When the White House unveiled the beta version of its Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool in mid-February, it was met with harsh criticism from environmental justice advocates: A mapping tool used to identify disadvantaged communities neglected to use race as a criterion.
The screening tool, when completed, will govern President Biden’s Justice40 initiative, which requires that at least 40% of federal investments in climate protection and clean energy benefit neighborhoods and communities that the administration has described as “marginalized, underserved and overburdened.” are due to pollution”.
The Justice40 screener operates at the census district level and sets vulnerability thresholds in eight categories. In general, when a community performs better than an economic one and environmental threshold in one or more categories, this will be given priority in federal funding.
But race never takes into account the calculus of the tool, an omission contrary to science. It turns out that the number one predictor of whether you live dangerously close to a polluting facility is race. Income is important, but usually the second best indicator. For example, middle-income black neighborhoods are often at greater risk than low-income white neighborhoods.
Justice40’s screening tool would no doubt be more accurate if race were taken into account. Still, it’s a solid start, and California’s experience shows how to use it and improve upon it.
First, why did the Biden administration dodge the race?
An official on the White House Environmental Quality Council addressed this head on: “We want to make sure that this instrument is legally permanent,” he told reporters. Using race as a criterion for distributing federal funds could make the instrument — and Justice40’s efforts — contestable on constitutional grounds.
California, of course, has seen this film before. In 2013, the state released its first proprietary environmental justice screening tool, which is now recognized as the first in its class among that effort. Like the Justice40 tool, CalEnviroScreen does not explicitly include race in its indicators. The passage of Proposition 209 in 1996, an anti-affirmative action measure, made race considerations a legal no-go for the state, whether for determining college admissions or targeting climate investments.
Nonetheless, California’s climate investment program has been largely successful in targeting communities hardest hit by redlining and other racist practices that have concentrated dangers in some neighborhoods and facilities in others. According to a state analysis released in October, the mean CalEnviroScreen priority ratings for black and Hispanic Californians are twice as high as for white residents.
The government screening tool calculates its results based on proxy measures such as proximity to unsafe locations and levels of air pollution and differences in baby birth weights and rates of heart disease and asthma, as well as demographic information, including income levels, housing costs and ” linguistic isolation”.
The result: California has spent more than $4.5 billion on environmental justice projects — affordable near-transit housing, tree planting, expanded transit services, renewable energy initiatives — in priority communities predominantly populated by people of color.
The Biden administration closely modeled the Justice40 screening tool on California’s approach. It takes into account similar factors that identify communities of color, but its thresholds can be too restrictive.
For example, climate website Grist analyzed how the national tool would treat a specific census district — 6603 — in San Bernardino County. The tool ranks this neighborhood — which, according to 2020 census data, is 92% composed of people of color — above the 90th percentile for exposure to particulate matter and diesel pollution. However, his income level, while low, is too high to afford the cut to fund Justice40. A neighboring county with essentially the same extreme exposures but a slightly lower income level would qualify. Both communities breathe the same foul air, but only one would get federal aid.
This type of near miss is burned into every screening tool. But California’s tool seems to work better — the scores of the two tracts are similar. Additionally, when California acknowledged such injustices in CalEnviroScreen, it added a rule to its climate investment program: A portion of state funds must go not only to the community flagged by the screening tool, but also to low-income neighborhoods within a half-mile radius.
And here’s another challenge California has addressed: A screening tool, regardless of its criteria or rules, can only identify where aid should go. It cannot remove the systemic barriers that might prevent the poorest neighborhoods from benefiting from this aid. To do this, local governments and communities must be empowered to design effective programs, successfully apply for the available grants, and hold the system accountable.
California’s solution was direct government investment in “capacity building” programs to help priority communities leverage available environmental justice funds.
The national Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool is still under development. The instrument – and justice40 – can and should be strengthened. And to address the concerns of environmental justice advocates, it should do what California did: compare the communities the tool identifies as disadvantaged side-by-side with data that includes race and ethnicity.
race matters. A lot of. And we cannot shy away from it if we want real, transformative change. But with so much at stake, we can argue about racial justice and continue to push for a successful implementation of Justice40 to make the promise of climate justice come true.
Alvaro Sanchez is Vice President for Policy at the Greenlining Institute in Oakland. Manuel Pastor is a professor of sociology and director of the Equity Research Institute at USC.
https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-03-18/race-environmental-justice-justice40-screening-tool-joe-biden-california Op-Ed: How can the White House fix environmental injustice if it doesn’t take race into account?