“The prescription for the cure rests on an accurate diagnosis of the disease.” – Dr. Martin Luther King
“You can resist an invading army. You can’t resist an idea whose time has come.” – Victor Hugo
Let’s be honest: the first few weeks of the Biden Administration have been nothing short of dizzying.
Executive orders bringing the US back into the Paris Agreement, pausing oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, elevating climate as a national security priority. The kind of cabinet picks and top position hires across the administration in Michael Regan, Gina McCarthy, and Cecilia Martinez that have a dream team feel to them.
And somehow, that’s just for starters.
(After four years of the Trump Administration’s all-out assault on environmental protections and fossil fuel giveaways, you could be forgiven for a feeling of whiplash.)
“[T]he Federal Government should pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality. Affirmatively advancing equity, civil rights, racial justice, and equal opportunity is the responsibility of the whole of our Government. Because advancing equity requires a systematic approach to embedding fairness in decision-making processes, executive departments and agencies (agencies) must recognize and work to redress inequities in their policies and programs that serve as barriers to equal opportunity.”
The second, coming a week later on the White House’s Climate Day officially formalized:
“President Biden’s commitment to make environmental justice a part of the mission of every agency by directing federal agencies to develop programs, policies, and activities to address the disproportionate health, environmental, economic, and climate impacts on disadvantaged communities.”
As part of the commitment, the order created two councils to “prioritize environmental justice and ensure a whole-of-government approach to addressing current and historical environmental injustices.”
The administration didn’t stop there, creating:
[A] government-wide Justice40 Initiative with the goal of delivering 40 percent of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities and tracks performance toward that goal through the establishment of an Environmental Justice Scorecard.”
It’s worth stepping back here for a minute. Because this is a really big deal.
What these orders collectively signal is a profound sea change in how the federal government tackles the climate crisis.
Together, they say we can’t just look at fossil fuel pollution and rising temperatures as a problem for the future. They say we’ve got to look at how coal plants and waste incinerators are poisoning the air too many people of color breathe right now. That we’ve got to ensure that everyone has clean water. That as we pull the country back to its feet, we’ve got to invest in communities that never really had a chance to stand up in the first place, thanks to centuries of systemic racism.
There’s a word for that: Equity.
If it’s been a minute, equity differs from equality in some important ways. You might think about it as the necessary first step to the kind of equality the US is supposed to be about. The diversity and justice consultants at the Avarna Group define it this way:
“An approach based in fairness to ensuring everyone has access to the same opportunities and resources. In practice, it ensures everyone is given equal opportunity to thrive; this means that resources may be divided and shared unequally to make sure that each person can access an opportunity. Equity is therefore not the same thing as equality. Equity takes into account that people have different access to resources because of system of oppression and privilege. Equity seeks to balance that disparity.”
There have been a million variations on a graphic of people watching a baseball game – and many, many critiques of the same – trying to capture this idea along with at least one video explaining it by way of the metaphor of a running race. But it basically comes down to the simple truth that the legacy of racism means we don’t all start from the same place. After all, Black Americans are 79 percent more likely than White Americans to live in places where industrial pollution is the greatest health danger. In 2019, the median White household in America held a staggering 780 percent more wealth than the typical Black household. The list could go on and on.
So how does this fit into climate action and the Biden Administration agenda? In some ways it’s pretty simple. We know we’ve got to rebuild the country from the devastation of the COVID pandemic. We know we’ve got to transition our energy systems from the dirty fossil fuels poisoning poor families and communities of color and destroying our climate. And we know we’ve got to face the deep and real systemic racism and income inequality choking dreams and tearing communities apart all across the country.
Each of these on their own are extraordinary challenges. Together, they’re a combination the English language stretches to capture. But they also give us the chance to fundamentally re-imagine America. They open the door to the possibility that we stop accepting the world we’ve been given and start building the world we want.
We know how to do it too. At its heart, the fossil fuel economy was always going to feed a system of winners and losers. A system where CEOs travel in corporate jets while 78% of Black Americans live within 30 miles a dirty coal plant and the risks of strokes, asthma attacks, and birth defects climb in communities close to fracking operations.
We can do better. We can put millions to work – especially in communities handicapped by institutional neglect and racism – in good green jobs building the clean energy infrastructure, efficient homes, and climate-smart systems we need to get the economy to net zero by 2050, as the science mandates. We can end the fossil fuel pollution actively killing poor families and people of color across the US. We can bring real hope and the opportunity to build a better life to the communities who just need a shot from Atlanta to Alaska.
We can only do this if we make equity the heart of our demands in the climate movement. The idea isn’t new – environmental justice activists have been fighting for this since the 1970s. But it’s an idea whose time has officially has come.
And what is new is the opportunity to turn these demands into real policy that creates millions of jobs and opens the door to real opportunities for the people who need them most. All while cutting emissions and putting us on the path to a healthy and sustainable future.
This is the moment we’ve been waiting for. Join us in calling on the Biden Administration and Congress to act bravely and boldly in the first 100 days of this administration on ambitious policies to advance equity and launch a just transition to clean energy that creates a better tomorrow for all of us.
Before You Go
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