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Where the candidates stand on environmental justice

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Making polluters pay for hurting the most vulnerable Americans

Four young protesters wearing surgical masks over their mouths are marching while holding megaphones and signs.
A growing number of candidates are pledging to use environmental policies to achieve racial and socioeconomic equity.
Photo by Vesnaandjic

Most of the environmental conversations around the 2020 presidential election have focused on the climate crisis. But beyond plans for decreasing emissions, some candidates are also pushing for environmental justice policies—addressing air, water, and industrial pollution that disproportionately affects Americans from marginalized groups.

Candidates are vowing to penalize or prosecute corporations that violate environmental regulations. Part of that means also addressing the long-term, historical impacts on low-income communities and communities of color, which are more likely to reside in polluted neighborhoods, experience adverse health outcomes from that pollution, and have access to fewer resources to fight against polluters.

Because of sweeping policy changes at the Environmental Protection Agency under the Trump administration, many environmental regulations have been weakened or eliminated, including a high-profile battle to derail fuel-efficiency goals for auto manufacturers. Candidates are also promising to reinstate these regulations.

Only two current candidates—Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Elizabeth Warren—have plans that address environmental justice, although many candidates have housing and climate plans that focus on tackling specific environmental issues. Curbed will update this post as the candidates present new plans.

Tackling racial and socioeconomic equity

As the former mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Sen. Cory Booker was an early champion of environmental justice, promising to address issues like water quality and industrial pollution that faced the city’s African-American and low-income neighborhoods. It’s not surprising that Booker has chosen to make environmental justice central to his campaign by addressing those issues as part of a larger environmental agenda. His environmental justice plan—presented alongside an emissions-reduction plan—lays out a path that would force companies to mitigate their negative environmental impacts.

Booker’s focus on environmental issues is reflected in his work in the Senate, where he created an Environmental Justice Caucus, and, in July, introduced the Environmental Justice Act of 2019, which would require federal agencies to address racial injustices. Although she’s since left the race, Sen. Kamala Harris introduced a plan to address environmental racism, the Climate Equity Act, in Congress. It’s coauthored with Green New Deal coauthor Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ $16 trillion climate plan, the most comprehensive of all the candidates’ plans, has an entire section outlining environmental justice solutions to address “historical inequities” in disadvantaged neighborhoods, including providing job training to assure that local workers employed in polluting industries have access to better careers (known as a “just transition”), changing permitting so polluters can’t set up operations there, and closely monitoring conditions to allocate additional educational or health care resources, if needed.

Prosecuting big polluters

Where other candidates are pledging to attack polluting industries, one of them has actually confronted some of them in court. When she was campaigning, Harris said she wanted to go after oil companies and other big polluters with the same vigor with which she attacked them as a prosecutor. As California’s attorney general, she sued Exxon-Mobil, oil pipelines, and Volkswagen for the emissions-cheating scheme known as Dieselgate.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has made criticism of large corporations a cornerstone of her campaign, wants to create new laws that would bring criminal charges against the CEOs of companies that violate environmental regulations. She also wants to use civil rights legislation to go after big polluters that have engaged in what she calls “environmental discrimination.” In a statement she said, “Our crisis of environmental injustice is the result of decades of discrimination and environmental racism compounding in communities that have been overlooked for too long.”

Another candidate who wants to frame climate change and environmental justice as a civil rights issue is Julián Castro, who hopes to enact new legislation to protect low-income Americans from climate impacts, including the country’s native and indigenous communities. Sanders also wants to use civil rights laws and “aggressive” prosecution to go after violators.

Rebuilding the EPA

Under the Trump administration, more than 85 key environmental regulations have been rolled back or eliminated by the EPA. The EPA has also fired or laid off dozens of scientists, some of whom are planning to release a critical report on air pollution that they claim the agency is unqualified to share. Multiple candidates have pledged to reinstate these regulations and restore the EPA’s authority in the science community.

Strengthening the EPA is a key part of Booker’s plan. In April, he said the EPA had “rolled back clean air and clean water protections, and allowed polluters to go unchecked, causing immense harm and suffering by vulnerable communities.” He plans to increase the number of people hired in certain EPA departments.

Castro, who served as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration, also mentions restaffing the EPA in his climate plan. Sen. Amy Klobuchar aims to reinstate scientists across a range of government agencies as part of her climate plan.

Fighting for low-income families

A key element of environmental justice policies is delivering financial aid to populations that are facing environmental challenges. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is part of the climate mayors coalition, has a plan that talks about focusing on solutions for low-income rural residents, including farmers who have been hit hard by recent flooding.

Buttigieg’s plan aims to boost access to rural health care, spur economic development through public-private partnerships, and expand access to high-speed broadband. “I’m putting forward a plan to renew and reimagine opportunity specifically in rural America, and unleash its staggering potential,” he said.

Environmental justice for urban residents was a key message for former New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, who declared his candidacy for president just after the city council approved its own Green New Deal. But de Blasio, who is one of the “climate mayors” pledging to adhere to the guidelines of the Paris climate accord, didn’t release his own environmental justice or climate plan. After failing to qualify for the climate town hall, he quit the race shortly after.