How Big of a Deal Is Biden's Justice40 Initiative?

Alina Gonzalez

Aug. 9, 2021

In his first week of office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order, "Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad," that responds to climate change with an emphasis on environmental justice. Notably, the order creates a government-wide "Justice40 initiative," which sets a goal for disadvantaged communities most impacted by climate change and pollution to receive at least 40 percent of overall benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy.

In attempts to provide key foundational principles for the initiative, the White House recently released a draft guidance document that details how federal agencies should advance the programs covered by the Justice40 Initiative. While the interim guidance provides some direction for the scope of the initiative, the commitment to direct 40 percent of spending to disadvantaged communities is not so straightforward.

The hope of Justice40 is that frontline communities, the ones most burdened by climate change and fossil fuel production, will directly benefit from funds that are meant to improve programs and policies in their communities. But advocates and policymakers will need to be vigilant to ensure the Justice40 initiative doesn't become another repeat of history caused by the government's failure to follow through on its commitments.

In an interview this past July, Maxine Burkett, a former CPR Member Scholar and current senior advisor with the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate at the State Department, voiced the importance of history as part of our socio-political landscape, noting that "each community's level of preparedness is uneven…[and] it is felt and experienced differently because of background vulnerabilities or exposure to system failures that aren't accidental, but rather are the result of intent or neglect."

To this end, Justice40 is pivotal, and questions remain, including: How much money will flow into the program, and where will the benefits be distributed and how? To help shape the answers, the journal Environmental Justice released a set of questions asking for policymakers, advocates, and scholars to weigh in on the matter to ensure environmental justice is front and center.

If done right, the funds for the projects can reduce inequality by making sure that benefits flow to disadvantaged communities and lead to a reduction in local pollution, stimulate job growth for low-wealth families, and strengthen the resilience of communities facing climate-related hazards.

Recommendations for policy change and reform

Identify disadvantaged communities. Are these simply low-income communities? Communities of color? Or are they communities unprepared to face the impacts of climate change? To be effective, the federal government needs to know the communities it intends to serve. While the EPA has a screening and mapping tool, known as EJSCREEN, it is out of date. For this reason, Justice40 calls for the development of an environmental justice screening tool that will identify disadvantaged communities, support the Justice40 initiative, and drive equitable decision-making across agencies and sectors.

We urge the Biden administration to look at California's environmental justice tool, CalEnviroScreen, as a model to identify disadvantaged communities and ultimately serve as a guide to update EPA's EJSCREEN. CalEnvioScreen (updated to Draft Version 4.0 as of February 2021) identifies disadvantaged communities by using data on 21 indicators of pollution burdens, environmental quality, public health conditions, and socioeconomic status, to produce a score for every census tract in the state. Thus, an environmental justice screening tool that uses a combined score can be useful to assess which communities face the greatest climate impacts. Underscoring this point, CPR's Darya Minovi writes that when it comes to environmental justice screening and other assessments, it is essential for the EPA to incorporate cumulative impacts in its decision-making process.

Implement equity measures. An equitable approach means meeting the needs of communities through policies and programs that reduce disparities in terms of income, race, and decision-making power. Policies and tools such as carbon capture and sequestration generate a significant amount of skepticism and even outright opposition, as research shows it may not be effective in combating climate change. Rather, policies should be directed toward renewable technologies that are proven to combat climate change, such as renewable energy and energy efficiency. In this way, equitable measures can be put into place that will benefit the public health of communities in the long term.

Most importantly, equity in practice means not only reducing air pollution, but also strengthening economic opportunity. To put low-income communities and communities of color at the forefront of environmental justice, governments at every level must implement the following equity measures: employment opportunities related to clean energy, investments in local business and development, and renewable energy and energy efficiency programs in local communities.

Include local community participation. To advance environmental justice, decision-making power must be shared with the local community on how to deliver programs and services and ensure that accountability and transparency are front and center. This includes receiving input and feedback from local environmental justice groups.

In a 2019 blog post, CPR senior policy analyst James Goodwin highlighted the importance of public participation in decision-making processes, arguing that the U.S. regulatory system is structurally racist. He notes, "Key institutions and procedures throughout the rulemaking process contribute to structural racism in our society, resulting in policies that exacerbate racial injustice and inequity." To address this, Goodwin proposes a creative solution to making policy-relevant information available to everyone. That is: Inviting members of the public to express their views on pending rules through an art-based framework with the goal of re-democratizing the rulemaking process. Ultimately, the public's role in decision-making processes is important, especially frontline communities who suffer the harms of inequity.

The Biden administration has the opportunity to make meaningful and significant changes that will aid the economic development and public health of frontline communities, and these recommendations can help the president and the executive branch do just that.

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