Biden’s Justice40 climate plan will be only as successful as its frontline investments

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Climate change is a global crisis, but its effect on local communities can be devastating. Enduring record-breaking heatwaves and droughts; trying to survive stronger hurricanes and “hundred-year” floods that now wreak havoc every few years; breathing unhealthy air polluted by the fossil fuels that change the climate — all take a terrible toll on communities on the front lines of the climate crisis. 

Yet, these same communities — those most damaged by climate change and the use of dirty energy — are developing some of the most inspiring and practical solutions to the climate crisis. Communities across the nation and the world — and governments from county seats to state capitols to Washington, D.C. — can learn a lot from their approach.  

The Biden-Harris administration’s Justice40 Initiative, which directs at least 40 percent of the benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy solutions to disadvantaged communities, acknowledges that communities of color and low-income communities have long borne the worst effects of climate change and dirty energy.

I was one of the reviewers who combed through hundreds of applications to select the inaugural class of 52 organizations for the Justice40 Accelerator, a national effort designed to help community-led environmental justice projects. The accelerator is offering grants, workshops, partnership opportunities and technical expertise such as legal and accounting guidance to community-based organizations from urban, rural and suburban communities across the country.

We received over 300 applications for the Justice40 Accelerator, and we had to say no to more great projects than we could say yes to. We reviewers read countless creative and impact-oriented proposals for infrastructure projects such as housing, green space, coastline protection, parks, land management and renewable energy installations; green jobs training; and other initiatives at the intersection of environmental justice and climate action. 

Here are just a few examples of the innovative projects selected:  

  • At historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) across the country, the HBCU Green Fund is identifying opportunities for solar installations and energy efficiency retrofits, and with partner organizations is establishing an HBCU Energy Institute and vetting a list of shovel-ready projects ripe for government funding and private investment.
  • On the Pine Ridge reservation, the Oglala Lakota Cultural Economic Revitalization Initiative is expanding skills training through its Indigenous Wisdom Center, building 500 homes equipped with passive heating and cooling and developing a food security program that includes family home gardens, greenhouses and resilient land-management practices. 
  • In Miami, where I live, Liberty City is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Dade County, and also one of the highest in terms of elevation above sea level. Longtime residents, most of whom are Black, are being displaced by climate gentrification. The Struggle for Miami’s Affordable and Sustainable Housing (SMASH) is leveraging a community land trust to promote equitable housing development and ownership of permanently affordable, climate-resilient homes for residents.  

Each solution is different, but all draw on local knowledge to adapt to a changing climate and enable a just transition to a clean-energy economy. These solutions also address other gaps, providing benefits in areas including cleaner air, safe drinking water, affordable housing, job training, food security and good local jobs — needs that have taken root in communities that have been systemically disinvested in, have been used as sacrifice zones and dumping grounds for pollution, and have borne the brunt of our society’s reliance on fossil fuels that harm people and the planet. 

Extracting, transporting, selling and burning coal, oil and gas have been extremely profitable for a set of big corporations and their investors. They’ve donated to generations of politicians who’ve supported massive fossil fuel subsidies while sticking their heads in the sand when it comes to pollution and climate change. But as climate change has progressed, it has proven disastrous for too many communities to escape notice, and soon it will be almost impossible for any American to ignore record-breaking heat, wildfires, storms and other signals of a warming world. 

Climate and environmental justice activists have spent decades developing a radically different and more hopeful vision for the future: An economy powered by clean renewable energy, with investments and benefits spread equitably throughout society, and with justice at its heart.  

The administration’s Justice40 Initiative is not enough. It is just one of many strategic investments that are needed if we are to stabilize the climate. But it is a promising effort, especially if it signals a permanent change in climate policy for the federal government. The community groups preparing to put the initiative into action can show the way for every neighborhood, company, government, organization and philanthropic institution to contribute to this all-hands-on-deck era of climate action. 

Angela Mahecha is director of the Tishman Environment and Design Center’s Ripe for Creative Disruption, an environmental justice movement fellowship at The New School. She was one of seven independent reviewers for the Justice40 Accelerator, a partnership among leading environmental justice and community development nonprofits, including Elevate, Groundswell, the Partnership for Southern Equity and The Solutions Project. 

Tags Angela Mahecha Climate change Environmental justice extreme weather frontline communities Global warming IPCC Justice40

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