This installment of the series is about a different kind of justice — the sort that recognizes the disproportionately harmful consequences of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on low-income communities, native nations and people of color compared to the rest of society.
It can be easy to overlook the impact of climate change on low-income families and communities. I say this not in judgement or with malice; it is after all, what it is. That it is, means we need to do something about it.
I count myself among those too glib—too glossing—in describing the consequences of climate change. Having been a legal services attorney and community organizer in Chicago, I should be ever sensitive to and understanding of the fact that low-income populations regularly get the dirty end of the stick.
Yet, as a clean energy and environmental advocate, I speak of the cost of pollution and the benefits of clean energy as if they impact all equally. They don’t.
According to a recent Newsweek article:
…more than 15 percent of Detroit’s adults have asthma, a 29 percent higher rate than the rest of Michigan. Detroiters are hospitalized for their asthma three times more frequently than other Michiganders.
Being black ups the rate significantly: Black Detroiters are hospitalized for asthma at a rate more than 150 percent that of their white neighbors—and Detroit is 83 percent black. Most of the mini-cities ringed around the heavy industry south of Detroit are majority-black too.
Poverty compounds the problem—it’s not easy managing a chronic illness when you’re making $24,000 a year, the average household income for black Detroit households.
The Detroit experience is unfortunately all too common.
Environmental Justice Provisions in Federal Programs and Regulation
Environmental injustice has long been recognized by the federal government. President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898 in 1994. The Order (EO) directs:
… federal agencies to make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high adverse human health or environmental effects of its activities on minority and low-income populations.
The Order remains in force after 22 years. Implementation of its directive can be found in a number of energy and environmental programs and regulations. The recently announced White House Clean Energy Savings for All Initiative is an example of an action that flows from it.
The Initiative is a partnership between the Departments of Energy (DOE), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Agriculture (USDA), Health and Human Services (HHS), Veteran’s Affairs (VA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to increase access to solar energy and promote energy efficiency across the U.S. and, in particular, in low- and moderate-income communities.
The Order similarly serves as the executive authority upon which EPA’s Environmental Justice 2020 strategy is based. According to the Agency the strategy is intended to “make vulnerable, environmentally burdened, and economically disadvantaged communities healthier, cleaner and more sustainable places in which to live, work, play and learn.”
Environmental justice (EJ) is incorporated into the Clean Power Plan (CPP) under the title of The Clean Energy Incentive Program (CEIP). The CEIP, is a voluntary program, designed to encourage investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency and to help states and tribes meet their CPP targets.
The proffered carrots include granting demand-side efficiency projects and solar, wind and other eligible renewable energy installations extra credits. Participating states/tribes will also be allowed to count projects in targeted low-income/tribal communities in advance of the CPP’s regular performance period.
Implementation of the CEIP, like the CPP, is currently stayed pending a final court decision on the constitutionality of the regulation. EPA, however, is still actively seeking input into the program’s design. Currently, the comment period will remain open until Nov. 1.
There Are Two Overlapping But Distinct Types of Environmental Justice
Procedural justice refers to the fairness of decision making. Procedural justice pertains in this case to the current rounds of comments being solicited by the EPA on the CEIP.
The key question here is whether the commenting process has been: fair; open; transparent; and earnest. Whether or not these activities lead to substantive changes in the program’s design is of secondary importance.
Distributive justice on the other hand refers to the distribution of benefits and burdens that result from policy or regulatory implementation. Here the question is: does the regulation/program improve the health and welfare of low-income and native communities and people of color?
Included in this type of calculation are attendant economic benefits. For example, does the program lower utility costs and/or offer employment and training opportunities? This as compared to an income transfer between government and a utility or retrofit measures installed largely by companies outside of the community.
When Does Energy/Environmental Value Equate to Social Value?
Within the CPP/CEIP framework, efficiency measures and renewable energy installations are valued for their carbon reduction roles regardless of any other social, health, economic or distributive criterion. Carbon reductions achieved through this type of value system are monetized through the carbon trading market.
Under a carbon only regiment no distinction is made between energy used/saved for luxury amenities versus basic living needs. There is effectively no value difference between heating a swimming pool and a community solar project, incorporating a workforce training requirement, or an efficiency retrofit that reduces a resident’s monthly utility bill. Carbon is carbon.
Environmental equity allows for geographical differences and strives to meet other endpoints, e.g., improving the health of low-income residents and offering economic opportunities. Shuttering a coal-fired power plant in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula generally benefits society but does little to remove the proximate harm to the health of a Detroit resident living near a fossil fuel generating station or an open coal ash storage site.
Shuttering one of the 52 toxic facilities in the city of River Rouge—a heavily industrialized area close to Detroit—would both reduce pollution and remove a source of particulates known to cause asthma in Detroit residents. Similarly, the installation of a community solar project in Detroit’s Delray earns Michigan extra CEIP/CPP credits because of zero emissions.
When environmental justice is added to the mix, however, that same solar project would be leveraged to achieve more than avoided carbon. The project would also include a workforce development component, e.g., a training program for laid-off auto workers.
The moral of today’s story is one that I have written about before. Energy and environmental policies are of greatest benefit when formulated at the nexus with other societal concerns.
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.