The guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd arriving during Earth Week is fitting timing. We are at a moment of reckoning. Chauvin’s conviction is the start of holding police accountable for their actions. Earth Week 2021 must also be the start of intertwining racial justice and environmental/climate action into environmental justice and climate justice.
The United States has a long history of wreaking environmental havoc on Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. Mustafa Santiago Ali observed: “Communities of color have appealed for decades to politicians, policymakers and environmental organizations that they ‘can’t breathe’, only to be ignored. The simple fact is that Black, Brown, Indigenous and lower-wealth communities have disproportionately been the dumping grounds for our country’s deadliest toxic pollutants.”
A groundbreaking 1987 study by The Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ found that race proved to be the most significant variable in determining the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities. This was found to be a pattern consistent across the US.
The Flint water crisis raised a new level of awareness about the intersection between the environment and racial justice. Dangerous levels of lead were found in 2015 in Flint residences’ homes. Lead adversely affects the human nervous system, kidney function, immune system, reproductive and developmental systems and the cardiovascular system. It also leads to decreased growth and reproduction in plants and animals, and neurological effects in vertebrates.
Environmental Justice And Climate Justice
The environmental justice movement began in the 1980s as BIPOC communities mobilized nationally to stop the destruction of their communities. The West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT) was founded in 1988. The Indigenous Environmental Network was founded in 1990. In the same year, the EPA Administrator created the first Environmental Equity Workgroup.
As the impacts of climate change have worsened, the environmental justice movement has expanded to climate justice. The NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program goals address the cause of climate change, solutions to climate change, and the need for improving resiliency in BIPOC communities.
Progress in the Biden – Harris Administration
Justice for George Floyd through the legal system is hopefully the start of police accountability. 2021 also offers hope for real, lasting environmental and climate justice action being taken by the federal government.
Department of the Interior
The Department of the Interior (DOI) is led by the first Native American cabinet secretary, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.
“From day one, President Biden was clear that we must take a whole-of-government approach to tackle the climate crisis, strengthen the economy, and address environmental justice,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. “At the DOI, I believe we have a unique opportunity to make our communities more resilient to climate change and to help lead the transition to a clean energy economy. ”
Environmental Protection Agency
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is led by Administrator Michael S. Regan, the first Black man and second person of color to lead the US EPA. Administrator Regan has heralded his stance on environmental justice:
“Too many communities whose residents are predominantly of color, Indigenous, or low-income continue to suffer from disproportionately high pollution levels and the resulting adverse health and environmental impacts. We must do better. This will be one of my top priorities as Administrator, and I expect it to be one of yours as well.”
American Jobs Plan
The American Jobs Plan, the proposed $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, focuses on job creation and infrastructure rebuilding. Climate justice is a vein that runs deep throughout the plan. The plan targets 40 percent of the benefits of climate and clean infrastructure investments to disadvantaged communities. Additionally, the plan invests in rural communities and communities impacted by the market-based transition to clean energy.
White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council
The White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC) was created to bring greater visibility to environmental justice issues across the federal government. Its members include BIPOC activists from around the country.
We All Must Ensure Environmental Justice
Now is the time for ensuring that environmental/ climate justice is at the forefront of our minds. If we advocate for the growth of renewable energy and energy efficiency, we must advocate for the growth of such projects in BIPOC communities. Clean energy jobs must be provided to a diverse workforce. When we talk about the electric vehicle (EV) revolution, we must ask ourselves: how can we make EVs more affordable for all populations? How can we add EV charging infrastructure to diverse communities? When we push corporations to take climate action, we must push them to think equally about racial justice in their supply chain, workforce, and communities. When we research climate change, we must read the voices of BIPOC activists, scientists, and journalists.
The Time Has Come
2021 has started out as a year like no other. The world faces a pandemic and an unprecedented roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine. An ex-police officer was finally held accountable for the murder he committed while in uniform. The US has the first Indigenous American Cabinet Secretary who is responsible for the management and conservation of most federal lands and natural resources. The EPA is led by a Black man committed to prioritizing environmental justice. A proposed historic investment in the country’s infrastructure puts environmental justice and climate justice front and center. The framework is now in place. It is time for us to hold the police, government, corporations, and ourselves accountable.