What Does Equitable Climate Policy Actually Look Like?
By Sharon Zhang
Back in March, when the pandemic had just planted its roots in the U.S., President Donald Trump directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to do something devastating: The agency was to indefinitely and cruelly suspend environmental rule enforcement. The EPA complied, and for just under half a year, it provided over 3,000 waivers that granted facilities clemency from state-level environmental rule compliance.
These rule suspensions ended last month, but they almost undoubtedly caused an increase in pollution rates, as one preliminary study already found. What's worse is that we'll likely never know the full extent of the damage, as the agency also suspended rules for self-monitoring (and even before the pandemic monitoring was already limited). Analysts at the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative found that, in March and April, industrial polluters conducted 40 percent fewer tests compared to the same time in 2019, according to self-reported data.
In a country where pollution impacts are disproportionately impactful, the suspension of pollution rules in the middle of a respiratory illness outbreak is unconscionable — several studies have found that higher pollution exposure can lead to higher rates of death due to COVID-19.
But, given the stark differences between racial groups when it comes to pollution exposure and effects, the temporary policy is downright racist. A 2018 study from the EPA itself found that, respectively, Black and Latinx communities were exposed to 1.5 and 1.2 times more particulate matter, a pollutant that can cause damage to the respiratory system, than white communities. Another study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2017 found that Black people were three times more likely to die from exposure to particulate matter than the overall population.
Under Trump, federal climate policy has only become less and less stringent — The New York Times has documented 100 environmental rollbacks thus far. Such rollbacks are bad news for everyone, but they're especially harmful for Black and minority communities, which have borne the brunt of pollution for decades.
The fact that Black and brown people suffer most under environmental degradation is not news. But the dilemmas remain in the environmental justice community as they have for many years: How do we lessen the climate burden on Black and oppressed communities? How can we achieve equitable and drastic emissions reductions and transform our entire economy before the window of opportunity to prevent irreversible climate change closes?
For decades, one of the only legal tools available to an environmental justice advocate was the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, was written in the late 1960s in response to historical disasters like oil spills and injustices like the destruction of poor neighborhoods to build highways. Over the years, NEPA has been an extraordinary useful framework for communities to lessen or prevent environmental impacts of federal projects — in 2018, a judge cited NEPA when they blocked the Trump administration's attempt to fast-track the Keystone XL pipeline.
While NEPA has helped countless communities in protecting against potentially harmful impacts, however, it also has major limitations. Though NEPA forces agencies to consider the potential impacts of a project, it doesn't require stopping or even mitigating those impacts. This is partially what has allowed polluters to choke out disproportionately Black communities like Louisiana's "Cancer Alley" and New York City's "Asthma Alley" in the past decades. Early this year, the Trump administration radically rewrote NEPA so that it would give more power to polluters, limiting public input on projects and eliminating the consideration of cumulative impacts.
"A big challenge is the way that NEPA intersects with other racist policies like redlining and things that existed prior to NEPA," says Sally Hardin, who formerly worked on the council that oversees NEPA and is the interim director on energy and environment at the Center for American Progress (CAP). While NEPA is a tool that communities can use to challenge projects such as the construction of a new oil refinery, the process requires time and resources that many can't afford; poor neighborhoods that can't afford to hire lawyers to review legalese or where citizens don't have time to show up to public hearings are more likely to find themselves with a new refinery than a wealthy neighborhood.
When communities do have the time and resources to oppose a project, though, states will find a different way to get around them. Legislators in Louisiana, for instance, who often receive financial incentives from oil and gas companies and chemical manufacturers, have attempted to outlaw protests against these projects.
So, while environmental advocates can use NEPA as a tool to further justice, entrenched racial and class disparities in the U.S. will be extremely difficult to undo, no matter the policy or politician. To Peggy Shepard, the executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, the problem presents itself before NEPA can even come into the equation. Part of the issue, Shepard says, lies in permitting.
"You could have numbers of facilities emitting air toxins, numbers of facilities impacting water quality, facilities impacting soil contamination, a number of waste transfer facilities all in one community," says Shepard. "And because you're only permitting [pollution type by pollution type], you would say, 'Well, we've got one waste transfer station and it's okay, it's in compliance.' But what does it do when you've got water contamination, soil contamination, air quality, toxins? What's that soup?"
Yet another issue lies in unequal enforcement of certain laws, especially along financial lines — a 2009 study found that agencies did not enforce crucial pollution laws in poor counties as much as richer counties.
And, in some ways, unequal enforcement can be built into the laws themselves. For instance, as Climate and Energy Policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists Rachel Cleetus raises, the Army Corps determines and allocates resources for defensive measures for such events as flooding using a cost-benefit analysis. That analysis benefits richer communities because the market value of the property being lost is higher.
"There are lots of ways in which you can have neutral-sounding laws, but if you don't get out some of these underlying things and specifically target resources to set them right in some way, you're gonna end up with skewed outcomes," says Cleetus.
In Congress, some legislators are working to solve some of these problems at a federal level. Last month, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California) introduced the Climate Equity Act, which would introduce the Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability within the Office of Management and Budget and require relevant agencies to appoint a director of environmental justice. It would also require environmental legislation to come with an "equity score" that rates the impact of the legislation on frontline and poor communities.
"The difficulty [with the equity score] comes in defining who those communities should be and how (and that definition should ABSOLUTELY be created by, and with, the impacted communities themselves)," says Hardin in an email to Truthout. The Climate Equity Act was crafted from advice from environmental justice coalitions, and though the bill likely won't pass soon, coalitions and communities most impacted must have a say in the process.
Though there are many hurdles to yet to clear, environmental justice movements have been making big moves across the country in the past few years. Initiatives like the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform and the Environmental Justice for All Act have gained momentum among Democrats; and local groups are getting the attention of politicians to address some of the largest hurdles — permitting, unfair lawmaking and gaining grassroots political power.
Last week, Gov. Phil Murphy (D-New Jersey) signed an environmental justice law unlike any other in the country: Despite powerful industry opposition that stalled the bill for years, the new state law will require permits for projects like power plants and landfills to be rejected if they are to be cited in an already overburdened neighborhood. Other states require agencies to merely consider cumulative impacts in the permitting process with no mandate to act on that consideration — formerly, NEPA required all government-funded projects to consider cumulative impacts, but the Trump administration, in its gutting of NEPA this year, rolled that rule back.
The bill was passed due to the tireless work of grassroots activists and environmental justice groups — Ironbound Community Corporation, New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance and Clean Water Action — who fought chemical and waste industry lobbyists and Murphy's administration to push the bill through.
Grassroots and activist groups have helped Joe Biden better his climate platform, too, as he unveiled a new plan in July — his environmental justice plan is surprisingly good for candidate whose climate plan as a whole got an "F" from the Sunrise Movement last year. The plan includes creating and elevating climate justice divisions in the federal government and the White House, mandate pollution monitoring in frontline communities — which is currently notoriously terrible — and spend 40 percent of the overall investments in the climate plan on disadvantaged communities.
Several of the initiatives outlined in Biden's plan are extensions of what the Obama administration already got started — expanding the EPA's EJSCREEN tool that identifies environmental justice hotspots, for instance. This is progress that should have been made years ago — and progress that could have been made under a different administration.
But Trump has reversed much of the progress on climate that the country has made not only since the Obama administration, but also from decades ago — including outright eliminating funding for environmental justice at the EPA. From here, as the climate crisis rages on, progress will be ever more vital to make. And, despite Biden's progress in climate over the course of the election, climate activists have their work cut out for them – no matter who's in office come January.
This story originally appeared in Truthout and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
Trump Calls Fauci 'a Disaster,' Tries to Blame Science and Medical Experts for Failed Coronavirus Response
President Trump attacked the nation's top infectious disease specialist in a call with campaign staffers that several reporters were allowed to listen to on Monday. In the call, Trump said that Dr. Anthony S. Fauci was "a disaster." He added that despite the evidence that coronavirus cases are once again rising across the country, the public was tired of hearing so much news about the virus, especially from "these idiots" in the government and scientific community, as The Washington Post reported.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Rebecca Niemiec and Kevin Crooks
Colorado voters will decide on Nov. 3 whether the state should reintroduce gray wolves (Canis lupus) after a nearly 80-year absence. Ballot Proposition 114 would require the state to develop and oversee a science-based plan to restore wolves, focused in Western Colorado and initiated by the end of 2023.
Back by Popular Demand?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDUzOTQxNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNzI4NTkyMX0.BeRR61CH6a-TWwSw1p4kmng4x4tXRaSMKyTRHKIHmOw/img.jpg?width=980" id="1f7fe" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="339e3443dc63f3be06e24a82f0b37a03" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9aec767b3325e364a8605524504f95ab"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/wTx_jqpqqfU?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Clashing Values<p>Proposition 114 has strong support in Colorado. <a href="https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/people-predators/public-perspectives-on-wolves-and-wolf-reintroduction-8-004/" target="_blank">Statewide surveys </a> conducted by phone, by mail and online over the past two decades have found that 66% to 84% of respondents supported reintroducing wolves. This support is consistent across different regions of the state and diverse demographic groups.</p><p>In a <a href="https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.9074" target="_blank">survey of Colorado residents</a> that we conducted in 2019, the prospect that wolves could contribute to a balanced ecosystem was the most commonly cited reason for supporting reintroduction. Other arguments included people's cultural and emotional connections to wolves, and <a href="https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/people-predators/moral-arguments-related-to-wolf-restoration-and-management-8-011/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">moral arguments</a> that restoring a species humans had eradicated was the right thing to do.</p><p>While overall public support is strong, over half of Colorado's 64 counties have passed <a href="https://www.drovers.com/article/wolf-reintroduction-ballot-colorado" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resolutions against restoring wolves</a>. Many ranching and hunting associations are actively campaigning against the ballot measure.</p><p>In our 2019 study, we found that media coverage in the state focused more strongly on <a href="https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.9074" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">perceived negative impacts</a> associated with wolf reintroduction than on beneficial effects. Surveys show that resident concerns include threats to <a href="https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/people-predators/wolves-and-human-safety-8-003/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human safety and pets</a>; <a href="https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/people-predators/wolves-and-livestock-8-010/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wolf attacks on livestock</a>; and the potential for wolves to <a href="https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/people-predators/wolves-big-game-and-hunting-8-001/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce deer and elk populations</a>, threatening hunting opportunities.</p>
Who Decides?<p>This measure is the first giving voters in the U.S. an opportunity to weigh in on bringing back a native species. Addressing the issue through a ballot measure adds a unique twist to public and media discussions about wolves.</p><p>Supporters call it a democratic way to ensure that the <a href="https://www.cpr.org/2020/09/29/should-wolves-be-brought-back-to-colorado-a-rancher-and-a-biologist-have-their-say/" target="_blank">public's values are recognized</a>. They also argue that voters are deciding only whether wolves should be reintroduced, while allowing experts at the <a href="https://cpw.state.co.us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">state wildlife agency</a> to create a reintroduction plan <a href="https://www.steamboatpilot.com/news/election/howl-you-vote-wolf-advocates-opponents-ask-colorado/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">based on the best available science</a>.</p>
<div id="4c11f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dec8674441e02372e50b796d848e4130"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1316474105315483649" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">According to a recent poll of 900 demographically representative likely voters, two-thirds supported “restoring wol… https://t.co/74LMG1PYtW</div> — High Country News (@High Country News)<a href="https://twitter.com/highcountrynews/statuses/1316474105315483649">1602706860.0</a></blockquote></div>
Finding Consensus<p>Studies suggest that ballot initiatives like 114 will <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2017.07.032" target="_blank">become more common</a> as public values toward wildlife change and more diverse groups seek to influence wildlife management. For us, the key question is how to recognize and incorporate these differing values as agencies make decisions.</p><p>Research drawing on insights from <a href="https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/people-predators/dialogue-and-social-conflict-about-wolves-8-009/" target="_blank">psychology, political science and sociology</a> suggests that it is critical to run<a href="https://drive.google.com/file/d/1QppmBszEF6zsNnhBJ7Q2-pSWRR-Zx_ln/view" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> truly participatory processes</a> that engage government agencies and people who have a stake in the issue in shared decision-making. Fostering dialogue between groups that value wildlife differently can build empathy and mutual understanding and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2014.07.015" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">foster compromise</a>. Broadening the conversation in this way is essential for coexisting with carnivores with minimal impacts on predators and people.</p>
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By Brian Bienkowski
Fish exposed to endocrine-disrupting compounds pass on health problems to future generations, including deformities, reduced survival, and reproductive problems, according to a new study.
Low Levels Lead to Generational Impacts<p>Researchers exposed inland silverside fish to bifenthrin, levonorgestrel, ethinylestradiol, and trenbolone to levels currently found in waterways.</p><p>"Our concentrations were actually on the low end" of what is found in the wild, DeCourten said, adding that it was low amounts of chemicals in parts per trillion.</p><p>Bifenthrin is a pesticide; levonorgestrel and ethinylestradiol are synthetic hormones used in birth controls; and trenbolone is a synthetic steroid often given to cattle to bulk them up.</p><p>Such endocrine-disruptors have already been linked to a variety of health problems in directly exposed fish including altered growth, reduced survival, lowered egg production, skewed sex ratios, and negative impacts to immune systems. But what remains less clear is how the exposure may impact future generations.</p><p>For their study, DeCourten and colleagues started the exposure when the fish were embryos and continued it for 21 days.</p><p>They then tracked effects on the exposed fish, and the next two generations.</p>
Inherited Problems<p>DeCourten said the altered DNA methylation is one of the plausible ways that future generations would experience health impacts from previous generations' exposure. Hormone-disrupting compounds have been shown to impact DNA methylation, which is an important marker of how an organism will develop.</p><p>"Methyl groups are added to specific sites on the genome, [the exposure] is not changing the genome itself, but rather how the genome is expressed," she said. "And that can be inherited throughout generations."</p><p>In addition, Brander said there are essentially different "tags" that exist on DNA molecules, which tell genes how to turn on and off. She said the exposure to different compounds may be "influencing which methyl tags get taken on or off as you proceed through generations."</p><p>The researchers said the study should prompt future toxics testing to consider impacts on future generations.</p><p>"The results … throw a wrench in the current approach to regulating chemicals, where it's often short-term testing looking at simple things like growth, survival, and maybe gene expression," Brander said.</p><p>"These findings are telling us we really at least need to consider" the next two generations, she added.</p>
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