'The focus has shifted': Environmental justice takes the spotlight
Small, local groups pushing environmental justice issues are getting new attention from Washington lawmakers and major green groups — as well as Democratic presidential hopefuls who are eager to harness their grassroots activism.
Problems, like lead contamination in Flint, Mich., that affect low-income and minority communities can attract national attention, but the threats facing those communities from climate-related disasters are now mobilizing politicians and large environmental organizations that have tended to focus on national policies.
“In the past it has always been about saving this animal, saving this forest,” said Rev. Michael Atty, an East St. Louis, Ill.-based faith leader and activist who has fought permitting for a hazardous waste incinerator in his community. “But now we’re in a crisis that affects all of us and the focus has shifted.”
That unconnected network of community-driven groups — often with minuscule staff and threadbare budgets — is winning powerful advocates in Washington, such as House Natural Resources Chairman Rep. Raúl Grijalva, and has emerged as a major Democratic campaign plank alongside curbing greenhouse gases and building a green economy.
Grijalva, who is working on a sweeping environmental justice bill, said there's a wariness among the environmental justice activists as to whether candidates are devoted to the cause or only mimicking talking points to energize black and Latino voters they’ll need to turn out at the polls to beat President Donald Trump next year.
“[They’ve been] used and ignored and taken around the merry-go-round more than once and been promised to and [told] ‘you’ll be my priority' and then you’re not. Then suddenly nobody talks to you for the next two or four years,” Grijalva told POLITICO. “Suspicion and prove-it-to-me-first are absolutely necessary, and I understand why.”
A candidates' forum set for Friday evening in South Carolina has so far drawn only a small group of candidates: Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), billionaire investor Tom Steyer, former Democratic Reps. John Delaney of Maryland and Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania and self-help guru Marianne Williamson.
“That’s where the rubber hits the road in some instances,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, a former Obama administration EPA official who is now vice president for environmental justice at the National Wildlife Federation and helped the National Black Caucus of State Legislators organize the event in Orangeburg. “We’ll see if some of the other folks who said that they care about these issues actually show up.”
Warren has released her own environmental justice platform and toured the Detroit neighborhood that's often described as the nation’s most polluted zip code, and Booker has made fighting for environmental justice a centerpiece of his campaign. Long-shot candidate Steyer has advocated for dramatic action to fight climate change, and issued a call for "climate justice" since the problem "hurts low income communities and communities of color first and worst. "
Though they are not expected at the Friday forum, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has proposed a $40 billion “Climate Justice Resiliency Fund” block grant program, and former Vice President Joe Biden has said he would use the Justice Department to aggressively pursue polluters. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who's struggling campaign is focusing on the first contest in Iowa, has just wrapped up a public input process for forthcoming legislation ensuring federal environmental regulations and laws don’t have adverse impacts on frontline communities.
Booker also floated legislation in 2017 and again this year to give citizens the right to take civil action against federal agencies for failing to enforce environmental rules, to assess the effects that new projects would have on water and air during the permitting process and to improve data collection and studies on underserved communities.
Many environmental justice leaders are suspicious that Biden's interest in the issue is simply a politically motivated move — the kind that has left minority voting blocs feeling used in past elections. While Biden polls ahead of other candidates with black voters, particularly in South Carolina, environmental justice activists say his record on criminal justice and support for fracking seems at odds with his pledges to heed calls from communities to clean up large industrial polluters.
“I’m glad he’s putting it on paper,” said Anthony Rogers-Wright, policy coordinator with Climate Justice Alliance, a network of environmental justice groups. “He’s going to have to do a little more explaining before getting a bunch of Kwanzaa cards.”
Biden’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), who has made the issue one of his chief congressional causes and is working with Grijalva on environmental justice legislation, has cleared everything that’s gone into the former vice president's environmental justice platform.
"I would stake my reputation on the fact that a President Biden will address those issues," McEachin told POLITICO. "They were like a sponge and very receptive to the concerns that I raised, and there was no pushback."
Grijalva, who has informally advised Warren since endorsing her in October, said he learned firsthand of the distrust between federal lawmakers and local groups. He floated an environmental justice bill in 2017 expecting "everybody would jump on the flag and follow it.” But that didn't happen, and the measure quickly faded away.
This time around, the Arizona Democrat brought hundreds of activists to the Capitol in June before writing his bill, a draft of which is expected this month. Grijalva said Warren would be a “logical choice” for a Senate sponsor, though he hasn’t discussed that with her.
“She understood the relationship that these communities are seen as having less power, but they’re now an emerging force on the political landscape, the communities that have been ignored," Grijalva said.
While the frosty relationship between large, D.C.-based national groups and local organizers has been thawing, environmental justice activists aren't yet convinced the new engagement will last after decades of what the National Wildlife Federation's Ali called “broken promises.”
Yvette Arellano, policy researcher and grassroots advocate for Houston-based Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, said there was little sympathy for green groups' claims that they don't have the resources to take on the issue.
“We are an under-resourced organization that continues fighting at the frontlines because we don’t have a choice. We can’t step away and go into an office in another city and say our work is done,” she said.
Big green groups acknowledged their environmental justice counterparts have reasons for their skepticism. Bridge-building between the organizations only began in earnest with the People’s Climate March in 2014, a massive demonstration in New York City ahead of the Paris climate talks that helped forge alliances among legacy environmental groups, labor unions and community-based environmental justice organizations.
Trump's victory in the 2016, the release of new scientific reports calling for speedy action to address climate change and a spate of devastating forest fires, hurricanes and floods that hit the U.S. all combined to help deepen the cooperation between environmental justice groups and the large national organizations that focus on federal policy.
Local groups took the lead crafting a climate change environmental justice platform this past year, released as a 10-page statement of principles, while heavyweights like the League of Conservation Voters, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Center for American Progress played a convening role by organizing and conducting outreach throughout the process.
“It has probably taken us far too long to really center the work of environmental justice leaders who have been fighting the fights and raising the alarm bells for decades,” said Sara Chieffo, vice president of government affairs with the League of Conservation Voters.
Money has also started to flow toward those small, local groups. Grants awarded for environmental justice efforts roughly tripled between 2014 and 2017, surpassing $110 million, according to the Environmental Grantmakers Association, whose members contribute 40 percent of environmentally focused advocacy spending.
But the local activist groups are still underfunded, said Danielle Deane-Ryan, director of the inclusive clean economy program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, a philanthropy that funds social justice initiatives. Those groups will be crucial in building grassroots support to overcoming the resistance in Washington that has blocked past proposals for sweeping federal climate policy in Congress, such as cap-and-trade legislation that failed in the late 2000s.
“Any movement that is going to succeed needs the best of its grassroots and grass tops to come together,” she said.
By: Zack Colman
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