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The voice of environmental justice, once lonely in the wilderness of systemic racism, is growling like a tiger and prowling like a panther in the halls of power, helping shape President Biden’s cabinet with nominees pledging to restore environmental and public health protections dismantled by the previous administration.
Flexing its muscle, the environmental justice movement no doubt helped play a role in the dual Georgia runoff triumph of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to replace Republican incumbents in the US Senate who were allergic to climate science and backed the poisonous lies and attempted theft of Biden’s victory in that state. Warnock, Georgia’s first-ever African American senator and senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where Martin Luther King, Jr. preached, ran on a mantra of “The Earth is the Lord’s.” He told Inside Climate News that “true justice” means placing air and water quality and sky-high utilities bills in low-income communities “at the center” of climate and environmental policy.
Ossoff, the first Jewish person to represent Georgia in the Senate—a fact made more significant by the white supremacy and anti-Semitism displayed in the insurrection at the US Capitol—promised“massive investments” in clean energy infrastructure and that he would take his “cues from science” in policy making. He has said that clean air and water “are essential to our health, our prosperity, and our quality of life.”
The evidence indicates that both candidates were boosted by an outpouring of new voters significantly motivated by their concern for the environment. Nathaniel Stinnett, the head of the Environmental Voter Project, speaking on National Public Radio’s show “Living on Earth,” said 51 percent of Georgia voters who identified as environmental voters cast early ballots, compared to 40 percent of the general electorate. Stinnett also said that nearly 7,000 environmental voters who cast ballots in the Senate runoff did not vote in the presidential election. Equally stunning, he said that, in the final analysis, it may turn out that more African Americans voted in the runoff than in the general election.
“Nobody skips a presidential election, and then votes in a runoff,” Stinnett told host Steve Curwood. “This is completely unprecedented.”
That turnout, both in Georgia and in battleground states across the nation, was marked by its youthfulness. The Sunrise Movement, which organizes voters around climate change, claimed it reached 8 million young voters in the primaries and general election. Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) found that nationally, between 53 percent and 56 percent of voters aged 18 to 29 turned out to vote in the 2020 November general election, noticeably up from turnout rates between 45 percent and 48 percent for this age group in 2016.
That increase made a key difference in many states. CIRCLE estimates that in Arizona, which Biden won by 10,500 votes, voters aged 18 to 29 cast 126,000 more votes for Biden than for Trump. In Georgia, which Biden won by 12,000 votes, voters aged 18 to 29 made up 20 percent of the electorate, significantly higher than the national share of 17 percent. They gave Biden a net 188,000 votes. That was mirrored in Michigan and Pennsylvania. The youth vote broke for Biden by 19 percentage points in Georgia and Wisconsin, by 20 percentage points in Pennsylvania and 27 percentage points in Michigan.
For these voters, the transition to renewable energy ranked as high a concern as COVID-19, police brutality, or job creation. CIRCLE’s polling found that 84 percent of young voters believe in their power to change the country and “recognize that work to improve communities goes beyond elections and voting.”
The influence of the environmental justice movement in the Biden administration is already visible. Consider, for instance, Biden’s nominee to run the Environmental Protection Agency, Michael Regan,the head of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality. Regan became the nominee after environmental justice activists resisted the possible appointment of California air regulator Mary Nichols.
Nichols earned high praise in many quarters for decades of work helping California set the pace for the rest of the nation in its curbs of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. But critics said the state’s cap-and-trade policies let polluters collect credits for overall emissions reductions while continuing to pollute heavily in poverty-stricken communities and neighborhoods largely of color.
Regan, who would be the first Black man to run the EPA, has been credited for cleanups of coal ash and chemicals by grassroots activists such as Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, and Aaron Mair, the first Black president of the Sierra Club. While Regan has been criticized for not being stringent enough with natural gas and hog farming interests and the regulation of forever chemicals such as PFAS, he is also credited with shaping North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper’s pledge for the state to go carbon neutral in its electric power sector by 2050.
In any event, Regan will face inordinate pressure to claw back the past administration’s regulatory gifts to polluters, and to improve protections against pollutants and toxics such as particulate soot, forever chemicals, and methane. Barber told E&E News, “This work of justice is not about electing someone or getting someone appointed and going home. We will look at where he stands, and then we will look at where he needs to stand.”
Calls for environmental justice were also heard in Biden’s nominee to run the Department of the Interior. New Mexico Representative Deb Haaland, who would be the first Indigenous American to run the agency, has a 97 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters for fighting the previous administration’s rollbacks. She spent several days at the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access pipeline and has co-sponsored legislation seeking to restore and expand Bears Ears National Monument, which the past administration shrunk by 85 percent.
Navajo environmental justice leader Woody Lee, executive director of Utah Diné Bikéyah (UDB), an Indigenous group fighting to preserve Bears Ears National Monument, told the Salt Lake Tribune that Haaland “not only holds traditional knowledge, but possesses the skills, knowhow and bipartisan relationships to begin addressing some of the most challenging issues in our country. She fully reflects UDB’s mission, which is all about healing the earth and its people.”
Environmental justice concerns are evident too in Biden’s pick to run Health and Human Services—California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. As his state’s top legal official, Becerra created the nation’s first state-level environmental justice bureau. It has sided with communities in opposing an unfettered airport expansion in San Bernardino fueled by the growth of e-commerce behemoth Amazon, a massive warehouse project in Fresno that would have had countless trucks spewing diesel exhaust into already polluted neighborhoods, and been a watchdog on cities that issue permits to chemical facilities without proper environmental review.
Andrea Vidaurre, an environmental policy analyst for the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, told Grist.org, “It’s very validating when we’re not just yelling out to the wind and saying, ‘this is unjust’ — that we have the backing of the state as well.”
Less visible but vitally important, Biden has also selected Brenda Mallory, the director of regulatory policy at the Southern Environmental Law Center and an Obama administration veteran, to run the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). The CEQ is charged with making sure federal agencies comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) so that proposed infrastructure projects undergo rigorous scientific review for their potential environmental harms. One of the final acts of the last administration was to severely limit NEPA’s time and scope of reviews and relieve agencies of factoring in the effect of projects on climate change.
Mallory was general counsel at the CEQ in the Obama administration and helped craft many of its environmental proposals, including establishing the Bears Ears National Monument. She would be the first Black person to lead the council. She was a member of the steering committee of the Climate 21 Project, organized by former government environmental officials and university environmental policy experts to propose actions the Biden administration can take to restore the global leadership on climate change.
“The next administration will need to act quickly to confront four crises simultaneously: The COVID-19 pandemic, economic devastation, racial injustice, and the accelerating threats of climate change,” the project said. “Climate should be fully integrated into economic, racial justice, and foreign policy, national security, trade and other areas of the president’s agenda.”
If that happens, it will help institutionalize the influence of the environmental justice movement in our priorities about air and water pollution policies and likely help solidify the next generation at the ballot box as well. For too long, the voice of environmental justice has waxed and waned with the political winds. In 1994, President Clinton ordered that the impact of federal actions must factor in their impact on low-income communities and communities of color. That focus faded under President George W. Bush, received a boost under President Obama, and then was trashed by the Trump administration.
Perhaps the viciousness of the past administration’s systematic attack on environmental protections, combined with the outrage over systemic racism in policing and the systemic racism in environmental justice and health care laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic finally created the transformation we are witnessing, led by voters who see clearly that these issues are all connected. The potential for connection throughout federal agencies increased even more with Biden’s selection of Merrick Garland for attorney general.
Garland is best known for having his Supreme Court nomination blocked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But Garland has a strong track record in the federal appeals court of ruling in favor of stronger ozone and air particulate laws, and EPA’s authority to regulate them. Garland will take over a Justice Department where Biden has pledged to add an environmental and climate division to prosecute pollution of communities, including legacy pollution, “to make communities safe, healthy, and whole.”
Such a heightened pledge of environmental protection is welcome to activists such as Tina Johnson, director of the National Black Environmental Justice Network. She told the New York Times, “Equity and justice were on the ballot. . .I’m happy to hear those concerns, from the environmental justice perspective, have been heard.”
Robert Bullard, the Texas Southern University professor who is considered the father of environmental justice and who recently received a “Champions of the Earth” lifetime achievement award, told the Washington Post that he is impressed with the number of Biden’s cabinet nominees who “have seen what it’s like on the other side, in terms of communities that have suffered. They have been fighting for justice. Now they are in a position to make change and make policy. That, to me, has the potential to be transformative.”
Transformation would mean that the once lonely voice of environmental justice is no longer in the wilderness. To borrow from Vidaurre, it’s very validating when the environmental justice community need not yell out to the wind. The chances are good it will have the backing of the federal government as never before.
Derrick Z. Jackson is a Union of Concerned Scientists Fellow in climate and energy and the Center for Science and Democracy. He is an award-winning journalist and co-author and photographer of Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock, published by Yale University Press (2015).
First published by Union of Concerned Scientists. Included in Vox Populi with permission.