A holistic approach to climate equity

A holistic approach to climate equity
© Courtesy of Institute for Sustainable Communities

"A seat at the table” isn’t enough to make sure that disadvantaged communities aren’t bearing the brunt of climate change and environmental collapse, according to Deeohn Ferris, president of the Institute for Sustainable Communities.

Ferris’s organization is devoted to the confluence of civil participation and environmental management, largely focusing on helping communities in the U.S., China and South and Southeast Asia cut climate pollution and recover from industrial damage.

That makes it a case study in the interdisciplinary approach of environmental justice, which sits at the confluence of environmentalism and civil rights and which Ferris, a lifelong civil rights lawyer, helped bring into the mainstream in the mid-1990s.


“It was a backlash against the values that sacrificed certain people in favor of more wealthy and affluent population groups,” she told The Hill in a recent interview.

Since then, discourse around equity has permeated the industry. Environment, social and governance investing is a huge business. But too often, Ferris said, talk about equity is just that: talk, a last-minute addition to a process that’s already basically complete.

“There’s a common rush to the quick win, right? To the quick box check,” she said. “People look at community engagement, you know, and want the biggest bang for the buck for the least investment.”

“And that’s the dynamic that we’re pushing against,” she added. “Because there’s no such thing as a quick win. If it’s quick, it isn’t a win.”

A graduate of Georgetown Law School, Ferris has spent her career fighting through long, grinding action to secure the long-lasting wins. In the early 1990s, she was working at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, aimed at lobbying the new administration of then-President Clinton to make a statement of support for environmental justice, which she defined as the “sum of ingredients, and thinking and strategies that crisscross the underlying racial, economic, social and health concerns that communities are experiencing.”

It meant the question of tree cover in neighborhoods as well as forests; dangerous heat islands in cities as well as fields; water quality in faucets as much as rivers; the local impact of factory smokestacks as well as the global ones — and the deeper questions of who gets hit first when natural or human-caused disaster strikes, and how they bounce back.


“We’ve got to focus on the underlying racial, economic, social and health concerns,” Ferris said, because “these are exacerbating factors in terms of what communities are experiencing in terms of environmental and climate change disruption.”

As was made clear in the severe winter storm in Texas in February or the aftereffects of Hurricane Ida in Louisiana, those problems cause certain people “to be in the bullseye,” which is why advocates argue for “a holistic approach” to environmental concerns.

“We’ve got to stop playing whack-a-mole,” she said. “We’ve got to stop looking at issues like they’re in silos.”

At the Lawyers’ Committee, Ferris’s position papers on this subject helped bring the first attempts at legislation — the late Rep. John LewisJohn LewisWith extreme gerrymanders locking in, Biden needs to make democracy preservation job one Obama, Dave Chappelle nominated in same Grammy category Progressive groups urge Feinstein to back filibuster carve out for voting rights or resign MORE’s (D-Ga.) Environmental Justice Act of 1992, which would have mandated the Environmental Protection Agency to identify the total weight of harmful pollutants in every county and to take broad steps to regulate and protect the victims of industries producing harmful chemicals.

That bill died in a House subcommittee.

“At the root of all this is a real realignment of values,” Ferris said, “and there isn’t anything more difficult than talking to people about values.”

But other position papers she wrote helped form the skeleton of a Clinton executive order that sought to guarantee environmental protection for all Americans by focusing “federal attention on the environmental and human health effects of federal actions on minority and low-income populations.”

That order ended up relatively toothless, Ferris said — but it was a beginning, and state governments, philanthropies and private industry all began to take note.

It also planted the seeds, she believes, for President BidenJoe BidenGOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips Five House members meet with Taiwanese president despite Chinese objections Sunday shows preview: New COVID-19 variant emerges; supply chain issues and inflation persist MORE to sign an executive order containing the Justice40 initiative, which promised that 40 percent of federal investments in clean energy and sustainable infrastructure would go to disadvantaged communities.

Over the past 30 years, Ferris said, there’s been “an alignment of the stars” as “we’ve come from no articulation” of the importance of environmental justice “to a strong articulation to, finally, the congealing of federal action around this work.”

Still, she said, too often that means a talking-shop approach, rather than a serious, lasting attempt to involve communities through the decisions that shape their futures.

“There’s a lot of talk about community engagement and public participation and setting the table to ensure that folks are at the table,” she said.


“There needs to be more attention paid to helping stakeholders understand how to map a community; how to work with communities; how you do outreach and connect with people whose interest and understanding directly connects with the agenda that the decision maker is trying to move at hand.”

Right now, Ferris said, the field of community engagement is very “ad hoc”: Sometimes it’s done well, sometimes poorly, but nowhere is there “a federal floor” that establishes a baseline standard of practice.

“We need a law of the land that mandates a level and a quality of democratic participation, which ensures that communities are resourced and equipped — as well as government, as well as business and industry are resourced and equipped to engage in what is often complex, labyrinthine and years-long processes instead of expecting people to do it on a pro bono basis,” she said.

Ferris thinks a good start would be an overarching legal framework like Reps. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and A. Donald McEachinAston (Donale) Donald McEachinA holistic approach to climate equity Nearly 200 House Democrats call for focus on clean energy tax credits in reconciliation End the practice of hitting children in public schools MORE’s (D-Va.) Environmental Justice for All Act. Among other things, the bill would tax fossil fuel companies to pay for the energy transition in disadvantaged communities, clarify that the Civil Rights Act covers disparities in environmental protection and require federal agencies to continue total, cumulative effects of pollutants, rather than just immediate effects.

She hopes that such legislation will help enshrine a standard in which community involvement is a deliberate process of learning and building the trust — and democratic structures — to allow their needs and fears to be addressed.

For example, for a project on renewable agriculture in India that Ferris is administering through the Institute for Sustainable Communities, organizers had to canvass the community, figuring out who were key local leaders, what languages they spoke and what their needs and priorities were.


That process revealed roadblocks they hadn’t been aware of when they started — as well as other people and issues who needed to be involved in the process. Backing farming projects meant getting pulled into the often acrimonious struggle for water that pits farms against cities.

“So let’s also bring some cities into this conversation and see if we can achieve some kind of balanced conversation about how agriculture and governments can share water,” Ferris said.

Similarly, she said, when the institute went into rural Indian farming communities, “there are lots of women who are leaders in local agriculture, because a lot of the men have moved to the cities to work on manufacturing. So we decided we’ve got to start really from inside the focus on gender.”

Taking these steps to build the table before anyone sits at it means avoiding some of the surest contributors to “gridlock,” Ferris said. “You might hit gridlock anyway. But the best thing you can do is not hit gridlock because you haven’t done the preparation that’s necessary to be ready to engage in the process.”