President Biden made tackling America’s persistent racial and economic disparities a central part of his plan to combat climate change Wednesday, prioritizing environmental justice for the first time in a generation.
“Lifting up these communities makes us all stronger as a nation and increases the health of everybody,” Biden said.
Biden signed an executive order establishing a White House interagency council on environmental justice, create an office of health and climate equity at the Health and Human Services Department, and form a separate environmental justice office at the Justice Department. The order also directs the government to spend 40 percent of its sustainability investments on disadvantaged communities.
“It’s hard,” the president said, referring to communities that are just a fenceline away from polluting facilities. “The hard-hit areas like Cancer Alley in Louisiana, or the Route 9 Corridor in the state of Delaware. That’s why we’re going to work to make sure that they receive 40 percent of the benefits of key federal investments in clean energy, clean water and wastewater infrastructure.”
Cathleen Kelly, a fellow who focuses on energy and environment at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, called the actions “a historic commitment.”
“The executive order will help to lay out a clear path to implementing President Biden’s climate and justice commitments,” Kelly said. “It will get the gears turning in each agency across the federal government. With Biden in the White House and the current leaders we have in Congress, this year represents an unprecedented opportunity to have executive and legislative action.”
At the heart of Biden’s executive action Wednesday is an effort to improve conditions in Black, Latino and Native American communities targeted for hazards that others did not want: power plants, landfills, trash incinerators, shipping ports, uranium mines and factories.
Communities where air quality is poor suffer from higher levels of asthma and respiratory and heart diseases. African Americans and Latinos, along with Native Americans, have suffered disproportionately from the coronavirus, a respiratory illness, and are more likely to die.
Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University and longtime environmental justice advocate, praised the notion of linking the environment and health by establishing a dedicated office at HHS. And he said creating an environmental justice office at the Justice Department underscores that the problem is both important and pervasive.
“When you have the most powerful legal department in the country saying that environmental justice is a basic right, I think that is a signal being sent across the country to say that this is real at the highest level,” Bullard said.
The moves are part of a far-reaching, all-of-government effort to transition the United States away from fossil fuels — a goal that Biden has consistently listed as a top priority and one that will undoubtedly include powerful allies and fierce resistance alike.
The push to scale back the nation’s carbon emissions, while also addressing the historical burden of pollution on minority communities, is coming not only from the White House but also from the Democratic-led Congress.
“It is central,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) said Monday in an interview with MSNBC, saying he agrees with Biden that pursuing a bold environmental agenda will also be good for the economy. “One of the things that’s always pained me is that so many working people think climate [action] will leave them out, when it actually will increase the number of good-paying jobs, as long as we make sure it’s American jobs.”
He added, “Climate is central, but jobs and dealing with racial inequities are part of it.”
Biden’s new measures will also face stiff opposition in some quarters and a lingering skepticism in areas of the country he has pledged to help.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order directing agencies to identify and address the “disproportionately high and adverse” health and environmental impacts of their policies on poor and minority populations. But it has been applied intermittently over the past quarter-century.
In an interview Tuesday, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said Biden’s decision to curtail oil and gas jobs would disproportionately harm Alaska Natives, who have relied on energy development to lift their communities out of poverty. He noted that when the American Medical Association surveyed life expectancy in communities across the nation, residents on Alaska’s North Slope and the Aleutian Islands made the biggest gains.
“These were some of the poorest places in America, almost exclusively Native. And when they got resource development, they got things most Americans take for granted: health clinics, gymnasiums and flush toilets,” Sullivan said. “Now we have an administration that directly targets these opportunities and turns racial equity on its head.”
The Alaska Native community is split on the issue of fossil fuel development. Many elected leaders, including North Slope Borough Mayor Harry Brower Jr., have lobbied for expanding drilling in the state. But others, including youth activists who successfully passed a resolution at the Alaska Federation of Natives’ 2019 conference calling climate change a threat to their traditions, oppose it.
Some communities that have traditionally relied on fossil fuel jobs have found themselves wondering what opportunities will come their way under a Biden administration and whether workers in fading industries such as coal will be left behind.
In Adams County, Ohio, where two coal-fired power plants closed in 2019, the more than 500 jobs they once provided are gone. While two solar farms exist nearby, they and other businesses have not filled the employment void — and the massive hole in the local tax base.
“We’re all for renewables and stuff like that, but at the end of the day, people have to make a living,” Adams County Commissioner Ty Pell said in an interview, noting that solar farms, once built, require far fewer ongoing employees than a massive power plant.
But Rev. Susan Hendershot, president of Interfaith Power & Light, praised the administration for pushing the nation’s energy sector in a different direction.
“Today’s executive actions show a commitment to bold solutions to the climate crisis, and to centering environmental justice in those solutions," Hendershot said. "The U.S. has a moral opportunity to model the kind of leadership that creates economic, racial, and climate justice for the most vulnerable populations in our communities and our common home. We look forward to seeing a continued faithful commitment to environmental justice and caring for our sacred earth.”