Biden’s speech gave lip service to environmental justice but will it deliver for MN?

Lucas Ludwig via Unsplash

New Analysis

“We’ll create good jobs for millions of Americans, modernizing roads, airports, ports and waterways all across America,” President Biden said during his first State of the Union address on March 1. “And we’ll do it all to withstand the devastating effects of the climate crisis and promote environmental justice.” It was the first time a U.S. president has spoken explicitly of using environmental justice as a guiding ideology for their policy goals. 

The new infrastructure improvements will be funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which claims to address the large-scale degradation our natural world is seeing because of human consumption of throw-away plastics and fossil fuels, while also advancing environmental justice.

But what does it mean to be advancing environmental justice, and why is it significant that the president is talking about it in the State of the Union? 

Recognizing the harm

Advocates of environmental justice have roots going back to Cesar Chavez in the 1960s, who sought better working conditions for Latino farmhands by limiting their exposure to harmful pesticides, and other civil rights-era protests against the historically disproportionate amount of pollution poisoning low-income communities of color. 

These actions represent BIPOC communities putting their foot down and refusing to continue to be used as national dumping sites.

Heavily polluted Superfund sites, brownfield sites, abandoned mines and oil wells, chemical and hazardous waste dumps, even nuclear testing sites have all historically been placed near communities of color for the lack of concern for those communities’ welfare. Living close to such high levels of pollution has led, in large part, to historically disproportionate rates of ailments such as cancer.

Such sites, of which there are many in Minnesota, require years of investment to detoxify. But, progress is being made nationally and at home, where Superfund sites in South Minneapolis, the former grounds of a factory that produced arsenic-based pesticides, are just now beginning to heal. Even still, there is work to be done. 

Disproportionate impacts

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Department of Health released the Life and Breath report detailing the continued threat that air pollution poses for Minnesotans, contributing to nearly 10% of all deaths (1,600 people) in the metro area. Further, the report confirms that such life-threatening impacts disproportionately affect communities of color with low incomes, where people are also less likely to be insured.

To combat this reality, the environmental justice movement catalyzed in 1991, when leaders from every state, Puerto Rico, Chile, Mexico and the Marshall Islands came together for The First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. Together they laid out 17 Principles of Environmental Justice, which fundamentally changed which spaces are included when talking about “the environment” in a public policy context. They demanded that communities of color have an equal voice in determining the health outcomes of their populations. 

Lived spaces, both rural and urban, would now be seen as integral aspects of the environment—a shift from White environmental organizations that solely emphasized the protection of wilderness. 

Not only were social determinants of health, such as having access to education and good housing, finally being considered in the broader environmental movement, but the sacred relationship between communities of color and the Earth was being affirmed. 

This shift in thinking and strong-willed advocacy made visible the inequitable way that the costs of industry were being borne among America’s citizens. That this way of thinking has reached the highest office in the land and was laid as a guiding principle for current and future policy in one of the most important speeches in American politics is a huge accomplishment for environmental justice advocates. 

Executive Order calls for action

Changing thinking demands changing action, and Biden’s administration has been promoting environmental justice since their seventh day in office. On Jan. 27, 2021, Biden signed Executive Order (EO) 14008, “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad,” which details an impressive amount of substantive actions being taken by the federal government to address the disproportionate health impacts of pollution and climate change on disadvantaged communities. 

EO 14008 provides for the creation of a White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council, whose members include such powerful figures as the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General, and much of the sitting president’s cabinet. 

Additionally, the order asks that “all federal agencies develop programs, policies and activities to address the disproportionately high and adverse health, environmental, economic, climate and other cumulative impacts on communities that are marginalized, underserved and overburdened by pollution.” These actions will be recorded and released in an annual fact sheet. 

EO 14008 is part of Biden’s broader Justice40 Initiatives that seek to deliver to historically disadvantaged communities 40% of benefits from investments in social climate solutions, such as the development of affordable and sustainable housing currently being funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. 

How and when local advocates of environmental justice will see the impacts of these federal policy initiatives in Minnesota remains unclear, as providing exact implementation details is not a strength of America’s policy process. But the fact that such steps have already been taken and that so many powerful political figures are advocating for environmental justice is a huge step for the movement. 

Until such effects are felt, concerned Minnesotans can support the local environmental justice organizations, such as MN350. On March 23 from 6:30 to 8:30 pm, MN350’s policy action team will be unveiling at a virtual event their new climate action plan for Minneapolis—a plan that is part of a broader, resident-led movement to make the city a healthy and sustainable place for all to live.

Benjamin Velani welcomes reader responses to bvelani@cornellsun.com.