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Harris and AOC Introduce Climate Equity Act to Protect Frontline Communities

Politics
Harris and AOC Introduce Climate Equity Act to Protect Frontline Communities

By Julia Conley

Though she has yet to unveil a climate action plan as part of her presidential campaign, Sen. Kamala Harris on Monday signaled her intent to keep low-income communities at the forefront of any efforts to stem the climate crisis.



The California Democrat joined Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) to introduce bicameral legislation known as the Climate Equity Act, which would ensure that lawmakers keep in mind the positive and negative effects climate-related bills will have on vulnerable communities on the frontlines of the crisis, before voting for them.

"It is not enough to simply cut emissions and end our reliance on fossil fuels," Harris said in a statement. "We must ensure that communities already contending with unsafe drinking water, toxic air, and lack of economic opportunity are not left behind. We need a Green New Deal based in climate and environmental justice, which means building a clean economy that protects communities that have been neglected by policymakers for far too long."

Under the Climate Equity Act, the two lawmakers said, all environment-related legislation would be given a rating based on the benefits and costs it would incur for low-income communities, which are often in easily-flooded areas or regions dominated by oil and gas refineries or other pollution-causing industry giants.

A legislative proposal's effects on vulnerable communities which have been polluted and subjected to flooding that is worsening due to the climate crisis and rising sea levels should be considered just as important as the financial cost of a bill, Ocasio-Cortez argued.

"We can't do anything without a [Congressional Budget Office] score, but we never actually consider if it's disastrous to communities as long as it's revenue-neutral," Ocasio-Cortez told The New York Times.

The Climate Equity Act would also require all federal grants and investment programs to undergo a review to make sure frontline communities will benefit and would require representatives from those regions to be "at the table" during those reviews.

Americans who have faced the most damage to their homes, livelihoods and health would be asked to provide "insights and comments on how to minimize negative impacts and maximize benefits of rules and regulations on frontline communities,"according to Harris and Ocasio-Cortez's proposal.

Harris is among the 2020 Democratic candidates who have not yet shared a comprehensive climate action plan. As Common Dreams reported, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday unveiled his Community Climate Justice proposal to establish a new Justice Department office focusing on holding corporate polluters accountable for the damage they do to poor communities.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (U-Vt.) included investment in frontline communities in his plan to pass a Green New Deal while Beto O'Rourke pledged to mobilize $1.2 trillion to help communities facing poor air or water quality.

The recent national focus on frontline communities is being welcomed by climate action groups which have worked for years to call attention to the effects of fossil fuel and chemical emissions on low-income areas.

"They are timely and they are needed, and they help us to begin to think critically about the steps that are going to be necessary to protect people's lives in the moment, and in these challenges that are rushing at us at a very quick pace," Mustafa Ali, who established the EPA's Office of Environmental Justice, told The New York Times.

"This hasn't been how the U.S. has done environmental policy in the past," said political science professor Leah Stokes in a Twitter thread. "The question is: are we going to do the same thing as we address the climate crisis? Are we going to leave vast swathes of the U.S. behind, particularly communities of color? Or are we going to ensure that the Green New Deal centers justice? Harris and [Ocasio-Cortez] say, 'Let's center justice.'"

Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

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With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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