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 Castor (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.
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 Duckworth (D-Ill.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tom Carper (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.
Earlier this week U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (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.