The threat to humanity from the climate crisis is one felt disproportionately across the globe. This threat was made shockingly visible in 2021 with accounts of human suffering from record-breaking, climate-fueled disasters that wreaked havoc on homes, destroyed lives, and caused financial ruin to already struggling populations.
In response, President Biden has made “combatting the climate crisis a central priority of his administration,” promising to advance environmental justice while ensuring climate equity. Bold and encouraging words — and, to be sure, the Biden administration has made addressing racial and economic disparities an integral part of its climate policies.
Just one year ago, the president pledged the administration’s support of “fenceline communities,” promising “that they receive 40 percent of the benefits of key federal investments in clean energy, clean water, and wastewater infrastructure.” Then, with a flourish of the executive pen, he established an interagency environmental justice council, installing climate equity and environmental justice offices within the White House and in a number of federal agencies.
The recent Infrastructure Deal also addresses the climate equity disparities of air pollution, tainted drinking water, and legacy pollution from the activities of extractive industries that have impacted disadvantaged communities. Taking it a step further, Biden has created an Infrastructure Implementation Task Force designed to prioritize the allocation of funds to those communities most in need of assistance.
But will all this talk of climate equity and environmental justice translate into substantive progress for communities that need assistance the most?
Stumbling at the National Level
A Disjointed Climate Transition
The good news: With the passage of the Infrastructure Deal and the Biden administration’s commitment to combating climate change, steps are being made in the right direction.
The bad news: Progress is slow and does not reflect the urgency of the climate crisis. In addition, the political will at the national level to take bold, effective, action remains weak in the face of pressure from special interests.
For instance, take a look at the EPA. Talking the talk of environmental justice, EPA Administrator Michael Regan embarked on a “Journey to Justice: Real EJ Conversations on Your Corner” tour in November 2021 through the South to “hear firsthand from residents dealing with the severe impacts of pollution in these areas” and discuss “solutions to these deep-rooted problems.”
At one meeting, Regan acknowledged the damaging health effects of hazardous creosote wood preservatives on a community in Houston, remarking: “We have a sense of urgency in cleaning up this mess … The goal is definitely not a photo-op for EPA, but it is an opportunity to elevate environmental justice on the national stage.” Against this hopeful backdrop, however, the EPA is still moving ahead to reauthorize creosote for 15 years, leaving it to residents to take the initiative with legal action.
Even with the Infrastructure Deal, the opportunity to make substantive, structural change has fallen short in key areas. Critics claim that funds allocated to assist with the nation’s clean energy transition fail “‘to target it to the needs of the day,’ including equitable access and climate change.” Instead of prioritizing public transportation, they point out that a large portion of funds will be dedicated to building new highways and roads and criticize the administration’s anticipated removal of safeguards to the nation’s environmental permitting regime.
The Enduring Temptation of Fossil Fuels
Our president has promised to “lead by example.” He talks of acting with urgency to mitigate climate-fueled disasters that signal “a blinking code red for our nation.” And yet. This is an administration that despite Biden’s campaign pledge of “no more drilling on federal lands,” has authorized new oil and gas permits at a faster rate than his predecessor.
The most recent news is that the Biden administration will allow drilling in 52% of the Alaska Reserve. It’s an improvement from the Trump administration’s more ambitious plan of allowing the development of 80% of the Reserve, but is that really the measure of success? When the world’s leading energy forum — The International Energy Agency — is calling for an immediate cessation of all new oil, gas, and coal projects, is progress really defined by allowing a little less drilling? And what of the Alaska Native communities that are still vulnerable to the destructive effects of fossil fuel extraction? Should they wait a little longer for help from their government?
It’s not just an issue of stronger leadership needed in the White House. Putting aside the battle between Republicans and Democrats, intraparty squabbles have done much to stall and weaken the ability of lawmakers to advance critical climate legislation, most notably the Build Back Better bill that could provide over $500 billion in climate and clean energy provisions. Again, the influence of fossil fuel interests looms large in tripping up effective legislation at the federal level.
What is required from our national leaders is immediate action and surgically-focused policies that target funds and assistance to communities that are most in need.
Climate Equity Successes at the Local Level
Yes, there has been progress at the national level, and yes, there’s a desire by the White House and several Congressional lawmakers to act with intent and urgency. But it’s not enough. The real sign of leadership — engaging Americans to rally behind their president and his allies with demands that climate stragglers step up or be booted out of office — is largely absent at the national level.
What is needed is a clear message that resonates with citizens and connects the dots on climate change to their lives. Only then will more Americans mobilize behind their national leaders and support them with fervor at the ballot box.
The good news is that while much more must be done at the federal level, many local leaders, including legislators, civic leaders, and activists, are stepping up. In fairness, they possess advantages that national law- and policymakers lack, most notably, the ability to identify the needs of disadvantaged populations affected by climate change and respond with immediacy.
The newsworthy successes by local climate activists embody a David vs Goliath narrative: Indigenous groups’ ability to topple the Keystone Pipeline project, or Rise St. James group’s successful delay of a permit to build a new petrochemical plant in St James, LA., but other initiatives, while less splashy, are equally commendable.
One recent example of pinpointing a community deficiency is Huron’s “Green Raiteros” program that utilizes electric vehicles and a volunteer base to meet the transportation needs of residents in Huron, CA. This clean transportation program is one that can be used as a model for other communities suffering from underinvestment in public transportation. Most importantly, this green solution is also a practical and appealing program for residents.
These successful campaigns are grounded in climate equity goals but they transcend local boundaries and ethnicities with universal themes: the right to clean air; freedom over their land and property rights; access to affordable and clean transportation. As such, they have a greater ability to garner community support, helping fuel support for a climate cause.
While victories at the local level are inspiring and can help combat climate change, an entire systems change that flows from the top and integrates climate equity into all policies, is essential. A record number of Americans accept the reality of this climate emergency, are duly alarmed, yet are still waiting for strong leadership to guide and direct. Just as Winston Churchill inspired a nation to band together as a collective body against a threat to humanity, so too must our national leaders.