Tackling climate change: How lawmakers are facing environmental injustice

Tackling climate change: How lawmakers are facing environmental injustice

“The climate crisis isn’t somebody else’s problem. It’s everyone’s problem,” explained Rep. Kathy CastorKatherine (Kathy) Anne CastorOvernight Energy: Pelosi vows bold action to counter 'existential' climate threat | Trump jokes new light bulbs don't make him look as good | 'Forever chemicals' measure pulled from defense bill Pelosi warns of 'existential' climate threat, vows bold action Overnight Energy: Pelosi vows to push for Paris climate goals | Senate confirms Brouillette to succeed Perry at Energy | EPA under attack from all sides over ethanol rule MORE (D-Fla.) in her opening statement at the most recent hearing for the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, Creating a Climate Resilient America. “We are all in this together.”

Although we are indeed “all in this together”, some are more “in” than others given that the consequences of climate change are not uniformly distributed across society — here in the U.S. and around the world. Poor, marginalized, and underserved communities are especially vulnerable, facing the greatest risks and bearing the most severe impacts. Vulnerable communities already carry greater environmental health burdens, which is one of many manifestations of environmental justice and environmental inequality.

For example, a PNAS study published in March showed that air pollution is disproportionately created by resource consumption among white Americans, but disproportionately inhaled by black and Hispanic Americans. Disparities extend beyond health; the poorest 10 percent of U.S. counties will face the greatest climate-related economic losses, which are estimated to be approximately 12 percent of county GDP by 2080-2099.

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Compared to affluent or otherwise privileged communities, environmental justice communities are likely to face the most harmful outcomes from climate change, including to public health, air quality, food production and agriculture, forestry, water resources, sea level rise, energy, infrastructure, settlements and ecosystems — all areas highlighted in the 2009 Endangerment Finding of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. What is especially worrisome is that in the decade since the original finding, the evidence for grim and pervasive impacts has only grown stronger.

But recent developments at national and state levels offer hope of change. Addressing these and other long-known environmental and health disparities is one of the central charges for the Senate’s new Environmental Justice Caucus led by Sens. Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthLawmakers call for investigation into program meant to help student loan borrowers with disabilities Overnight Energy: Protesters plan Black Friday climate strike | 'Father of EPA' dies | Democrats push EPA to abandon methane rollback Democratic senators push EPA to abandon methane rollback MORE (D-Ill.), Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerTrump trade deal likely to sow division in Democratic presidential field Shooting in Jersey City leaves multiple people dead, including police officer Schumer to colleagues running for White House: Impeachment comes first MORE (D-N.J.) and Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperLobbying World Overnight Energy: BLM staff face choice of relocation or resignation as agency moves | Trump says he's 'very much into climate' | EPA rule would expand limits on scientific studies Democrats give Warren's 'Medicare for All' plan the cold shoulder MORE (D-Del).

This follows the Environmental Justice Act of 2017 that Booker introduced to the 115th Congress. Although not enacted, the act provided statutory authority for agencies to address the disproportionate impact of environmental and human health hazards on communities of color, indigenous communities, and low-income communities.

The Environmental Justice Caucus will keep up that fight. As Booker explained, "Clean air and clean water shouldn’t be luxuries for the privileged, and the Environmental Justice Caucus is an important step toward raising awareness and taking action to address this injustice.”

Another encouraging development is the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA), currently being discussed in committee with New York’s State Legislature. Supported by more than 170 community, environmental, justice, labor and policy organizations in New York, the CCPA focuses broadly on health, jobs, and justice and will direct new resources to communities expected to be hardest hit by both pollution and climate change.

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Earlier this week U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerKrystal Ball: Is this how Bernie Sanders will break the establishment? TikTok chief cancels Capitol Hill meetings, inflaming tensions Overnight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — Deal on surprise medical bills faces obstacles | House GOP unveils rival drug pricing measure ahead of Pelosi vote | Justices to hear case over billions in ObamaCare payments MORE (D-N.Y.) announced his support for CCPA, noting that “communities that have faced historic discrimination, often times low-income communities and communities of color, often bear too much of the burden of industrial pollution and can also be at greater risk to climate change impacts.”

As we actively work to address environmental justice and equity in climate adaptation, leaders and decision-makers must ensure that those living in vulnerable communities are at the table — engaged and empowered to speak and co-develop solutions that work for them. As Schumer explained in a May 21 letter, “If we rise to the climate challenge we can create tens of thousands of good clean energy jobs, while we protect vulnerable communities — and secure a viable and vibrant future for those who will come after us.” We all deserve that future.

Amanda Rodewald is the Garvin professor and senior director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University and faculty fellow at Cornell University's Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. Views expressed in her column are hers alone and do not represent those of these institutions.