Front-line communities are vital for Biden’s 40 percent climate justice pledge
President Biden’s executive order directing 40 percent of the benefits from federal climate action to flow to disadvantaged communities is a historic opportunity. But proposing a plan and implementing it are two very different things.
If the administration takes a typical inside-the-beltway approach to implementing the Justice40 Initiative, people with money, connections and lobbyists will take advantage of the situation to pad their own bank accounts and cement their own power. The communities that are supposed to benefit will once again lose out.
But if the administration centers communities already dealing with the effects of dirty energy and climate change by adapting and creating solutions that work for everyone, then the Justice40 Initiative could be the most important living legacy of the Biden-Harris administration.
Let’s be clear: 40 percent is not justice, because these communities have endured disinvestment and environmental degradation for generations. But it is a critical starting point. So, let’s start by meeting a few of the community groups innovating solutions on the front lines of the climate crisis:
- UPROSE is a multiracial grassroots group that for years has advocated turning Brooklyn’s old industrial waterfront into a new hub for green jobs — without pricing residents out of the neighborhood. Now, the state of New York is matching $200 million in private-sector investment to transform the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal into a wind turbine assembly and maintenance plant supporting over 1,000 local clean-energy jobs.
- The New Alpha Community Development Corporation, based in a predominantly Black church in Florence, South Carolina, is responding to ever-more-frequent severe storms and floods that knock out water and electricity with solar-powered, off-the-grid “hydropanels” that create fresh drinking water from thin air. That follows on a rural solar project they advocated for, which provides affordable clean energy and home weatherization for low-income residents.
- The Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation is building a sustainable community in South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation. Through its workforce development program, young Oglala Lakota people are learning to build energy- and water-efficient affordable homes powered by solar energy. They also build affordable housing, community gardens, a farmer’s market, a playground and gathering spaces with their community.
Each of these communities multiplies the impact of every clean-energy investment by addressing other needs at the same time. Brooklyn will help create affordable wind energy and also create jobs for hundreds of locals. South Carolina gets solar energy and also a clean-water source with the potential to spur economic development. The Oglala Lakota people got solar energy, affordable housing and a playground.
At The Solutions Project, I am lucky to learn from an amazing variety of creative, practical community leaders. They work in cities, suburbs and rural communities in every region across the country. They work with their neighbors on the front lines of rising sea levels in Miami and warming temperatures in Iowa, and on the fence lines of oil sands pipelines in Minnesota and oil drilling in Los Angeles. Now some of them are sitting on the new White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which is a good sign for the Justice40 Initiative.
Study after study shows that Black, Indigenous, immigrant and other communities of color, as well as poor communities, have suffered disproportionately from our dirty-energy economy. The air we breathe is more polluted, and the water we drink is too often dangerous. We are the people most likely to live near toxic facilities, including coal-fired power plants that emit massive amounts of greenhouse gases. What’s worse, this didn’t happen by accident. Decision after decision put polluting industries in communities that didn’t tend to have the power or connections to say “no” and be heard.
But these communities aren’t just sitting on the sidelines. They are building power and enacting some of the most cost-effective and creative solutions to address the consequences of the climate crisis. They are implementing climate solutions in an effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions, while creating good jobs and addressing other community needs in the process. These are exactly the “disadvantaged communities” where the Justice40 Initiative’s benefits should flow.
Of course, the fact that the Justice40 executive order speaks of “benefits” rather than “funding” going to disadvantaged communities is tricky. Funding is easy to count and track. Benefits can be harder to calculate.
How do you calculate the joy of kids being able to run and play without getting asthma attacks? How do you count the satisfaction of being able to catch a healthy dinner in a clean stream near your home? If a new solar farm brings in workers from outside the community, do you offset cleaner air and job benefits gained by outsiders with an accounting of how locals are missing out on an economic opportunity? Or if instead, the company trains and hires people in the community, how do you count the pride and hope that go far beyond a paycheck?
Communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis have a holistic view of what they need, born of their experience navigating the changes they’ve seen and the interconnected problems in their lives. They have exactly the kind of expertise that can help steer the Biden-Harris administration’s 40 percent commitment in the most successful direction.
In fact, it was community-led groups that inspired the Justice40 Initiative in the first place. In 2019, groups including UPROSE, PUSH Buffalo, ALIGN and the New York Environmental Justice Alliance fought for and won passage of a law committing New York to 100% zero-emission electricity by 2040. The law, heralded as the strongest climate bill in the country, also directs 35 percent to 40 percent of the state’s clean energy program benefits to flow to disadvantaged communities. Sound familiar?
Front-line communities have plenty more ideas worth replicating, and they are more than willing to share them. If the people implementing the Biden-Harris administration’s Justice40 Initiative follow their lead in good faith and with respect, it will be a game changer. A more sustainable, healthier, more prosperous America that works better for all people is within our reach. Let’s get busy building it.
Gloria Walton is president and CEO of The Solutions Project, a national nonprofit promoting climate justice through grantmaking and amplifying the stories of frontline community leaders in the media. The organization seeks to accelerate the transition to 100 percent renewable energy and equitable access to healthy air, water and land by supporting climate justice organizations, especially those led by women of color. Follow her on Twitter @gloriawalton and The Solutions Project @100isNow.