President Joe Biden’s executive order on climate change includes a big win for environmental justice advocates: a new scorecard to hold all agencies accountable in pushing more equitable treatment of people of color and polluted communities.
The Environmental Justice Scorecard, outlined in Wednesday’s order, would be part of a governmentwide effort dubbed Justice40 to ensure they’re meeting his pledge to direct at least 40% of clean energy and other infrastructure investments goes to vulnerable communities.
The scorecard puts teeth in what groups such as WE ACT for Environmental Justice say is the first significant step by the new president to make good on his vow to put more resources in poorer communities that too often bear the brunt of pollution.
“It’s exciting—we all believe within the environmental justice movement that we are well past the time to act and this administration is demonstrating a commitment to deliver meaningful and measurable progress to systemic inequities,” said Dana Johnson, WE ACT’s federal policy office director.
“We’re already seeing some impact—and some positive progress,” she said, though other actions also promised in the order are really long-term projects, such as strengthening a 1994 executive order issued by President Bill Clinton.
Biden outlined the environmental justice policies in a broader roll-out of climate actions to meet his pledge for a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and moving to a net-zero emissions economy by 2050.
He’s also resurrecting and elevating environmental justice councils to ensure better coordination across his administration, including an Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice.
Screening Tool Expanded
The executive order on climate expands to other agencies and departments an Environmental Protection Agency tool that cross references environmental and demographic data to give snapshots of communities most impacted by environmental threats.
The newly dubbed Climate and Environmental Justice Screening Tool will expand on EPA’s mapping, known as EJSCREEN, to drive more equitable decisions across government, according to the order.
Biden’s effort also strengthens or stands up new monitoring and enforcement offices at EPA, the Justice Department, and the Department of Health and Human Services. They’ll also advise Biden on updating Clinton’s 1994 executive order.
Groups backing broad climate action said Biden’s order largely meets expectations for actions he could take just one week into his presidency. They also note that executive orders can only go so far without Congress passing new climate or environmental justice legislation to make significant changes.
The order “puts America on the path towards addressing the pollution that has been unjustly concentrated in communities of color and rebuilding our economy by creating new good-paying union jobs, addressing income inequality, and ensuring all communities” benefit from economic opportunities, said John Podesta, who founded the Center for American Progress and coordinated climate policy for President Barack Obama.
Devil in the Details
Others say the order is an overdue step. Biden is at last ensuring that environmental justice will be a key component to climate change action, said Elizabeth Moses, environmental justice associate at the World Resources Institute’s governance center.
It’s a move that “couldn’t come fast enough or urgently enough. It’s a huge issue that has been ignored for too long,” Moses said. “It has the real opportunity to create a very positive change, but to be honest, the devil, of course, would be in the details.”
Other actions needed that will take longer include revamping the National Environmental Policy Act to provide people of color and other marginalized groups more of a say on environmental reviews and permitting.
Helen Kang, director of Golden Gate University’s Environmental Law and Justice Clinic, said poorer communities ringing San Francisco including West Oakland and East Palo Alto haven’t just been impacted by pollution but rather have been inundated by it. The same communities lack access to healthy food, housing, and amenities available to wealthier communities such as green space, she said.
Biden’s effort adopts what’s being called a “whole-of-government approach” to combating climate change and racial inequities. Climate Power 2020 Executive Direct Lori Lodes noted the president’s actions includes job creation efforts that could help poorer communities such as a new conservation-minded Civilian Climate Corps Initiative.
The order also takes early steps toward grappling with how investments can be steered to communities and regions impacted by coal operations, power plants, and other fossil fuel industries.
The newly dubbed White House Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities launched in Biden’s order would work to better coordinate governmentwide investments in those communities.
That effort will focus on “putting people to work with the skills they already” have, White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy said at a press conference. Those jobs could include remediation of closed mines and making cement, steel, and other carbon-intensive industries more climate-friendly, she said.
Biden’s view is those jobs need to be created in existing communities, McCarthy said.
“We’re not going to ship out to the coasts” workers from the communities they call home, she said.
Josh Freed, who lead’s Third Way’s climate and energy program, said the order is yet another signal that Biden intends to insert environmental justice concerns and solutions in a broader array of policies than previous presidents.
The president is signaling that climate solutions also will be framed as job creation efforts to provide workers jobs “no matter their race or zip code.”
—With assistance from Stephen Lee.