By: Maria Hodge

As the upcoming 2020 election cycle approached, one issue in particular that is being addressed by democratic primary candidates is environmental justice.  According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, 84 percent of democratic voters believe that climate change is an international emergency.  Furthermore, failures in mitigating environmental hazards, such as the contamination of the municipal water system in Flint, Michigan have brought the inequities of environmental response into the forefront of public discussion, and encouraged democratic primary candidates to take active positions in this issue.

This commentary seeks to identify the law, regulations, and policies associated with the environmental justice movement, and highlight the positions of the candidates based on these policies.

First, what is environmental justice? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”  Environmental justice is similar to issues such as climate change and global warming but is distinguished because it takes disproportionate socioeconomic impact of environmental issues into account when seeking solutions.

Second, what are the laws, regulations, and policies that support environmental justice?  Examples of federal environmental justice policies include executive orders signed by the Obama Administration.  This includes Executive Order 13514 signed in 2009, created sustainability goals for agencies, overseen by the Office of the Federal Environmental Executive.

Later, the “Memorandum of Understanding on Environmental Justice and Executive Order 12898” (MOU EJ), signed by seventeen government agencies in 2011, outlines the areas of focus for federal environmental justice activities.  The guiding principles of this initiative include creating and implementing meaningful public partnerships, ensuring coordination between agencies, and establishing and implementing accountability measures. This culminated in the Environmental Justice 2020 Action Agenda, published in May, 2016.

Examples of legislative policies include the Environmental Justice Act of 2017, which was reintroduced in 2019 and the Green New Deal. Examples of International policies include the Paris Climate Agreement, and reports from organizations such as the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Finally, what are the Democratic primary candidate’s views of these policies and what additionally do they propose? To answer this question, it is necessary to limit the scope of this article to those select candidates who are most viable.  While the overall viability of a candidate is somewhat difficult to determine due to widely varying polls, only views of the candidates who have qualified as of November 8th, 2019 for the next Democratic Debate will be discussed.

Senator Bernie Sanders’ platform also indicates strong supports for the Green New Deal, in conjunction with other environmental justice principles, such as equitable job training, and equal enforcement of environmental regulations.

Vice President Joe Biden’s platform clearly states his support for the environmental justice, while also failing to specify specific initiatives.  Major goals include restricting pollution in low income communities, investing in a clean energy revolution and rolling back tax incentives for corporations.

Senator Cory Booker is perhaps the strongest candidate on this issue, notably due to his sponsorship of the Environmental Justice Act of 2019.  This bill specifically directs the government to address the disproportionate environmental impacts on minority populations through agency cooperation, fair enforcement of current regulations and informational campaigns. He was also one of the original cosponsors of the Green New Deal.

Senator Booker’s campaign is also notable in that it offers specific proposals related to environmental justice, such as the creation of the United States Environmental Justice Fund (EJ Fund), which seeks to invest in those communities hurt most by climate change, remove lead from our daily environments, providing access to adequate plumbing, clean up Superfund sites and abandoned mines.  This list is not exhaustive and there has been some criticism; however, it shows that he has a detailed plan for tackling this issue, centered mostly around holding corporate polluters responsible for their actions.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg supports environmental justice as a step in his Douglas plan, which seeks to dismantle racist structures and systems designed to suppress Black Americans.  Specific actions include bolstering the EPA and other agencies and directing them to address environmental justice in its regulations. Support for public health initiatives is also encouraged, as the effects of pollution are most often felt by poorer individuals living in vulnerable communities.  There is no clear mention of the Green New Deal or any other pending legislation.

Senator Tulsi Gabbard’s platform indicates no clear stance on environmental justice.  It does include her stances on issues faced by specific vulnerable minority community, such as the Sioux Tribe and the Dakota Access Pipe Line, and the problematic location of fuel stored in Hawaii.  However, it is clear that Senator Gabbard has no comprehensive stances on environmental justice issues beyond her general solutions to climate change.

Senator Kamala Harris has publicly stated her support for the Green New Deal, and has announced the Clean Equity Act, which seeks to hold government institutions accountable to vulnerable frontline communities that are most at risk. This bill has received some criticism however, as it fails to provide concrete legislative solutions to the issues.  On Senator Harris’ website, there is mention of her plan, a Climate Plan For The People, which includes supporting the Paris Agreement climate goals, and achieving 100 percent carbon-neutral electricity.

Senator Amy Klobuchar has stated her support for the Green New Deal, the Paris International Climate Agreement, and the Clean Power Plan, however her campaign platform does little to address environmental justice issues.  The only mention of environmental justice is from her Climate Crisis Plan, which indicates her intent to fund the EPA’s Environmental Justice Grants, Funding and Technical Assistance and Office of Civil Rights. Overall, there is plenty mentioned about her support of more generalized climate change initiatives.  However, this does not address how they will protect low income and minorities communities, who are disproportionally impacted by the effects of climate change.

Tom Steyer’s campaign platform includes the NextGen Climate super PAC, which will spend about $100 million in support of pro-climate change candidates in an effort to influence pivotal races that will impact climate change. His website details his Justice-Centered Climate Plan, which focuses on curtailing corporate pollution, and developing clean, affordable infrastructure and transportation systems.

Senator Elizabeth Warren’s comprehensive platform clearly supports the Green New Deal, NEPA, and hopes to rebuild the EPA.  In addition, Senator Warren clearly supports environmental justice initiatives, and proposes assisting venerable communities financially in the hopes that stable and resilient communities can more effectively combat the effects of climate change.

Andrew Yang has clearly stated climate goals on his campaign website, including a 5-pronged plan, and supports the Green New Deal, there is no clear statement in support of environmental justice or similar initiatives.

In conclusion, although it seems that most of the candidate have clear statements on climate change, they address environmental justice to varying degrees of specificity.  Some candidates like Vice President Biden and Andrew Yang present broad proposals with very few clarifying details.  Other candidates, like Senator Booker, Mayor Buttigieg, and Senator Warren, have specific environmental plans that address inequality and provide tangible solutions in the form of legislative proposals, agency directives, and support for international agreements.