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Making Sure Climate Justice Dollars Reach Those Most Impacted

March 17, 2022

Billions of federal dollars coming from climate and clean energy programs are committed to going towards disadvantaged communities across the nation. The big question is – how will these dollars actually reach the people and communities who need them the most? The great news is that a data-based national screening tool has been developed to help Federal agencies guide these dollars. 

The White House launched a beta version of the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST) which will be used to direct investments and guide the implementation of President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative. 

The White House Justice40 Initiative

In January, thanks to a Presidential Executive Order, Justice40 was launched.  It is a historic whole-of-government commitment to delivering at least 40% of overall federal climate and clean energy benefits to disadvantaged communities.

The Executive Order states, in part:

President Biden is committed to securing environmental justice and spurring economic opportunity for disadvantaged communities that have been historically marginalized and overburdened by pollution and underinvestment in housing, transportation, water and wastewater infrastructure, and health care.

The Justice40 Initiative is a critical part of the Administration’s whole-of-government approach to advancing environmental justice.

Justice40’s impact could take many forms. For example:

  • Creating community resilience plans to address the needs of disadvantaged communities.
  • Providing access to affordable electric vehicle charging stations and purchase programs.
  • Increasing participation of people from disadvantaged communities in clean energy job training (and more).

As we know, the devil is in the details, and the success of Justice40 will be defined by the intricacies and complexities associated with the details of its implementation. Since its conception, White House leaders have been hard at work defining the three unique components of Justice40. They seek answers to the following questions:

  1. What is considered a climate “benefit”?
  2. What government programs and investments does the initiative apply to?
  3. How are “disadvantaged” communities defined and identified?

The White House has released interim guidance to answer the first two questions, with finalized guidance forthcoming.

For the past year, the Council on Environmental Quality has been tackling the third and arguably trickiest variable in these questions, what communities will be considered “disadvantaged”. The result was the development of the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool. Based on the groundwork laid by California’s CalEnviroScreen, the tool includes 21 different environmental, health, and socioeconomic indicators to characterize census tracts.

Right off the bat, important considerations arise with the most obvious being the exclusion of race as an indicator in the tool. Given the fact that race is the number one predictor of whether you live near a polluting facility, this is a critical area for the public to scrutinize to ensure accurate representation of their communities.

However, this exclusion isn’t unheard of and isn’t necessarily surprising due to the threat of legal challenges. In fact, CalEnviroScreen itself does not include race for these same reasons. Yet another example of this can be seen following the passage of the American Rescue Plan, which promised $4 billion in debt forgiveness to thousands of Black and socially disadvantaged farmers. But, as the New York Times reports, due to lawsuits claiming discrimination by white farmers, debt relief has been stalled ever since.

That being said, the Federal Government can and should take actions to verify their claim that they can still prioritize communities of color using other metrics – specifically, a race analysis (like this one modeled by CalEnviroScreen) would provide much-needed intel.

Another central area of concern is that the tool does not consider the cumulative effects of the different indicators, instead analyzing the factors in isolation and relying heavily on income data to characterize a community’s burden. This does not recognize the very real truth that sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and not always in a good way. In this case, environmental, health, and socioeconomic factors often combine to lead to a much heavier burden on a community than each indicator alone would report.

So how can you help to make sure the tool paints a whole and accurate picture of our country?

While we work on analyzing the tool’s metrics and methodologies and bringing ideas for improvements to the attention of the CEQ, we need you to explore the tool for yourself and ensure that it’s representing your community correctly. 

Getting this tool right is the key to the successful implementation of Justice40. Together, we can ensure this historic initiative actually makes a difference and that the communities that are being hit first and worst by the effects of pollution and climate change are not being helped last and least.

Bella Goñi
Policy Analyst
Green For All Team 

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