Environmental Justice Was a Climate Forum Theme. Here’s What It Means.
The presidential candidates at the CNN climate forum on Wednesday repeatedly emphasized how climate change is hurting low-income communities and people of color, reflecting a growing belief among Democrats that many of the problems they emphasize are inextricably tied to racism, poverty and other forms of discrimination and inequality.
Nine of the 10 participating candidates — all except former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. — named or clearly alluded to environmental justice, a framework that calls for environmental policies to explicitly address racial and economic disparities exacerbated by a warming planet.
It was an acknowledgment, as several candidates put it, that decades of racist and classist policies have concentrated people of color and poor people in the most polluted communities, and that those most immediately and severely affected by climate change are often those with the fewest resources to respond.
The environmental justice movement “embraces the principle that all communities and all people have a right to equal protection of our environmental laws,” said Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University who pioneered the movement. “It’s equal access to the good things that make communities healthy, but also making sure that no community is overburdened because of their income or because of their race or their geographic location.”
That overburdening is plain to see. When a storm like Hurricane Dorian makes landfall, the people in its path are generally the ones who couldn’t afford to evacuate or who had nowhere to go. Poor people — a disproportionate percentage of whom are people of color — cannot afford to rebuild the way wealthier people can, and their infrastructure is often less resilient and more prone to damage in the first place. Afterward, communities of color often get less attention and federal aid.
CreditHilary Swift for The New York Times
Just consider the response to Hurricane Harvey in Texas, or to Hurricane Irma in Florida. Then look at Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
Climate change is not the only problem. Because of decades of housing discrimination — including redlining, as Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., specifically noted — people of color are much more likely than white people to live in polluted neighborhoods. Their water is more likely to be contaminated, as in Flint, Mich., and Newark. They are more likely to have asthma and other health problems caused or aggravated by dirty air.
Environmental justice involves “connecting the dots of the day-to-day challenges and the decisions we made,” and identifying “the opportunities that we have to make some different decisions so that we can have more equitable outcomes,” said S. Atyia Martin, a distinguished senior fellow at Northeastern University’s Global Resilience Institute and the founder of All Aces Inc.
Leading candidates like Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts did not mince words in Wednesday’s forum. Climate policies, Ms. Warren said, must be designed to help “people who have been displaced, workers who have been displaced, people in communities of color who have for generations now been the ones where the toxic dumps got sited next to their homes.”
Several candidates proposed a variety of policies related to environmental justice.
Mr. Buttigieg promoted his “Douglass Plan” to combat systemic racism, including in housing and health care, and to provide funding for environmentally vulnerable communities.
Julián Castro, the former housing secretary, said he wanted to increase funding for the National Flood Insurance Program to help low-income Americans recover from natural disasters.
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota highlighted her carbon pricing proposal, revenue from which would be used to “make sure that people are basically held harmless” when climate change damages their homes or livelihoods, she said.
Former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas said he would use revenue from his proposed cap-and-trade system to help people in polluted neighborhoods and flood-prone coastal areas.
Andrew Yang, the tech entrepreneur, promoted his $1,000-a-month universal basic income proposal. “That would help citizens of this country protect themselves in a natural disaster, because we all know when Hurricane Dorian or Hurricane Harvey hits, who suffers?” he said. “Poor people, people of color, people who don’t have a car they can get into and just drive to some relative’s house.”
Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California have gone further, making environmental justice a central theme of their overall climate plans. Earlier in her career, Ms. Harris created an environmental justice unit within the San Francisco district attorney’s office, a point she noted on Wednesday. She and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York also introduced legislation in July that would require the government to evaluate environmental policies based on their effects on low-income communities.
The very presence of environmental justice as a topic of discussion in a major presidential forum was noteworthy and reflects broader shifts in the Democratic Party. In many policy areas, from climate change to abortion, candidates have begun to explicitly emphasize socioeconomic disparities — and, in particular, the impact of generations of systemic racism.
But Dr. Bullard said much more was needed.
“The climate proposals that candidates have pushed out are aspirational, and I commend them for doing that,” he said. But, he added: “Breathing clean air should not be aspirational. It should be experiential. Clean drinking water in Flint or Newark — that’s something that should not be aspirational. We should be able to drink clean water right now, not 20 years from now.”
Dr. Martin said that while she was very glad the discussion was happening, it had been oversimplified and, at times, reinforced stereotypes of powerlessness surrounding poor people and communities of color. Environmental justice plans should not only benefit marginalized communities, she said, but also bring them into the policymaking process.
“We have an opportunity to have a more sophisticated and nuanced conversation,” she said.