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Biden Needs to Make Good on Environmental Justice Promises

We need him to take urgent action to curb the global climate crisis and to restore justice for communities impacted by air, water and land polluters.

A participant holding a sign at the climate march. A coalition of climate, Indigenous and racial justice groups gathered at Columbus Circle to kick off Climate Week with the Climate Justice Through Racial Justice march.

A participant holding a sign at the climate march. A coalition of climate, Indigenous and racial justice groups gathered at Columbus Circle to kick off Climate Week with the Climate Justice Through Racial Justice march. (Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

After four years of an administration that seemed not only indifferent but actively hostile to questions of environmental justice (EJ), the prospect of a Biden administration carries the hope of a long-needed course correction. 

Indeed President-Elect Joe Biden’s nomination of Michael Regan to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) for secretary of Interior is an encouraging sign that his administration is prioritizing the voices of the populations who are most in need of serious attention and aggressive action on some of the most important environmental challenges our nation faces. 

"Much difficult work remains to be done if the concerns of frontline and at-risk communities are to be truly prioritized with forging and implementing equitable environmental policies."

It is well-known that communities of color have been disproportionately affected by our federal government’s lack of action to solve ongoing environmental problems including climate change, land degradation, regional pollution and environmental discrimination. A 2018 EPA study found that people of color and people living in poverty were more likely to live near air-polluting facilities. Coastal areas in the U.S. have higher percentages of Black, Latino and Asian populations and are also at higher risk of the consequences of human-induced climate changes, such as rising sea levels and extreme weather events.

In order to effectively tackle these urgent issues, Biden needs to put together an environmental team that not only has the expertise to address those challenges, but that also understands the consequences of their actions on diverse constituencies across the nation. He is off to a fine start in that regard: the first Indigenous cabinet secretary has been nominated to lead the department responsible for our nation’s magnificent natural resource — and one with a long, often-dismal history with our tribal communities. At the same time, a Black man is, for the first time, likely to head an agency whose success is essential for the health and thriving of frontline communities across the country. And a Pakistani immigrant, Ali Zaidi, will help lead a newly formed domestic climate office to help coordinate an all-of-government response to this existential crisis.

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To be sure, racial and EJ are not easily solved simply by selecting the right number of people of color into an administration. They require a deeper commitment to making equity, transparency and accountability critical elements of your larger mission. It means empowering a diverse group of team members with decision-making responsibilities. And it means being comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations with outside advocates about your progress. The appointments of Regan, Haaland, Zaidi and others on Biden’s team are an encouraging start. Still, much difficult work remains to be done if the concerns of frontline and at-risk communities are to be truly prioritized with forging and implementing equitable environmental policies.

The incoming Biden administration could learn a lot from what environmental advocacy organizations experienced in 2020. With a national spotlight on the topic of racial equity triggered by the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, a number of environmental organizations had to wrestle with their racist histories and address accusations of racial discrimination. They are a reminder that despite the many assurances and commitments to diversity and inclusion our movement makes, nothing speaks louder than action and results.

And that’s exactly what we need from Biden at this moment. We need him to follow through on his promises to root out systemic racism when it comes to our nation’s environmental policy. We need him to appoint environmental leaders of color throughout his administration — from top to bottom. We need him to take urgent action to curb the global climate crisis and to restore justice for communities impacted by air, water and land polluters. 

In 2021, we have the opportunity to make real progress on all the critical environmental issues before us, but only if we work together.

Varshini Prakash

Varshini Prakash is the executive director and co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led organization working to stop climate change and take back democracy from Big Oil.

Andrés Jimenez

Andrés Jimenez is executive director of Green 2.0.

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