The death of George Floyd, an African American man, under the knee of a White Minneapolis police officer, has triggered a racial justice reckoning the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1960s. Racial justice has, in many ways, become a metonym for all the socio-economic and political inequities that have been ailing America for decades.
As I had discussed in Part 1 of the series, institutions and groups in the clean energy and environment sectors are as open to the charge of systemic racism as the rest of American society. And, like others, they are using the occasion of the Floyd killing and the Black Lives Matter movement to reflect on and rectify the inequities within their own organizations.
The challenges of 2020—the COVID-19 contagion, systemic racism, and a depressive economic downturn—have cast a new light on the concept of the Green New Deal (GND) as it has been incorporated into the climate policies being proposed by the Select House Committee on the Climate Crisis and the policy planks of the Democratic Party and its candidates in the 2020 elections.
Unlike environmental and energy policies of the past, the GND concept reaches across the sectors of society to address multiple issues and objectives in one integrated package. The current contagion has shown the critical importance of science-based policies.
The depressive economic downturn that has resulted from the pandemic is offering nations and opportunity to recalibrate their economies in ways that will put them on the path to environmental and economic sustainability. The [legitimate] marchers in the street today are exercising their rights to demand justice and equality, as promised in the US Constitution.
Effective policymaking requires an appreciation of the issues involved. In the case of integrative climate-related policies that seek to redress injustices, as well as to address Earth’s warming, it is essential to have a clear understanding of the terms environmental, energy, and climate justice. Although sharing some core characteristics, e.g., limiting access to the policymaking process, the terms are not interchangeable. It is similarly essential to comprehend how the phrase energy security may mean one thing to a president and something else to the head of a household below the federal poverty line.
All environmental justice is not the same
There are two overlapping but distinct types of environmental justice. Procedural justice refers to the fairness of decisionmaking. It is usually understood to require the same opportunities for all people regardless of race, ethnicity, income, national origin, or educational level to have “meaningful involvement” in environmental decisionmaking. (emphasis added). Procedural justice is about being in on the policymaking process before decisions are made. It is having the opportunity and wherewithal to challenge regulations and other actions once they are set into motion. The Trump administration, for example, recently revised the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The Act requires the federal government to assess the environmental impacts of major federal actions before they are taken.
The revisions include the payment of a bond before a legal challenge can be made, as well as the demand that challengers submit detailed technical comments. The sums involved could easily be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for large infrastructure projects. The requirements, therefore, would severely limit the capacity of communities of color and low-incomes to challenge federal projects in contravention of the intent and purpose of the Act.
Distributive justice refers to the allocation of environmental benefits and burdens across multiple demographics, e.g., race, income levels, and age. The benefits of an environmentally impactful action, e.g., the construction of a petrochemical plant, might include job creation and higher tax revenues. The burdens, on the other hand, would include higher incidences of cancer and chloracne due to the release of dioxins.
Overall, the distribution of burdens and benefits in the US is neither fair nor equitable. As with so many other things in life, it’s all about location, location, location.
Multiple studies have shown that communities of color and low-incomes are, on average, situated closer to hazardous waste sites, the dirtiest power plants, and polluting industrial facilities than wealthier White neighborhoods.
There are, for example, 150 sites in southwest Detroit releasing chemicals, small particulates, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Zip codes for that area are 48217 and 48209. Demographically zip code 48217 is 86 percent African American and has an average yearly income of $27, 060. Zip code 48209 is 79.7 percent Hispanic, with an average annual income of $25,020. Unemployment rates for both areas hover close to 39 percent. Detroit is hardly the only place where communities of color and low-incomes have the misfortune of being next-door neighbors to harmful industrial facilities.
Cancer Alley is an 85-mile corridor in Louisiana between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. It has earned its name. Seven of the ten census tracks in the Alley have the highest risk of cancer in the nation. It’s estimated that people living amongst the 150 oil, gas, and petrochemical plants are more than 50 times likely to get cancer than the average American.
Scientists estimate that Hispanics and African-Americans are exposed to more than their fair share of toxic air. They calculate that Hispanics breathe in 63 times more deadly pollution than they are responsible for. For African-Americans, the number is 56 percent. Whites, however, are exposed to 17 percent less air pollution than they are responsible for producing.
Racism appears more dominant than classism. Middle-class African Americans earning between $50,000-60,000 per year suffer exposure levels to industrial chemicals, air pollution, poisonous heavy metals, and other pathogens more in keeping with African Americans making $10,000 a year than to their White middle-class counterparts.
The consequence of their proximity is tallied in higher morbidity and mortality rates attributable to particle pollution [i]and chemical releases. Particle pollution is also shown to compound the seriousness of the current contagion. A Harvard study was the first to show a statistical link between long-term exposure to fine particulate matter and COVID-19 deaths. New research published in JAMA Network Open supports the findings of the Harvard study.
It is further estimated that COVID-19 death rates were about nine times higher in lower-income, predominantly non-White communities, compared to lower-income, mostly White communities. Notwithstanding the conclusions of this new research, it should not be said that low-income White communities get off scot-free.
Minden, West Virginia, for example, is often referred to as Toxic Town—and for good reason. This small, low-income White community has the misfortune of being around lands used as the dump-site of coal and chemical companies. Cancer rates in Minden are four times higher than the national average. There are poor rural at-risk White communities in the hills of West Virginia, throughout Appalachian coal country, and along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas carrying more than their fair share of environmental burdens.
Climate Justice: Houston we have a problem
It is important to distinguish between matters of environment and climate when speaking about justice matters. The clearer the understanding of the problem, the better the chance of finding a fitting solution.
Distinguishing between environmental and climate justice or injustice, as the case may be, is most effectively done by example. Consider the $7 billion highway expansion project in Houston, Texas.
Houston, like many major cities, suffers from gridlock. Making matters worse, the region’s population is expected to grow from today’s 7.2 million to 9.6 million by 2040.
The city’s current highway set-up has created one of the worst bottlenecks in the United States. Houston is also the ninth-worst area in the nation for ozone pollution, according to the American Lung Association. Tragically, the city is also known for deaths from car crashes. The Houston Chronicle describes the annual death toll as equivalent to three fully-loaded 737s crashing each year at Houston’s airports, killing all on board.
To alleviate the current problems, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has proposed an expansion of I-45 and other expressways north of the city’s urban core [ii]. The changes, however, would come at great cost to a community of color and low incomes. Moreover, experience suggests the project would not achieve its objective for long—if at all.
The new project requires the demolition of portions of the Independence Heights community. Incorporated in 1915, it was the first African American municipality in Texas.
As reported by the Houston Chronicle, the expansion project would require the destruction of 158 houses, 433 apartments or condos, 486 public housing units, 340 businesses, five churches, and two schools in the Independence Heights community.
According to TxDOT’s Draft Environmental Impact Study, the highway expansion would cause disproportionately high and adverse impacts to minority or low-income populations. A Health Impact Assessment by Air Alliance Houston also found that the project would bring at least 26 existing school and daycare campuses within 500 feet of the highway, a distance that research has associated with increased risks of asthma, impaired lung development, and childhood leukemia. The concentration of benzene, a carcinogen, would rise 175 percent for some of the impacted schools.
The proposed highway project would also reduce the community’s resilience to flooding from storms. The addition of more impermeable concrete would, in TexPIRG‘s opinion, just makes things worse for a city still recovering from some of the worst floods in recent memory, those brought on by Hurricane Harvey.
Environmental justice advocates view the demolitions as the latest in a decades-long series of actions that together meet the definition of systemic racism. Since World War II, low-income communities of color around the nation have routinely been sacrificed on the altar of the all-mighty highway. Independence Heights has previously been asked to make the sacrifice. A 1959 road construction project destroyed 250 homes and isolated it from the rest of the city. It is again being asked for blood.
The planners have defended the proposed project saying it will decrease the community’s exposure to hazardous vehicle emissions. The claim is based on traffic being able to move more rapidly, once the new lanes and ramps are completed. The planners are reasoning that emissions from moving vehicles won’t stack up, as they do when traffic just sits idling its engines.
History is against them on this claim. Earlier “improvements” to Houston’s Katy freeway created the nation’s widest highway. Yet, it ended up increasing average commute times for roughly 85 percent of drivers who used the 23-lane road.
Studies around the US have consistently shown that the addition of new lanes leads to more traffic. Called induced demand, the phenomenon boils down to “build it and more will drive on it.
Insofar as the project aids and abets a car-centric culture, it is a climate matter. The transportation sector as a whole is the largest contributor of climate-warming emissions of greenhouse gases.
The destruction of the hundreds of houses and businesses to make room for the highway and its ramps is likely to force current residents to relocate further from the city in areas where public transportation becomes much more problematic for them.
The car-culture is also discriminatory in that the expense of owning a vehicle, e.g., purchase, maintenance, taxes, etc., takes a bigger bite out of incomes around the poverty line than those comfortably above it. Independence Heights residents would benefit more from public transportation—as would Houston.
What is happening to Independence Heights is not dissimilar to what poor nations—especially small island nations–are going through on the world stage. A poor community is being asked to take one for the team. The question is: in return for what?
TxDOT is well aware that the project is going to disproportionately harm the Independence Heights community as compared to other Houston neighborhoods. They’ve admitted as much in the impact statement.
What’s in it for residents now being displaced and those remaining in an area destined to become a shadow of itself? The answer is–next to nothing. There’s no talk of helping renters to find new homes at comparable rents or paying owners forced or wishing to sell the pre-project value of their properties. There are no plans to expand the public transit system so that workers, who no longer live as close to their jobs, will not have to purchase a car to get work.
Based on Houston’s own experience, as well as those of other cities, the new roads will soon be as clogged as the old ones. Worst of all, however, the problem of climate change will be made worse because nothing will have been done to decrease emissions. In essence, then, the community of Independence Heights is being sacrificed to enable the rest of society to continue doing what everyone knows is terrible for the planet. Is this not the very definition of injustice?
When Donald Trump speaks of energy security, he means that the US should not rely on foreign sources of gas and petroleum. For Trump, energy security is a reason to keep mining coal in Appalachia and opening federal lands, coastal waters, and Arctic Alaska to oil and gas exploration.
When Keesha Jones [iii}—who lives in Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood and is on public assistance—speaks of energy security, she means having enough money each month to pay her electric bill, without having to tell her children the cupboards are bare.
Keesha Jones is not alone. For the 40 million or more Americans living below the poverty line, who each month must decide between paying rent and feeding their families, the cost of energy is a disproportionate percentage of their monthly income as compared to higher-income individuals.
The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) has found that low-income metropolitan area households in 48 US cities devote up to three times as much [of their] income to energy costs as do wealthier families. (emphasis added)
According to their report:
Energy burdens were found to be greatest for low-income households in the following 10 major cities: Memphis (13.2 percent of income), Birmingham (10.9 percent), Atlanta (10.2 percent), New Orleans (9.8 percent), Providence (9.5 percent), Pittsburgh (9.4 percent), Dallas (8.8 percent), Philadelphia (8.8 percent), Kansas City (8.5 percent), and Cleveland (8.5 percent).
The current contagion has placed tremendous pressure on American households to stay healthy and economically solvent. For lower-income—and many middle-income—families able to stay financially upright before the pandemic, the health crisis has pushed them well-below federal poverty levels.
A May 2020 survey [iv] on the energy security of low-income households[v] in the time of COVID-19 by an Indiana University research team found that 13 percent of the respondents could not pay an energy bill during the prior month. It further found that nine percent received a shutoff notice, and four percent had their service disconnected. Moreover, 22 percent indicated that they had to reduce or forgo expenses for basic household needs, such as medicine or food, to pay an energy bill.
There is nothing new in the story of racial and economic inequality. It’s as old as society itself. Things are changing, however. In the midst of the current challenges of the COVID-19 contagion, the downturn of the US economy, and systemic racism, there are green shoots of better things to come. Proposed laws, like the Environmental Justice for All Act, are being drafted to take their rightful place as part of fair and comprehensive national climate defense plans. These plans are consistent with the concept of the Green New Deal and its promise of a just transition to a sustainable environment and economy.
Part 3 of this series will present and analyze several of the proposed environmental justice laws that have already been introduced into the US Congress. It will also offer an overview and commentary on the environmental justice plank of the Democratic platform as adopted at the Party’s 2020 virtual nominating convention that’s taking place this week.
Lead image: António Martins-Tuválkin
[i]U.S. EPA, 2019, Section 12.5.4.