfall events, solutions might focus on better drainage and flood defenses, but also on clean drinking water and mold issues in homes, schools and hospitals. Real solutions might pull in the EPA, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Education, and the Army Corps of Engineers — and that’s just on the federal level, apart from state and local authorities.
As environmental justice advocates work toward these important and necessary measures with our lawmakers in D.C., we feel the absence of someone who has long been with us: Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.). He was “Mr. Environmental Justice” in Congress, and we lost him to cancer complications late last year.
McEachin stood with us on the front lines of climate change and used his power to advance justice. In the last months of his life, he advocated for perhaps the most important climate bill in American history: the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. As President Biden put it, “Thanks to Don’s leadership and tireless advocacy, we passed historic legislation to combat the climate crisis and advance environmental justice.”
Through the IRA and other initiatives, game-changing policies are being put in place to protect our most vulnerable communities, advance a just transition to clean energy, and set up our whole nation to thrive. But the job is not yet done. We must march on, honoring those who’ve gone before by making sure that climate policies protect the planet and its people, and always serve the cause of justice.
And we need new environmental justice leaders to join the ranks of those already elected to positions of influence. We need leaders who will continue to partner with communities as they build the power needed to make sure our government follows through on its commitments to a more just and sustainable nation.
Rev. Leo Woodberry is the pastor of Kingdom Living Temple, an environmental justice advocate and the executive director of the nonprofit New Alpha Community Development Corporation in Florence, South Carolina, which works in the areas of the environment, health and community economic development.
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