2020 Dems target inequality with green plans

2020 Dems target inequality with green plans
© Getty

2020 Democratic presidential contenders are giving new attention to the idea of "environmental injustice," heartening green advocates who argue that polluting industries have gone unchecked.

A number of candidates have rolled out ambitious plans to tackle decades of pollution and harmful practices that have been concentrated in the nation’s poorest neighborhoods and communities of color.

"Our crisis of environmental injustice is the result of decades of discrimination and environmental racism compounding in communities that have been overlooked for too long," Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenJuan Williams: Honesty, homophobia and Mayor Pete Trump DACA fight hits Supreme Court Democrats on edge as Iowa points to chaotic race MORE wrote in a post unveiling her environmental justice plan in October.

ADVERTISEMENT

“It is the result of multiple choices that put corporate profits before people, while our government looked the other way. It is unacceptable, and it must change.”

At issue are remedies for so-called frontline communities, the disproportionately poor and minority neighborhoods that have been a dumping ground for pollution and landfills or the site of factories and highways that spew harmful contamination into the air.

Study after study has found that pollution damages the health of nearby residents, with people of color bearing the brunt. A 2018 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study found black Americans breath in more air pollution than whites — race, the study found, was a stronger predictor than poverty.

Activists in those communities have complained they have long been ignored, sidelined by ineffective avenues for challenging polluters as well as a lack of political capital with local, state and national officials.

But they believe that is starting to change.

“It is a step in the right direction that we have a number of candidates who are highlighting environmental injustice," said Mustafa Santiago Ali, a former head of environmental justice at the EPA who is now a vice president at the National Wildlife Federation. "How do we make sure that the disproportionate impacts that continue to happen in communities of color and the indigenous population can be eliminated? It’s never been done before. We’ve never had candidates this early talking about environmental justice so that’s positive.

“Environmental justice has been the dirty little secret of our country for a long time,” Ali added.

Nearly every Democratic 2020 candidate has incorporated addressing environmental justice concerns into their climate plan in some fashion, but others have plans specifically dedicated to the issue.

The most expansive plans often focus on holding polluters accountable while allowing departments across different levels of government to evaluate how policies would affect the environment of at-risk communities.

“Every agency and every department has a responsibility here, and campaigns are starting to get that and campaign on that,” said Matthew McKnight, Change the Climate 2020 Director with the League of Conservation Voters.

Warren would direct $1 trillion to disadvantaged communities while requiring the EPA to map so-called frontline communities. Her plan also calls for making it easier for those communities to sue polluters.

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisJuan Williams: Honesty, homophobia and Mayor Pete Democrats debate how to defeat Trump: fight or heal Women who inspired 'Hidden Figures' film will be honored with congressional gold medals MORE’s (D-Calif.) climate plan relies heavily on a bill she sponsored alongside Green New Deal sponsor Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezThe Memo: Bloomberg's 2020 moves draw ire from Democrats Sanders: Potential Bloomberg run shows 'arrogance of billionaires' Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez see 'class solidarity' in report Bezos asked Bloomberg to run MORE (D-N.Y.) called the Climate Equity Act. It requires each environmental or climate policy be given an “equity score” to determine how it would influence frontline communities. Her plan also calls for holding polluters accountable by increasing fines for facilities that don’t comply with the law and requiring them to pay to clean up hazardous sites

Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerThe Hill's Campaign Report: Bloomberg looks to upend Democratic race Poll: Biden support hits record low of 26 percent The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump demands Bidens testify MORE (D-N.J.) would dedicate $50 billion each year to an environmental justice fund that would remove lead pipes and paint in homes, clean up abandoned hazardous waste sites and fund a reestablished Civilian Conservation Corps. Booker would also strengthen a number of laws to go after polluters, and would also rescind the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines.

ADVERTISEMENT

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro commits to proposing civil rights legislation that would require all federal actions to be reviewed for environmental and health impacts on frontline communities. That bill would strengthen the EPA's ability to go after polluters, but it would also give communities greater legal power to sue companies whose pollution has a disparate impact on communities of color.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersJuan Williams: Honesty, homophobia and Mayor Pete Democrats on edge as Iowa points to chaotic race Democrats debate how to defeat Trump: fight or heal MORE's climate plan, also called the Green New Deal, calls for “full and equal enforcement of all environmental, civil rights, and public health laws and aggressive prosecution of violators” alongside job training and measures to grow the green economy in economically depressed communities.

But environmental justice activists say the plans have to go deeper than policy — they also want to see active engagement with communities that have been harmed by pollution.

“In the environmental justice movement, the people that are the most impacted must speak for themselves,” said Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University who has been called the father of the environmental justice movement.

“People on ground that have been the most impacted for decades or centuries are still invisible. Their voices are not given the same weight as others from big green groups that are pushing an agenda and have the ear of the candidates,” he added. 

Ali agreed those voices need to be heard at the highest levels. He wants candidates to embed environmental justice experts at all relevant departments.

“You need to have someone right there with the secretary to make sure the right resources are being dedicated and directed, that you’ve got that person with the expertise there to make sure you’re not creating any unintended consequences and are maximizing the ability to help folks,” he said.

“I want to hear how you are going to incorporate them into your senior level positions. That would show me you’re really beginning to think on very deep level about these issues.”

And advocates are waiting to see how candidates actually follow through. 

Bullard said many of the politicians running for president have been in the public eye for years, but don’t have an established track record of taking on environmental injustices or including communities in their policy making.

The environmental justice plans have all been tucked into broader climate policy packages. Large green groups say that’s a good thing — many of the communities targeted by polluters are also the most likely to be affected by climate change.

They’ve also been living close to industries that spew climate change-accelerating pollution.

“It’s impossible these days to divorce environmental justice impacts from climate change because many of the same companies and industries that are causing climate change are pedaling environmental injustices,” said Charlie Jiang, a climate campaigner with Greenpeace USA, pointing to refineries and other polluting industries often located in such neighborhoods.

Ali also sees this as a benefit. Candidates are pledging trillions to fight climate change, but if it were a freestanding plan, leaders might “just put a little sprinkle on the environmental justice side.”

“We have to have the individual focus on the pollution, the disinvestments, the lack of enforcement in our communities without a doubt, but we also need to make sure that people understand that some of the impacts happening from climate change are because people didn’t want to pay attention to what was happening in communities of color,” he said.

But Bullard worries the focus on climate could shift resources away from addressing the systemic racism that allowed polluting industries to create “sacrifice zones” that leave pollution concentrated in black and brown communities.

“How we can talk about climate, how can we can talk about environmental justice without addressing the racism part?” he asked.

“The kind of disparities that exist have existed for decades and people want to know how are these proposals and plans that really don’t have any meat on the bones are really going to start addressing that.”