Why Racial Justice Is a Climate Issue

Striving for a more perfect union.

Joseph Russell, 2, rides his tricycle outside the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, Indiana, in 2016. That summer, 1,000 people were forced from their homes as the complex was evacuated due to severe lead contamination.

Jonathan Miano/The Times via AP

The transition to the Biden/Harris administration has marked a wave of change in how we perceive both the challenges of our time and the promise of our nation to confront the legacy of our past.

This is our moment, and we must seize it by holding our leaders and each other to account for the progress and change we need.

The last four years of regressive rule have revealed the work required for this generation. We've seen our vulnerability to catastrophic pandemic exposed, along with the fragility of our democracy, the mounting toll of the climate crisis, and the intersectional burden of systemic racism on our daily life.

For many of us, watching the transition of power to President Joe Biden offered an unexpected healing release of the collective trauma held captive in our mind, body, and spirit. Each exhale and liberating tear on Inauguration Day foretold a new opportunity.

A Whole-of-Government Approach to the Climate Crisis and Racial Equity

President Biden's bold executive actions have offered a renewed sense of hope for our future—cutting to the heart of the issues required to heal and restore the soul of America.

President Biden is putting equity at the center of the agenda with a whole-of-government approach to embed climate and racial justice across every federal agency, policy proposal, practice, and program.

President Biden acknowledged, on day one, our failure to connect the dots between systemic racism and environmental injustice, and he took action to make sure we do better by Executive Order 13990.

"Where the Federal Government has failed to meet that commitment in the past, it must advance environmental justice," Biden stated in an executive order to protect public health and the environment. "In carrying out this charge," the order continues, "the Federal Government must be guided by the best science and be protected by processes that ensure the integrity of Federal decision-making."

President Biden also signed an executive order 13985 that advances racial equity, promotes equitable opportunities within the federal government, and improves fairness by encouraging agencies to engage with unrepresented groups traditionally left out of policy decisions and funding decisions. The order also seeks to address "the historic failure to invest sufficiently, justly, and equally in underserved communities, as well as individuals from those communities."

The administration halted pending Trump-era environmental rollbacks, many of which NRDC has fought in more than 100 court cases.

These are clear directives and explicit calls to action that have enormous power to change the fundamentals of how the government serves the best interests of all of us.

For many of us who live within communities that have felt the impact of failed government promises, this is a profoundly welcome shift. It promises to change the map of possibility for millions of people.

And yet, despite this new reality, we must not allow the sense of normalcy to become an excuse for complacency.

This Is Our Moment

Historically, the U.S. has a legacy of progressive promises followed by regressive rule that limits the self-determination of targeted groups—from the Emancipation Proclamation to Reconstruction followed by Jim Crow laws that kept Black people oppressed for decades. Only the Civil Rights movement pulled us out of that repressive status quo.

President Biden acknowledged the reality of our nation's racist past, and he has rightly put forth that advancing racial equity is not just a moral issue but an economic, social, and environmental one. This is our moment; democracy requires accountability at every level of government.

Our existence will be based on our perseverance to examine our individual and collective impact. President Biden stated during his inauguration remarks, "Enough of us came together to carry all of us forward." We have an opportunity to do the same on issues related to racial justice and climate change. We may be able to go the distance if we work at scale, elevate comprehensive solutions, and resist accepting the status quo.

Call on the Biden administration to take bold action in its first 100 days

How Advancing Racial Equity Can Address Our Climate Crisis

President Biden has called us to navigate a space of new beginnings. By changing the federal policies, programs, and practices that have divided us in the past, he's opened the door to a new approach that can truly unite us—in many ways, like never before.

That's because advancing racial equity speaks to a core American value we've yet to live out, a moral imperative we've yet to achieve, and a national ideal we've yet to realize.

Racial justice is a social, economic, and environmental issue. It's ground zero in the fight for the soul of America.

We win that fight when we start to see the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of police as part of a long history of unequal protection under the law; that Black and brown communities struggled for the right to breathe long before air pollution threatened white neighborhoods; that nobody should ever suffer disproportionate environmental hazard and harm simply because of their income level or the color of their skin.

We win that fight when we recognize that separate and unequal drinking water remained part of a Jim Crow standard of governance long before Flint, Michigan; that lax oversight allowed corporate polluters to poison the air, waters, and soils of Black and brown people long before PFAS and other forever chemicals contaminated suburban streams; that lack of investment in cleaner transportation options, water and sewer systems, and residential efficiency have combined with discriminatory housing policies to foster the conditions where communities of color live and work in neighborhoods and at jobs that are least protected from environmental damage and danger.

And we win that fight when we recognize the ways climate change exacerbates long-standing social, racial, and economic inequities; when we make up our minds that the people who've done the least to cause the problem should no longer suffer the worst from its harm; when we understand that we cannot fight for Mother Earth and not care about her children and the collective future we share.

For many of us working within systems of oppression, we must remember it is not for us to hold the line for toxic patriarchy, white supremacy, and protecting the dominant culture.

We must do the work to heal and liberate ourselves. We, the people, have the responsibility to hold elected officials accountable as voters, business leaders accountable as consumers, and ourselves accountable by using our access and power to support systemic change, decolonizing our mind, and becoming better stewards of Mother Earth’s natural resources.

President Biden has set in motion the action we need to fight the pandemic, put our people back to work, advance racial justice and equity, and confront the central environmental challenge of our time. It's on the rest of us to rally around his call for change, seize the moment before us, and do our part to create that more perfect union we aspire to become, a place where we all have the chance to thrive.

About the Authors

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins

Director of Policy & Partnerships, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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