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The fight for climate and environmental justice begins with community revitalization

The fight for climate and environmental justice begins with community revitalization
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For the first time in modern political history, climate change and environmental justice are front and center in the presidential election. For the last four years the federal government has been denying the science and ignoring the warnings of scientists and climate experts, ignoring public health officials and undermining our communities by rolling back 100 public health and environmental protections for our air, land, water, wildlife and communities.

The unprecedented giveaways to big corporate polluters put South Carolina communities and communities across the country and lives at risk. This election is about the future of our communities, equity in our environmental and energy policy and the path forward to a fair, equitable and just recovery that creates an economy that works for us all, especially those communities hit hardest by the pandemic and pollution.

Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump rages against '60 Minutes' for interview with Krebs Cornyn spox: Neera Tanden has 'no chance' of being confirmed as Biden's OMB pick Five things to know about Georgia's Senate runoffs MORE’s $2 trillion climate and environmental justice plan would put millions back to work in good jobs boosting clean energy and repairing failing energy, water, transportation and other infrastructure. It would deliver 100 percent clean electricity by 2035. It would retrofit buildings and homes to save consumers on their energy bills, build safe, affordable housing and ensure our kids aren’t exposed to diesel pollution as they ride school buses. These investments would be driven into the communities — predominantly low-wealth communities and communities of color — who have been historically overburdened with the most severe economic and health impacts of the climate crisis, environmental injustice and racism.

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We know this plan is desperately needed and we know it will work — if Biden wins the November election and if it is passed.

The tools, investments and principles outlined in Vice President Biden’s climate and environmental justice plans have the power to transform our communities, and our society. Look no farther than the example of Spartanburg, S.C. — a community once choked by pollution from an abandoned fertilizer plant, two Superfund sites and six Brownfield sites. This toxic legacy led to sky-rocketing rates of cancer and respiratory disease, drove down real estate value and created a cycle of depreciation in the community. What resulted were vacant properties, deteriorating housing, unemployment, drug activity and the drying up of investments.

This is a familiar story for far too many communities of color and lower income communities that have been targeted by polluters that make false promises of economic prosperity and leave behind devastation in their wake. But Spartanburg’s story does not end there — theirs is a story of grassroots organizing and resiliency. Selected as one of the first demonstration projects of the late-1990s by the Clinton Administration’s Environmental Justice Interagency Working group, community members banded together under the ReGenesis nonprofit collaborative — which one of us help found — to reimagine a better future together, to organize and to advocate with visions of a better future. They turned an initial $20,000 from the EPA Environmental Justice Small Grants Program into more than $270 million in public and private funding over the next 17 years. Those investments have led to powerful results that have greatly improved the lives of residents, including the opening of the first health care facilities, the first grocery story, the creation of a green recreation center and more than 500 units of affordable housing built by local contractors. Today, there is a proposed solar farm and a forthcoming aquaponics system to grow organic produce on former Superfund sites. The first health care facility has grown into a network of nine sites which helps deliver health access to an underserved area and contributes $18 million in economic benefits.

Spartanburg and the community-powered revitalization underway there is exactly what it means to build back better. If implemented, Vice President Biden’s plan would make successes like this possible for communities across the country.

In the last four years, we have seen environmental protections gutted, big polluter handouts and climate denial. The parallels between this administration's response to COVID-19 and climate change cannot be ignored. There are striking similarities in their disregard for our communities’ health by consistently ignoring science, experts and the communities most impacted. But with Joe Biden and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisBiden announces all-female White House communications team Biden to nominate Neera Tanden, Cecilia Rouse to economic team: WSJ Memo to Biden: Go big — use the moment to not only rebuild but to rebuild differently MORE’s leadership and the guidance of environmental justice leaders and scientists, we can undo the damage done by the Trump administration. 

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Together, we can put stronger safeguards in place and focus on revitalization. This means building back better communities that are free of toxic pollution, have access to healthy food, health care, clean energy and good jobs. That America is possible and it is within reach — but we must take bold action that is rooted in equity — and that starts at the ballot box. The late Congressman John LewisJohn LewisDemocrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? Democrats lead in diversity in new Congress despite GOP gains Biden must look to executive action to fulfill vow to Black Americans MORE believed in that America. In 1992 he introduced the first environmental justice bill in Congress, and his words still ring true today, “when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.”

Something isn’t right, America. Let’s do something.

Carol M. Browner is a former EPA administrator under President Clinton and is Board President of the League of Conservation Voters. Harold Mitchell is the founder of the ReGenesis Community Development Corporation and formerly served in the South Carolina state legislature. 

Browner and Mitchell serve on Vice President Biden’s Climate Engagement Advisory Council.