A new screening tool that prioritizes 27,000 disadvantaged U.S. communities for billions of dollars in federal climate and energy investments is being criticized for leaving out racial makeup—one of the strongest predictors of environmental burden—as a criterion.
“The experiences of Indigenous, Black, Latinx, Asian-American and Pacific Islander, and People of Color in this nation have been predicated along systemic and institutional racism that permeates every aspect of where we live, where we work, where we go to school, and how we experience our daily lives,” wrote the Strong, Prosperous and Resilient Communities Challenge, an environmental justice initiative.
“Any tool that seeks to reverse and address injustices and deliver benefits to address environmental harms including to public health must account for these truths.”
Environmental justice was first brought to federal attention in the U.S. by President Bill Clinton in 1994, with an executive order directing agencies to identify and address the disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their actions on minority and low-income populations. Federal and state agencies have developed a number of environmental justice mapping tools in the years since [pdf].
The Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST), announced by the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), will be used to identify “communities that have faced historic injustices” and ensure “they’re some of the first to see the benefits of climate action,” said CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory. It was developed to address a set of priorities laid out by President Joe Biden at the start of his term.
The CEJST differs from past mapping tools because it’s meant to provide a whole-of government, uniform definition of disadvantaged communities. Through CEJST, census tracts across the country are evaluated based on income, significant pollution exposures, climate risks from flooding and wildfires, lack of indoor plumbing, and lack of access to clean drinking water. Any tract that is above the threshold for three or more indicators is identified as “disadvantaged.”
The Biden administration anticipates using CEQ’s screening tool to advance its Justice40 effort by directing 40% of the funding for climate, clean energy, affordable housing, and other investments to benefit disadvantaged communities, says Bloomberg Law.
Although environmental justice advocates have welcomed the CEJST, they point to some important shortcomings, and the CEQ itself labeled the tool as “version 1.0″ that will be subject to changes and refinements.
“There is more work to do, but this is a positive step in the administration’s work to advance environmental justice for all,” said Richard Moore, co-coordinator of the Los Jardines Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a co-chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.
CEQ also cautioned that not all disadvantaged communities can be easily identified in the map, citing migrant workers—who are geographically dispersed—as an example. The CEJST also fails to centre racial demographics in its evaluation of communities, despite the country’s long history of discrimination and redlining that have directly contributed to many of the environmental justice issues the Justice40 program aims to address.
An earlier analysis by Grist found such a strong correlation between race and factors that disadvantage communities that, even without including racial demographics, a beta version of the screening tool could still effectively direct Justice40 funds to communities of colour
That meant the tool’s criteria “are effectively functioning as proxies for race,” Grist wrote. “Race is one of the most potent predictors of pollution burdens,” and “by prioritizing communities with the greatest pollution burdens, it has automatically prioritized communities of colour, as well.”
Administration officials make this same point, adding that a race-neutral approach can sidestep legal challenges. The latest edition of CEJST also includes a methodology update from the beta version that uses redlining data to account for historic underinvestment.
But the changes don’t address concerns raised by critics earlier this summer, who cautioned that failing to include racial demographics neglects legacies of environmental racism and ignores the many communities that are disproportionately polluted, not because they are poor, but because they are non-white, says E&E News.
“Race is the primary predictor of where polluting facilities are sited,” said Peggy Shepard, executive director of New York-based WE ACT for Environmental Justice and co-chair of WHEJAC. “It doesn’t matter what the income of that community is.”