Democrats and environmental activists have pivoted to a racial justice angle on climate change policy in the wake of the demise of President Biden’s massive climate and social spending bill.
Democrats say their proposed efforts would combat environmental hazards like pollution that disproportionately harm low-income and minority communities, a message that appeals to their far-left base in an election year and offers some hope of resurrecting pieces of the president’s climate agenda.
From congressional hearings to social media to mobilizing liberal activist organizations, Democrats are pushing for stand-alone action on the environmental justice components in Mr. Biden’s Build Back Better plan that included north of $500 billion in climate programs.
“Our folks, they can’t wait another day. Another month, another hour, another year for us to have real climate policy that changes their lives for the better, puts them before profits, puts them before the fossil fuel industry and the corporate polluters,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Michigan Democrat, said at a virtual event this week with the liberal advocacy group People’s Action.
Democrats’ primary focus is on the Environmental Justice for All Act, a sweeping proposal that would allow legal recourse for low-income and minority communities disproportionately harmed by environmental discrimination; establish advisory positions; increase regulations; and impose fees on coal, oil and gas companies.
Democrats say it would course-correct decades of racial climate injustice.
“[This bill is] based on a very simple principle and premise: all people have a right to clean air, clean water and an environment that enriches their lives,” House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva said during a hearing Tuesday. He is the lead author of the Environmental Justice for All Act.
“For far too many across the country, these rights are not acknowledged,” said Mr. Grijalva, Arizona Democrat.
Climate justice legislation is likely to face a similar fate as Build Back Better, despite centrist Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia expressing interest in climate measures after he single-handedly tanked Mr. Biden’s spending package. Republicans have the power to block its passage in the Senate. And they have given the Environmental Justice for All Act anything but a warm welcome.
Mr. Grijalva’s hearing on the bill turned into a partisan showdown on racism. Republicans criticized the proposal as something that would create more frivolous litigation, inflation and bureaucratic red tape. Rep. Garret Graves, Louisiana Republican, labeled it a “conspiracy of racism” to say there are systemic racial inequalities in environmental policies.
The same sentiments are voiced among Senate Republicans.
“I don’t even know what in the heck ‘climate justice’ is,” Sen. Kevin Cramer, North Dakota Republican, said in an interview. “I do think there’s an opportunity to discuss energy policy. … I’m open to shaping certain investments toward people that are disadvantaged for whatever reasons.”
Mr. Cramer’s remarks reflect the party’s resistance to “racial justice” rhetoric and simultaneous willingness to address unhealthy environmental conditions in poor communities. Republicans also oppose the heavy-handed, expensive and partisan approach that they say Democrats advocate.
Republicans on the House Committee on Natural Resources brought in Harry Brower Jr., mayor of North Slope Borough in Alaska, to testify at the hearing on the Environmental Justice for All Act. He acknowledged disproportionate and negative environmental impacts on disadvantaged communities, but he said the bill missed the mark. He said it would lead to unintended consequences by giving too much legal recourse to special interest groups.
Harry Brower Jr., mayor of North Slope Borough in Alaska, to testify at the hearing on the Environmental Justice for All Act. He acknowledged disproportionate and negative environmental impacts on disadvantaged communities, but he said the bill missed the mark. He said it would lead to unintended consequences by giving too much legal recourse to special interest groups.
“The impulse to right these historic wrongs is good,” Mr. Brower said. “But I am concerned that well-intended legislation, like this bill, could empower outside special interest groups to use the federal courts to defeat the interests of communities and elected leaders.”