When I first read about the Green New Deal a few years ago, I couldn't understand why Democrats would want to combine legislation attempting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with measures to reform social inequities. From a political standpoint, it seemed like they were just doubling their chances of failure by joining economic and racial inequity issues with the already-controversial work of trying to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels. From a practical standpoint, it seemed messy and complicated to try to combine the two issues.
I also thought that if Congress is going to focus on one or the other, it should try to resolve the climate crisis first, because that is an immediate problem that could help prevent some of the continuing inequities caused by the consequences of a warming climate, like larger and more frequent natural disasters, shrinking shorelines and health impacts from pollution. It just didn't make any sense to me why Congress should be tackling two very different issues in the same piece of legislation. I'm embarrassed to admit it now, but I mostly felt that the social ills should be addressed separately—and later—once our CO2 emissions are under control.
Since the Green New Deal's emergence, I've been seeing and hearing a lot more about environmental justice, climate justice and climate equity. It's coming up in the news, and in meetings I cover as an environmental reporter.
Most recently, it came up in a big way at the 11th Northwest Climate Conference. In opening remarks, Jason Vogel, deputy director of the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group, said he asked all speakers to think about their work through the lens of climate justice. And for three days, speakers touched on it over a variety of presentations. It was also the main subject of the conference's keynote address by Vicki Arroyo, EPA's associate administrator for policy, and the topic of a morning plenary and four separate sessions. Here was my opportunity, I figured, to really dive in and understand what environmental justice is all about.
I wanted to share some of what I heard because climate equity measures are being incorporated into many of our policies, and environmental justice promises to play an even bigger role in the future as those policies are implemented. This week alone, environmental justice has come up a few times in my day-to-day coverage. It was a decision topic at the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, where my colleague, Dan Catchpole, has been following the ongoing conversation about whether and how a policy on diversity, equity and inclusion will be incorporated into the next power plan.
It came up during a Columbia Riverkeeper webinar on May 3 on toxic waste at Bonneville Dam's Bradford Island, where Columbia Basin tribes can no longer use fishing platforms due to the extreme toxicity of the fish there.
And on May 4, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) raised the issue of environmental justice—and the duty to uphold treaties with tribes—as one of his reasons for supporting a plan by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) to breach the four lower Snake River dams.
I was unable to listen in on any of the climate justice sessions during the actual conference, but since then I have gone back and listened to each of them. I must say, it's given me a new perspective on a topic that I still only partly understand.
A panel of speakers at the May 7 plenary session talked about getting involved in environmental justice work because of the issue of climate change and how it's affecting the places they call home.
This was deeply personal to them, from the devastating cyclones in India to the continuing droughts in California. They talked about how inequities have led to a lack of trust, and they talked about why climate change will have a bigger impact on many of the problems that disadvantaged communities already face, such as housing costs and increased health risks that make them less resilient and less able to prepare or respond.
"Climate justice necessitates that we look at climate change with an intersectional lens, and recognize that all of our struggles are interconnected, and that climate change is a threat multiplier that will make existing inequities worse," said Jamie Stroble, commission co-chair for the King County Climate Equity Task Force.
"This is about transforming relationships," she continued. "It's about changing power dynamics and bringing those who historically and currently don't have as much access to power or resources, and are the most impacted, to be able to come to that decision-making table and have the ownership and decision-making authority, and to be able to inform how we move forward on this,"
Stroble said building a case to include climate justice in government policies is challenging, but the resulting policies will be better when developed by those who are most impacted.
In many other discussions, representatives from Northwest tribes discussed the direct impacts from climate change on their families and their tribes, from massive wildfires that are destroying reservation lands to the loss of traditional foods, including salmon.
In one session about the City of Seattle's work to incorporate environmental justice, Ronda Strauch, climate change research and adaptation advisor for Seattle City Light, talked about what policy changes might look like for electric utilities. She noted that Washington's Clean Energy Transformation Act is not just about transforming energy to address climate change; it's also about making the transition so that the benefits of change are equitable.
Strauch said a standard model for how electric utilities operate was developed with the goal of keeping the lights on. However, electric utilities now have a much more complex role in their communities and in addressing climate change, she noted. Seattle City Light has refocused on putting the customers first as they become involved in creating a carbon-free future and making sure the changes don't add to existing inequities.
"We all know how marginalized communities are most harmed and least responsible. So, our response to climate change could cause further harm and inactions could preclude justice," she said.
Climate change brings new challenges to the electric utilities with events such as wildfires, storms, heat waves, and new energy sources that need to be incorporated and distributed.
"Often, we focus on physical impacts of climate change—the data and research, shoring up our energy systems—which is all good, but are we leaving people behind?" she asked. "Are our solutions equitable, not just equal? These investments cost money, but we want to avoid raising rates for those least able to pay for those."
Strauch said Seattle City Light's actions affect jobs, housing affordability, the environment, health, culture and communities.
"We're wrestling with this, and thinking, how do we transform to a clean energy economy equitably, without leaving people behind? We fail if we fail to recognize and explicitly address poverty inequities in our utility actions," she said. "We fail if we fail to bring in and listen to the voices, and to consider others in our decision-making processes. It's not just about the kilowatt-hours. We need to address both climate justice and social justice."
There's a lot of momentum around these issues right now, and CETA is far from the only policy on the books that incorporates environmental justice and climate equity measures. A few recent reports mentioned at the conference include Puget Sound Sage's "Powering the Transition" report, outlining how to consider social issues as we transition away from fossil fuels; and Washington's Environmental Justice Task Force final report with recommendations for prioritizing environmental justice in state government.
And, the issue is being addressed in many other states and at the national level. I can see my education has only just begun.
Environmental justice [defined by the Washington Environmental Justice Task Force] is "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, natural origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies. This includes using an intersectional lens to address disproportionate environmental and health impacts by prioritizing highly impacted populations, equitably distributing resources and benefits, and eliminating harm."
Climate justice [defined by the King County Strategic Climate Action Plan] is "the application of racial, environmental, social, and economic justice to climate response, which recognizes the continued legacy of systems of oppression and environmental exploitation. This shift in approach widens the focus from reducing greenhouse gases and addressing climate impacts to include, at its heart, the leadership of people and communities most vulnerable to climate impacts. Achieving climate justice means creating a just, healthy, sustainable future for everyone that recognizes economic, political, social, and civil rights."
Climate equity [defined by the King Count Strategic Climate Action Plan] "ensures that all people have access and opportunity to benefit from climate solutions, while not bearing an unequal burden of the impacts of climate change. This requires a holistic approach to equity in climate work that divides the burden of responding to climate change amongst those who contribute the most to the issue, while sharing the opportunities and benefits that equitable climate action presents with those that are most impacted."