We need to protect communities hit ‘first and worst’ by climate change, state lawmakers say

Climate Change
‘The challenge is that we’ve got a limited timeframe to get this right,’ US Rep. A. Donald McEachin, a Democrat from Virginia, said during Climate Week NYC Thursday. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
  • We need holistic environmental-justice solutions, state lawmakers said at Climate Week NYC Thursday.
  • Communities impacted most by climate change also face other challenges that need to be considered.
  • One step forward is the Environmental Justice for All Act, which addresses disproportionate effects.

Low-income and indigenous communities as well as communities of color are hit “first and worst” by climate change, whether it’s destructive hurricanes, droughts, or extreme heat, policymaker panelists said during a Climate Week NYC event Thursday – and holistic environmental-justice solutions are needed.

The session, titled “Building a Just Climate Future: Centering Equity in Climate Solutions,” focused on how the climate-change, racial-justice, environmental-justice, and economic-justice crises intersect, and panelists discussed some of the Biden administration’s and other initiatives created to solve the problems. The panel was sponsored by environmental law organization Earthjustice and moderated by Jill Tauber, the group’s vice president of litigation for climate and energy.

“The challenge is that we’ve got a limited timeframe to get this right,” US Rep. A. Donald McEachin, a Democrat from Virginia, said during the session. “If we’re going to pass on a cleaner earth, we’ve got to take some action and take it now. The challenge really is that Congress is not set up to move that quickly.”

Along with the climate crisis, the country is dealing with the pandemic and systemic racism, and “we must look at how we address all of them in totality, making sure we leave no one behind,” Michele L. Roberts, a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC) and national co-coordinator for the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, said. WHEJAC and the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council were created to prioritize environmental justice and address current and historical environmental injustices.

While a solution likely won’t be found overnight, Roberts said the Biden administration’s initiatives to address climate change and end environmental racism offer hope.

“The first part is admitting the problem,” she said. “Then, we can begin to build from there.”

Through the Justice40 Initiative, President Biden set a goal of providing 40% of the benefits of federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities. The president signed an executive order adding environmental justice to the mission of each federal agency by instructing them to create programs, policies, and activities to address the disproportionate health, environmental, economic, and climate effects on disadvantaged communities.

In the current divisive political climate, Harold Mitchell Jr., a WHEJAC member and executive director of the ReGenesis Project, a South Carolina-based environmental-justice organization, told the panel that the council is helping groups in some red-leaning states identify and overcome any barriers that local governments could put in place to prevent the programs from succeeding.

“We have to be real and understand that what is promised may not hit the ground into those disadvantaged pockets unless we’re strategic,” he said.

The councils include members of the communities most affected by climate change and environmental justice, giving them a voice in the decision-making process, Roberts said.

In March, McEachin and Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, introduced the Environmental Justice for All Act, which would create several environmental-justice requirements, advisory groups, and programs to address the disproportionate health and environmental effects on communities of color, low-income groups, and indigenous communities. McEachin said the bill was written by the people directly affected by these problems.

“Environmental-justice communities are different communities with different sets of problems and we have different solutions,” he said. “The act says let’s go to the people, let them come up with solutions. Let’s make sure that we give them sufficient funding and get out of their way.”

Many of these communities have been affected by environmental justice for decades, and to prioritize the groups going forward, Roberts said, “We need to make sure when we talk about green energy that it is clean, equitable, and just – all three words, not just one.”

McEachin said everyone, not just those affected by environmental justice, needs to get engaged, organize on a grassroots level, contact their lawmakers, and urge others to do the same.

“You may not be able to get it done your way, but let’s pass some compromise and get something positive done, because, you know, as I wake up in the morning, we’re one day closer to the climate catastrophe that we’re all trying to avoid,” he said. “We needed to take action yesterday. We need to take action today. And we’re going to need to take action tomorrow.”