How Advocates Are Pushing President Biden to Confront Environmental Racism
Rebeca Ibarra: I'm Rebeca Ibarra, in for Tanzina Vega, and you're listening to The Takeaway. This week, President Joe Biden hosted a virtual summit to address climate change on a global level. Leaders from 40 different countries were in attendance and several promised to cut down greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years, including President Biden.
President Biden: By maintaining those investments and putting these people to work, the United States sets out on the road to cut greenhouse gases in half by the end of this decade.
Rebeca: Organizing the summit is an attempt by Biden to reposition the US as a world leader in the fight against climate change. Under former President Donald Trump, much of that work was halted after his administration chose to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement. Back in March, Biden also announced the creation of an Environmental Justice Advisory Council as part of one of his executive orders to address climate change. With us to help break this all down is Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali, former Senior Advisor for Environmental Justice and Community Revitalization at the EPA. Dr. Ali, great to have you with us.
Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali: Thank you so much for having me.
Rebeca: We're also joined by Maria Lopez-Nuñez with the Ironbound Community Corporation. She's also a member of the White House's Environmental Justice Advisory Council. Maria, great to have you here.
Maria Lopez Nuñez: Thank you for having us.
Rebeca: Mustafa, you quit the EPA just months into the Trump Administration. What has been going through your mind with the climate change summit this week?
Mustafa: It is amazing set of opportunities if it's done right, and the accountability is built-in, and that we send to frontline communities and our most vulnerable countries across the planet because our people are the ones that get hit first and worst. Seeing some of these commitments is a move in the right direction, we would like to see an even stronger set of numbers to make sure that many of the impacts that are happening inside of Black and brown and Indigenous communities are lessened and then hopefully eliminated one day. It's a step in the right direction, and we are optimistic that folks will continue to strengthen the various commitments that they've made.
Rebeca: Maria, you're a member of the White House Environmental Justice Council, what exactly is the council working on?
Maria: We're working on the initiative called Justice40. Justice40 is supposed to be a 40% carve out of the investments. We're talking about the climate-related investments, making sure that they go to frontline communities. I hope that everyone understands that 40 should be considered the floor, not the ceiling. It's the starting point to guarantee that investments are directed to those who have been most directly impacted.
Rebeca: Then, Mustafa, back to you, what are your thoughts on the Biden Administration's actions on climate change to date, specifically, when it comes to environmental justice?
Mustafa: It is great to have an administration that actually centers of science, climate, and environmental justice. I think that many of us who have been doing this work for a long time are pleased that that's happening. We want to make sure that folks also understand that you can't win on climate change if you don't win on environmental justice.
Maria just shared about the 40%, that a step in the right direction, but we've got to make sure that those are real because it's labeled as benefits. What our community needs is dollars also. We want to make sure that folks are actually receiving the benefits and the dollars that are necessary for them to continue to frame out the direction that they want to go in. Also, seeing that he has begun to place inside of some of the federal agencies, folks who have either come from sets of environmental justice work or competencies in that space, is also a step in the right direction. That needs to continue to grow because there are over 17 federal agencies and departments that have a distinct responsibility for environmental justice. Of course, under the Biden Administration, he has said that it is an all of government approach.
That means that each one of those agencies and departments should be laser-focused on the dynamics that are going on inside of our community. Those dynamics, those impacts that are happening in Black and brown and Indigenous communities and Asian and Pacific Islander and sometimes lower wealth white communities that are actually making our lives shorter and making us sick are also the drivers in warming up our oceans and our planet. I'm pleased that they're moving in the right direction, but we know that if we don't stay continually holding people accountable, then sometimes folks will slip.
Rebeca: Mustafa, I want to talk a bit about this week's climate summit. Did any specific announcements from the Biden Administration stand out to you?
Mustafa: I think they were all significant because we got a chance to see where some of the 40 members from 40 different countries actually sat in relationship to their commitments. Many of us had hope that at least 50% number would come out from the Biden Administration or from the United States and it's 50% to 52%. Some would like to see that number higher because we understand the climate crisis that we find.
I was pleased to a degree to hear that Japan was giving somewhat successful and significant numbers. What I mean by that is that, anybody below 50% is falling short. Japan came in at about 46% by 2030. For the listeners, what that means is, they are going to make sure that they're cutting emissions by that number and then being net-zero by 2050, which is the baseline for folks now across the planet.
Canada fell a little bit short to be quite honest with you, even though some would say, of course, the United States and China are the two major contributors, everybody is contributing to some degree to what's going on, or at least the major countries if you want to label them that way. Canada came in somewhere between 40% to 45% by 2030. China was a little interesting, and I'll just close out with China. China said that their peak emissions before 2030 will be carbon-- that they'll do some work in that space, didn't give a hard number, but said that they would be carbon neutral by 2060, which is outside of that norm number of 2050 right now.
Rebeca: Maria, I want to go back to what you said before, which is the Biden Administration has pledged that 40% of the benefits of all its climate policies will be directed towards disadvantaged communities. Can you break that down for us? Because what exactly do we mean by benefits? What does this mean on a practical level?
Maria: Like Mustafa was saying, we need 40% of investments, not just benefits because benefits could be anything. It could be the bike lane, it could be if there is a park that gets planted over there, maybe has an impact on our communities. Right now, the council is working on the definition for the 40%. What is the benefit, but I think we need to go still many more steps further. I think, right now, at the summit, the United States is talking to other governments and the United States government really should be talking to environmental justice communities and centering this conversation about what we're going to do about climate change with our own people. We can't just have state-to-state relationships, we need to reconnect and rebuild the relationship that's been broken between the federal government and the communities who are directly impacted.
Rebeca: Maria, how much can the White House actually do on environmental justice without legislative action?
Maria: There's always plenty we could do. For instance, I'm not too happy about the net-zero, I would like to see us talk about direct emissions, cutting emissions at source because right now, communities are being assaulted by carbon sequestration plans, technical fixes, geoengineering, there are things that we need at the community level. I think that we could start the conversation because that would force legislative action. If there was a big take the show on the road, talk to all the different communities across the country, environmental justice community, Indigenous communities, then I think that that would go really far in building the political will to get something done.
Of course, things could be done by executive action. We need executive orders right now. Trump wasn't shy to use them. I would love to see more on forcefulness on behalf of justice for our communities.
Rebeca: Mustafa, what were some of the biggest bureaucratic holdups that you witnessed inside of the EPA on environmental justice?
Mustafa: If we're going to have an honest conversation, something I always call real talk. You've got biases, discrimination, and systemic racism that has been built into our policies for decades, that make it more difficult for communities of color to actually get justice. The unpacking and dismantling of that is critically important. Then even if you saw strong work being done or attempted on the federal level, we still have to realize that those dollars and those actions, leave the feds and go down to the states and the counties and local governments.
As it's making that journey, you have the assumption that folks are going to do the right things on those levels. Then sometimes, yes, and sometimes, no. You have to make sure that, one, you're building stronger accountability into the process. Two, that those folks have the resources and tools that they need. Then the other part, which was outside of the government but it's definitely connected to the government, is making sure that frontline organizations have the resources that they need to build the capacity to be able to navigate all the challenges that exist in dealing with bureaucracies and trying to make real change happen.
This administration has the exact same set of challenges and then also the overlay of the climate crisis that we're fighting. We've got a lot of work to do to make sure that folks have those competencies, there's accountability, and that both folks on the local level in government and in frontline organizations have the resources they need to be able to make a change happen.
Rebeca: Maria, your organization is based in Newark, New Jersey. What impact does environmental racism have on residents of Newark specifically?
Maria: When we look at the skyline, we see the state's largest garbage incinerator, which 50% of the trash is not even-- it's coming from New York City. It's not trash that's being generated even within our own state. Then we have two power plants in our neighborhood. We're right next to the port of Newark and Elizabeth. We have fat rendering plants, plastic plants. We're also boarded by the longest Superfund site in the country. That's the Passaic River where we made Agent Orange during the Vietnam war and the poison that was left behind her that, it's all over our neighborhood, and so much of it has never been cleaned up.
We have over a 100 brownfield sites. What I want folks to understand is, when I'm talking about my neighborhood, I'm talking about four square miles. I'm talking about a concentration of pollution, legacy pollution, that has not been cleaned up for many administrations. I'm thankful for the movement that's been holding our federal government steadily accountable and for us to be at this moment, but I want to see real change, not just words. I want us to slingshot into the just transition and make sure that we don't leave behind communities like ours.
Rebeca: Mustafa, how does what Maria is describing in Newark compared to the effects of environmental racism on communities of color nationwide?
Mustafa: Let me just call it that Maria and the folks at Ironbound have been doing amazing work for decades and often with not having the right amount of resources that they needed. The dynamics that we have going on across our country that ground truth and anchor us to why this work both on the environmental justice side and the climate side is so important. We have 100,000 people who die prematurely from air pollution every year in our country. That's more folks that are dying from air pollution than are dying from gun violence. More people are dying from air pollution than are dying from car crashes, and all those things are important. We have to give our attention to it, to make change happen in that space.
In our country, we got over 60 million people who have dealt with unsafe drinking water over the last decade. We know in both those situations that I mentioned, it is primarily Black and brown and Indigenous communities that are dealing with it. No community should have to deal with that, or in Port Arthur, Texas, where Hilton Kelly is a Goldman prize winner. A once thriving African-American community, they're surrounded by petrochemical facilities, and they have high rates of cancer and liver and kidney disease and a number of other things. When our communities are impacted, our health is impacted and then our wealth is impacted because our homes lose value when we're next to these types of things.
Historically, we have placed our housing in flood plains and next to toxic facilities. You see it across our country, whether we're talking about on reservations, or if we're talking about in Appalachia with lower wealth white communities, or of course, Black and brown communities all across our country. When you look at what's going on in Alaska, where brothers and sisters, that literally their homes are sliding into the ocean because of the changes that are happening from climate change and from the exposures that they've had to deal with from toxic pollution, or we've seen what happened with brothers and sisters, and my family is from Puerto Rico. The impacts that happened from Hurricane Maria, but it was happening even before Hurricane Maria got there.
That folks were dealing with Superfund sites and brownfield sites and the military doing testing and leaving it behind in places like Vieques and others. We have a lot of work to do. As we're having this conversation about climate, we've got to be very aware that we have to rebuild the infrastructure inside of our communities if we're going to be able to fully be able to participate in this new clean economy that the president and others talk about and as needed, but we've got to make sure that we're not placing veneers over the challenges that still exist inside of our communities.
Rebeca: Maria, do you have any advice for local organizers trying to push back against environmental racism and organize?
Maria: [chuckles] I laugh just because the challenge is so hard because, and for organizers on the ground, they're not just dealing with climate change. They're dealing with racism with police brutality, with immigration rates, gentrification. It is a hard time to be an organizer in a community. One thing that Nancy Zak who's been working with us for 47 years, she always says, "We can't give up at the same time." Make sure that you have a strong team with you and that you take turns because this work does wear us down, but we have to keep going. Because of decades of organizing, we've reached a moment we're at today with environmental justice finally being centered. I'm hopeful that if we keep pushing, we're actually going to get somewhere this time.
Rebeca: Maria Lopez-Nuñez works with the Ironbound Community Corporation and is a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali is a former senior advisor for Environmental Justice and Community Revitalization at the EPA. Thank you both for joining us.
Mustafa: Thank you.
Maria: Thank you.
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