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What We Want: Climate Justice and Healthy Communities

Communities nearest to polluting facilities would see the benefits of expanded regulation of fossil fuel emissions and water quality first and most.


We simply can’t live without clean air to breathe and clean water to drink.

If you just did a facepalm and said “duh!” out loud, trust us, we hear you and we did the same. The problem is, the US federal government hasn’t seemed to get the message – or at least it doesn’t act like it… not where certain communities are concerned, anyway.

The truth is, the same dirty fossil fuels driving the climate crisis are poisoning the air and water so many low-income families and communities of color breathe and drink every day.

No child should grow up with the burden of asthma or respiratory disease thanks to reckless pollution. No one should have to choke on the air outside just based on the location of their home. No one’s community should ever earn the title of “Cancer Alley.”

Letting these things happen is a failure of moral and ethical leadership. We should be able to trust our government to put the health of regular Americans first. Before well-connected donors. And before polluters looking to cut corners just to boost their bottom lines.

Luckily, with a new president and a new Congress, we have the chance to think big and act boldly to finally face the racial injustice destroying dreams and lives across the country – while at the same time confronting the climate crisis threatening the future of our entire planet.

And luckily, in many cases, we already have the mechanisms in place to do it!

The Clean Air Act

Responding to years of public concern about pollution, President Richard Nixon established the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in December 1970 to consolidate the federal government's environmental research, monitoring, standard-setting, and enforcement responsibilities under one big umbrella.

The newly formed agency was given a tall order right out of the gate: Congress tasked it with setting national air quality, auto emission, and anti-pollution standards via the Clean Air Act of 1970, which is widely recognized as one of the most successful environmental regulations ever implemented.

Programs through the Act have lowered aggregate national emissions of six common pollutants (particles, ozone, lead, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide) an average of 73 percent. During this same period (1970-2017), the US gross domestic product grew by 324 percent, proving yet again that we do not have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment.

Because of the Act, many Americans breathe less pollution, lowering our risks of serious health problems. Studies have shown that the Clean Air Act saves hundreds of thousands of lives every year – as well as trillions of dollars in health care costs.

That all sounds pretty great to us. So why was the Trump Administration so intent on undermining this progress?

It’s simple: The Trump Administration’s regulatory rollbacks were intended to prop up fossil fuel production and use – that they came at the expense of the health of frontline and fenceline communities already bearing the brunt of the climate crisis was likely seen as little more than collateral damage.

Knowing full well that Black children are twice as likely to develop asthma as White children – and 10 times more likely to die from complications from the disease – the Trump administration still chose to put polluters and profits over people and public health.

We’re not about that life.

Over here on Facts Island, we know that the best thing for the health and well-being of every American, as well as the economy, particularly in this moment of recovery, is to reign in emissions and pollution.

So, instead of chipping away at the Clean Air Act, why not lean into what was already working so well by going full-steam ahead in the opposite direction? Why not strengthen the public health regulations for emissions under the Clean Air Act?

Public health shouldn’t be for sale. Not at any price. Not now. Not ever.

>> Free download: The impact of climate change on human health is far-reaching. Learn more with our e-book, The Climate Crisis and Your Health: What You Need to Know. <<

The Clean Water Act

While we’re at it, if we want to improve public health outcomes for the communities most at risk from fossil fuel production and use, we should similarly strengthen water quality regulations and standards under the Clean Water Act.

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 was heavily updated and amended in 1972 to become what we know today as the Clean Water Act.

The goal was simple. Following public outcry about water pollution – particularly after a 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland – the EPA set out to work with local governments and companies to create programs to clean wastewater, redesign sewer systems, and restore degraded rivers and lakes based on new standards for how clean water should be. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Much like the Clean Air Act, the many successes of the Clean Water Act are inspiring and obvious. Why not strengthen our standards here too, while ensuring that frontline communities and communities facing disinvestment are prioritized for benefits of new policies and standards, as well as their attendant investments?

We have yet to hear a single American complain that their drinking water is too free of toxic chemicals.

(And before you dare ask what the Clean Water Act has to do with the climate crisis, remember how we get most of our natural gas.)

>> Free fact sheet: Climate 101: Natural Gas <<

Helping Those Who Need It Most

Low-income households and Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities are more likely than more-affluent and whiter communities to live in proximity to polluting industries like oil refineries, coal-fired power plants, and pipeline infrastructure, leading to greater exposure to pollution from burning fossil fuels and chemicals leaching into the water table. And because of discriminatory policies and poor city planning, these same communities are often hit first and worst by climate-exacerbated events like extreme drought, major floods, wildfires, and urban heat islands.

Put another way: The burden of the climate crisis is often placed on those least responsible for it.

And that’s not OK.

But we can help these communities directly, right now, through the expansion of regulations under the Clean Air and Water acts.

Communities nearest to polluting facilities would see the benefits of expanded regulation of fossil fuel emissions and water quality first and most. Properly enforced, holding air and water to a higher standard means cleaner air and better drinking water for families that have dealt with environmental injustices for generations. 

The result? Oh, you know – just a chance to end the climate crisis and build a healthy and just nation for all.

And this is our moment to create the change we need. We can’t afford to waste it.

Wondering what you can do?

It starts with joining your local Climate Reality chapter.

Across the country, everyday Americans are joining Climate Reality chapters and working together for practical climate solutions in communities from sea to shining sea. These friends, neighbors, and colleagues are making a real difference for our climate when it matters – and you can too.

Join a Climate Reality chapter today and be part of the fight for a sustainable future.