The Build Back Better Act Can Advance Environmental Justice Through Implementing Justice40

The House just passed legislation that takes an all-of-government approach to the interconnected crises of climate change, rising  inequality, crumbling infrastructure, and ongoing racial injustice.

Hartman Park, in the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood of Houston, Texas, is located next to the Valero Houston Refinery

Texas Scott Dalton for NRDC

For years, environmental justice leaders have demanded recognition of the fact that they’ve “never had the luxury of focusing on one thing at once.” As the climate crisis has made brutally clear: Neither does the federal government. 

Therefore, there was a feeling of optimism when, shortly after his inauguration, President Biden committed the full power of the federal government to advancing environmental justice. Through executive order, he established the Justice40 Initiative as the guiding framework for his Build Back Better (BBB) agenda, which includes historic investments in the nation’s infrastructure, as well as significant enhancement of programs devoted to social development in tandem with climate and clean energy investments. Justice40 will ensure that at least 40 percent of the overall benefits from BBB investments go to disadvantaged communities. 

The Build Back Better agenda is about “connecting the dots” between inequity, environment, and the economy to ensure that “we leave no one behind” on the path to a greener, more sustainable future. This “all-of-government” approach to the interconnected crises of climate change, rising inequality, crumbling infrastructure, and persistent racial injustice is inspired by the decades of advocacy from environmental justice communities. Finally, perhaps, someone is listening.

By braiding together social and climate policy with a heavy focus on investments in communities that need it most, the BBB agenda offers a template to ensuring a justice-oriented response to climate change. Flooding, extreme heat, increased food costs, and other impacts of climate change are exacerbating existing environmental and economic injustices that burden communities of color. 

Communities of color and low-income communities have contributed the least to environmental pollution and the climate crisis. Yet they are disproportionately impacted by climate change, including rising sea levels, more frequent and severe weather disasters, and hotter heat waves amplified by the lack of green infrastructure in urban and rural communities deemed less profitable for investment.  Simultaneously, communities of color and low-income communities have also received the least amount of investment in clean energy technologies and resilient infrastructure that lower greenhouse gases along with other hazardous emissions and protect against climate impacts. 

Too often, when resources are invested to repair the damage from increasingly frequent extreme weather events, these same communities receive fewer resources for post-disaster recovery, or see their property devalued, deepening a growing racial wealth gap for residential property owners

The BBB agenda takes an important step toward fulfilling President Biden’s commitment to addressing the legacies of racialized disadvantage. It makes important investments in initiatives that will improve the health and economic vitality of communities that have long borne the brunt of fossil fuel pollution and racial injustice. 

Key Provisions in BBB Advancing Justice40 Goals

Thanks to advocacy from coalitions such as the Equitable and Justice National Climate Platform, the BBB agenda can deliver “life-saving investments in healthy, pollution-free communities, support the administration’s goal to deliver 40 percent of infrastructure and climate investment benefits to disadvantaged communities, and secure a healthy and prosperous future for all.”

The Justice40 Initiative targets federal investments through seven key priority areas, and the Build Back Better Act—which puts the BBB agenda into legislative action—that was just passed by the House of Representatives provides new resources to support programs in each of these areas. These include: 

Clean energy 
  • The Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (also called the Clean Energy and Sustainability Accelerator) to support pollution-free energy and transportation, of which 52 percent is targeted for low- to moderate-income communities
  • An increased tax credit for solar and wind generation serving low-income communities
Energy efficiency
  • New funding for improving energy efficiency, water efficiency, and climate resilience for affordable housing
  • Increased federal incentives for efficient electric appliances
  • Education, technical assistance, and partnerships resources within low-income and disadvantaged communities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from domestic electricity generation and use
Clean transportation
  • Grants to reduce pollution at ports, with specific attention for ports in nonattainment areas
  • Resources to support the transition to clean heavy-duty vehicles, including targeted funding for replacing heavy-duty vehicles in communities in nonattainment areas
Housing
  • Increased funding for the Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) program to support affordable housing and infrastructure
  • New funding for the Community Restoration and Revitalization Fund
  • Resources to increase access to affordable housing and enhance mobility for residents and transit riders from disadvantaged communities
  • Funding for HUD’s HOME Investment Partnership program, including a large increase in investment funds for the National Housing Trust Fund
Workforce
  • Investment in a new Civilian Climate Corps to create 300,000 new $15-per-hour full-time positions with strong benefits and to train a new workforce for careers in the new clean energy economy 
  • Increased funding for research and development infrastructure at HBCUs and other Minority Service Institutions (MSIs)
  • Funding for dislocated worker employment and training activities through the Department of Labor
Legacy pollutants
  • Reinstatement of the Hazardous Substance Superfund Financing Rate tax on oil production and import to help pay for Superfund site cleanup 
  • Environmental and Climate Justice Block grants, including resources to provide technical assistance
  • New funding for removing lead paint in homes
Clean water
  • Increased funding to replace lead service lines
  • More resources for sewer overflow and stormwater reuse grants, including a dedicated fund for disadvantaged and tribal communities  
  • Funding for low-income household water assistance grants

These investments provide critical support to help communities build more just and sustainable solutions to the climate crisis. However, investment alone will not be enough to enable many communities to benefit from these resources. 

The BBB Act also recognizes the importance of improved capacity in areas such as data collection on disproportionate environmental pollution and cumulative impacts in addition to increased resources for oversight, transparency, and accountability through National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) implementation and at agencies such as the Government Accountability Office and Office of Management and Budget. 

Climate Change Requires an Integrated Solution—BBB Shows How

But the Justice40 initiative is more than a collection of set aside programs and funding targeted to environmental justice and disadvantaged communities. Justice40 applies to all federal climate and infrastructure spending, including the $555 billion in energy and climate funding passed as part of the package. However, more needs to be done to ensure that these resources are also advancing the goals of the Justice40 initiative and reach the communities that need it most. 

Climate change is real, it’s here, and the associated extreme weather events will only get deadlier—and costlier—if we do not act. Acting on climate first requires us to understand how it is interconnected to rising inequality and persistent injustice. We need a true whole-of-government approach that mobilizes every federal agency to tackle this crisis. 

Justice40 and the intersectional nature of the priorities fought for by environmental justice leaders offer a blueprint for creating a more integrated, holistic response to the threat of climate change. With millions of Americans still struggling due to the disruptions caused by covid, implementing the Build Back Better Act and taking this important first step toward fulfilling the Justice40 commitment is not just an opportunity, it is a national imperative.

About the Authors

Khalil Shahyd

Managing Director, Environmental and Equity Strategies; Environment, Equity & Justice Center

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