Political disenfranchisement is fueling environmental injustice
Everyone in America deserves the right to clean air, clean water and clean environments in which to live. Achieving these basic human rights for all of us would be a major milestone in building an environmentally just and equitable society — and unfortunately, we’re still far from that goal.
In many states, the same familiar story rears its ugly head. Black neighborhoods nationwide are 79 percent more likely than white neighborhoods to be exposed to industrial pollution, often from oil and gas refineries and petrochemical plants. Black and Hispanic communities also bear disproportionate health and economic burdens from air pollution generated by white Americans, with Latino communities experiencing the highest air pollution exposure levels.
This is what environmental injustice looks like and it’s harming far too many Americans. These imbalances exist not out of economic necessity or as the result of difficult choices, but because of neglect and intentional political disenfranchisement.
There’s much to do if we want to fix this. Thankfully, environmental justice and the related, but distinct, concept of climate justice are now more familiar ideas in federal, state and city circles.
That wasn’t always the case, and the political ground is now more fertile for real solutions than it’s been in a long time. One particular federal fix is gaining ground and could move through the White House this year.
President Joe Biden explicitly prioritized equity in his new infrastructure plan. He openly called for environmental justice in federal policymaking in his executive order on the climate crisis, noting that we must “deliver environmental justice in communities all across America.”
The key idea is this, and it’s already being actively explored: Take Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — which requires that all federally funded programs that impact human health or the environment do not discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin — and integrate it into the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This, according to policy experts, would begin to “dismantle the environmental inequities rooted in systemic racism that communities face.”
NEPA was signed into law in 1970 to protect environments from pollution and contamination, and to give communities more input over major decisions about siting things like highways and publicly owned facilities likely to have major impacts on quality of life. Fifty years after becoming law, the act is due for a much-needed civil rights update, which can happen without Congressional approval.
It’s hardly a minute too soon, given what’s at stake for Biden’s infrastructure rollout. The White House Council on Environmental Quality can begin a review process quickly and, after carefully considering the best way to implement the plan, craft an appropriate NEPA overhaul. Given how difficult it is to get a minimum wage raise through a Democratically controlled Senate, a White House move to promote environmental justice through NEPA looks like the most timely and practical pathway here.
This integration of Civil Rights Act’s Title VI within NEPA would take a key component from the Environmental Justice for All Act, which Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) reintroduced this March. The bill addresses, in as comprehensive a way as Congress has attempted in a very long time, the longstanding “environmental inequities that harm communities of color, low-income communities, and Tribal and indigenous communities across the country.”
Their bill — and the Senate companion bill introduced by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who co-chairs and co-founded the Senate’s first environmental justice caucus — strengthens both the Civil Rights Act and the NEPA and other laws to prevent environmental destruction and give communities power against polluters.
It’s important to be clear-eyed about what’s possible in this political moment. There’s no guarantee that Democrats can muster both houses of Congress to support environmental justice legislation this year. Should the Democratic Party and the House and Senate majorities fail to act, the White House Council on Environmental Quality could overhaul NEPA now and strengthen it with the Civil Rights Act’s Title IV protections.
In doing so, the Biden administration would lessen the toxic load disproportionately impacting communities of color. It clearly wouldn’t remove it all — the NEPA process applies primarily to federal projects — but it would make an important dent in emissions and toxic releases and send a clear message to polluters that the U.S. government is serious about equity and environmental justice.
The work of climate justice and equity won’t be easy. It will take a long time to repair the damage we’ve already done to the health, economic possibilities, physical security and quality of life of millions of Americans. This is one step that the U.S. government can take today. It is long past time we took it.
Dr. Michael Shank is adjunct faculty at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and writes in his personal capacity.