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20th Anniversary of Environmental Justice Milestone: What Next?

By Cecilia Martinez
February 10, 2014
Justice Should Be Central To U.S. Climate and Energy Policy
Feb 11th, 2014 is the twentieth anniversary of Executive Order 12898: Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations. The Executive Order was the result of a long history of struggle by Indigenous, communities of color, and frontline communities. Many who were active in the movement continue to lead efforts to keep justice and equity at the top of the environmental agenda. While the Executive Order was a critical milestone –– symbolizing official acknowledgement of environmental racism and the disproportionate impact that frontline Indigenous, communities of color and low-income communities face from toxic pollution — there is still much work to do.

Thankfully, President Obama acknowledged the importance of climate change on the national political agenda in both his Inaugural Address and in the State of the Union. Since then, a national climate action plan has been introduced. Making climate change a policy priority is critical. In their offensive against science (and just plain old common sense), a block of business and political climate nay-sayers have been too effective in obstructing a U.S. climate change policy. Unless we address this national failure to act, the future for our children will be more devastating than the zealous claims of fiscal doom.

The environmental justice movement has a long and proud history of working to create healthy environmental and economic opportunities for all our communities, not just a privileged few. We believe it is time for our political leaders to pursue a strong and comprehensive environmental program – a program that simultaneously addresses climate change, protects community health, creates meaningful work, and eliminates the racial inequality that is this nation’s legacy.

Our economy’s recovery is too slow for our most vulnerable, and those who are the last to experience positive change. Our global environment is at greater risk than ever before and the consequences are only getting worse. Racial and wealth inequality continue to erode the very fabric of our democracy and environment. Therefore, many in the environmental justice movement have formed national coalitions to advocate for a real and just sustainable policy agenda. No more wartime metaphors for peacetime environmental and economic programs – no more “Wars” on Poverty or Drugs, and no Manhattan Projects for renewable energy. Instead, we believe we need to cultivate the best in all of us to deal with the most critical planetary threat – climate change.

As people who are on the ground in frontline communities, environmental justice workers know what needs to change. Environmental policies must be predicated on the fundamental principle that our environment should command our respect; and that all people must have the right as expressed in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to free, prior and informed consent before projects which can damage the health and vitality of their community are legally permitted.

It is for this reason that we – environmental justice advocates – call on President Obama, Congress and larger environmental organizations to join us in our work. What does this mean? It means that EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy must have a proficient understanding, knowledge andcommitment to the issues and conditions of environmental justice communities. It means all federal agencies as well as state and local agencies must commit to the continued integration of environmental justice into environmental policies and prioritize the integration of environmental justice in cross-agency, cross-departmental initiatives to ensure adequate green investments in over-burdened and over-polluted communities. It means that environmental organizations need to be more democratic and responsive to environmental justice concerns. It means that the Department of Energy needs to work with environmental justice communities – at local, state, tribal and federal levels –on issues of harmful pollution from energy industries, the reduction of greenhouse gas and toxic emissions, and, the construction of alternative green infrastructure. It means that both the public sector and environmental organizations must adopt a strong commitment to addressing climate change and community health. And it means that we need to also shift our national agenda from what is easiest to achieve, the so called low-hanging fruit, to one that ensures that vulnerable communities have the same rights to healthy, economically viable and environmentally sound neighborhoods as the wealthy.

We ask the question, what if we could raise ourselves to act in accordance with our highest ideals? If the ideals of justice and democracy are our guides then it is possible to work together to create initiatives that restore our ecosystems; reduce the devastating pollution impacts on our children; build water conservation projects; establish local and community-based energy projects; and, commence zero waste programs and public transportation projects. We need federal investment in these public sector jobs to restore and revive our natural and human resource base. The time is now.

With these policy actions, this country can change for the better. And with our hard work, together we can move this nation forward in its most important peacetime endeavor – saving our planet, putting people to work, and reducing inequality. Indigenous Peoples, the environmental justice community, communities of color, and a broad sector of our population have been working on these goals for many, many, generations.

Bottom line, environmental Justice must be, at the center of the nation’s energy and environmental policy agenda.