A path to climate, economic and environmental justice is finally on the horizon
In the next few weeks, congressional leaders have a critical opportunity to join forces with President Joe Biden to turn the tide against climate change, economic inequality, and environmental injustice.
Biden has proposed an American Jobs Plan that calls for a $2.6 trillion investment over ten years to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure and economy in ways that will protect the climate, clean up local pollution, and create millions of good jobs. The bipartisan infrastructure deal struck last month makes some important investments to upgrade our crumbling infrastructure, but falls far short on the president’s commitments to achieving environmental and climate justice so that all communities have equal access to clean air, clean water, and economic opportunities. It simply does not meet the scope and scale of the climate and justice crises.
Black, Latino and Indigenous communities in the United States have for too long been on the front lines of our nation’s most dangerous environmental and health hazards. Highly trafficked roads and highways, many of which were intentionally built through Black and Latino communities, create a continuous cloud of toxic tailpipe emissions from gas-powered cars and diesel-fueled trucks in the neighborhoods surrounding them. Oil refineries, power plants and waste incinerators are just a few of the many industrial facilities that pump billions of pounds of pollution into the air and water and these are disproportionately sited in communities of color, leading to higher rates of cancer, asthma, neurological and other life-threatening health problems for the people living there. This undermines these communities’ ability to participate equally in the economy and live safe, healthy and prosperous lives.
To address these threats, environmental justice advocates have for years been on the front lines of the fight for clean water, air, and land. Two years ago, environmental justice and national environmental groups co-authored and launched the historic Equitable and Just National Climate Platform. The platform called on Congress and the administration to mobilize major investments in communities overburdened by pollution and harmed by systemic racism and economic inequality. And so far, the Biden administration is listening. Biden’s landmark executive order on climate change in his first days in office launched the Justice40 Initiative, a commitment to direct 40 percent of the benefits from infrastructure and clean energy investments to disadvantaged communities.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) committed to a dual track legislative approach to pass the bipartisan infrastructure package only if the Build Back Better Plan, with essential investments in climate, jobs and justice, passes alongside it. There is no time to waste. Congress must move forward with this dual track process and pass a Build Back Better package that invests in tackling climate change by putting us on a path to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. The Build Back Better Plan must prioritize investments in programs that deliver economic, public health and environmental benefits to the communities that need them the most.
The plan must address life-threatening extreme heat in cities, like the heatwave that just killed nearly 800 people in the Pacific Northwest, by investing in parks and planting trees to provide shade, lower temperatures, and improve the quality of life in communities. Congress must also provide home weatherization assistance to low-income households to upgrade home energy efficiency to lower energy bills and carbon pollution — including during catastrophic winter storms like the one that crippled the Texas power grid earlier this year — improve air quality, and create clean energy jobs. In addition, Congress must deliver funds needed to strengthen and enforce environmental protections and provide environmental justice grants to communities to mitigate public health risks tied to high pollution levels.
Funds for diesel emission reductions from medium- and heavy-duty trucks and pollution-free and healthy ports would improve air quality for nearby communities and prime the market for solutions to cut carbon and other pollution from the entire transportation sector.
Major investments are needed to revitalize communities by building affordable, energy efficient and transit-oriented housing, and reconnecting neighborhoods that were deliberately segregated and divided by highways while ensuring that these improvements don’t displace community members.
Congress must also support job training and workforce development in disadvantaged communities to create pathways to good jobs and sustainable careers.
Now is the time to act. Congress must work with Biden to pass the Build Back Better Plan before the August recess to combat climate change and protect the fundamental right of every American to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and live in a healthy, safe and prosperous community.
John Podesta is the founder and a member of the Board of Directors for the Center for American Progress. He served as counselor to President Barack Obama, where he was responsible for coordinating the administration’s climate policy and initiatives, and as co-chair of Obama’s 2008 transition team. He previously served as White House chief of staff to President William J. Clinton and chaired Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president in 2016.
Michele L. Roberts is National co-coordinator for the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform (EJHA).