14 January 2021 | Reading 4 mins.

A renewed chance for environmental justice

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Kathleen Rogers
President of Earthday.org
Gerald Torres
Professor of Environmental Justice and Professor of Law at Yale University.

Kathleen Rogers, President of Earthday.org

Gerald Torres, Professor of Environmental Justice and Professor of Law at Yale University.

Communities that are most impacted by environmental harms and risks will continue to disproportionately bear the burden of climate change. Here’s how the US’ new administration and head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offer a renewed chance for environmental justice.

The announcement of Michael Regan to head EPA is good news for environmental justice. Decades of experience with environmental regulatory schemes have demonstrated that unless equity and justice are at the heart of environmental policy, any efforts to restart the United States’ federal commitment to environmental protection will be only half complete. Many states have already recognized that environmental justice is a key component to reducing pollution, addressing the health effects of continuing and past pollution, and providing for a just transition to a new energy economy. Now, the federal government promises to join arms with state and local advocates and give leadership to this effort. Beginning with an updating of Executive Order 12898 on Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, the new administration must ensure that the basic regulatory infrastructure that dates back to the original Earth Day can address the concerns raised by the movement for environmental justice. A simple but fundamental beginning would be to get the agencies to dust off their strategic plans for implementing the Executive Order and bring them up to date.

The proposal to create a new division in the Department of Justice that has as its mandate the pursuit of environmental and climate justice is a promising initiative, but likely a non-starter in the current legislative environment. A more promising approach would be to reorganize the existing Environmental division to put environmental justice front and center. The National Environmental Justice Advisory Council should be charged with providing recommendations that can be pursued by executive action alone and propose amendments to the basic environmental statutes. It cannot be permitted to languish like the Environmental Crimes section did as it struggled to find a coherent approach to defining and prosecuting environmental crimes.

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