President Biden Signs Executive Order Creating Office of Environmental Justice

President Joe Biden signed a broad executive order on the afternoon before Earth Day of 2023, with a broad focus on environmental conscientiousness in the federal government. Politico describes the order as “directing federal agencies to weigh the environmental burdens in already-overburdened communities before approving new projects that could threaten their air or water quality,” an effort which will be coordinated by a new White House Office of Environmental Justice.

NPR interviewed Ali Zaidi, the White House National Climate Adviser, to obtain a clearer understanding of the purpose of this executive order:

ZAIDI: This order sees the intersecting issues of environmental injustice, racial injustice, economic injustice. And this is the president directing all of his agencies to tackle those intersecting issues, make sure that we’re fielding a full team as we tackle the climate crisis, do it in a way that cuts consumer costs, creates good-paying jobs, invests in communities that have been systematically disinvested in. That means building on things like turning our iconic yellow school buses into vehicles that don’t belch diesel pollution, tackling risks from lead pipes, getting all of those out across the country - putting methane pollution into the sky - cleaning up brownfields and superfund sites, turning them into hubs of economic activity, planting trees in neighborhoods that have been redlined.

Zaidi went on to stress the importance of increasing our understanding of “how … the cumulative burdens from various pollution stressors impact public health and environmental justice” in areas where our scientific comprehension is lacking.

Conflict From Across the Aisle

This executive order was not without backlash. Republicans largely decried it as misguided, wasteful, and/or authoritarian, ridiculing the notion that race and other minority statuses should be taken into account when determining action to lessen environmental harm.

From the New York Times:

Representative Bruce Westerman, Republican of Arkansas and chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, said the move was wasteful. “The idea that creating a new office and launching new messaging campaigns will do anything other than waste tax dollars is laughable,” he said.

Fox News implies more sinister motives, with Chris Bedford—interviewed by Laura Ingraham—stating that “the environmental policy of the left has become fundamentally anti-human.” He additionally stated:

This is not about race. A lot of this is about class, a lot of this is about control. It doesn’t matter what the color of your skin is if you live next to pollution.

In the written portion of this article, Fox News brings up comments on other aspects of Biden’s climate action, made by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy:

McCarthy has said the Biden administration “kneecapped American energy production” with “misguided policies” that increase costs on Americans.

A few days prior, McCarthy’s House passed H.R. 1, which would “[push] back on Biden’s climate agenda.” In response, Biden addressed Republican representatives during the speech he gave when announcing the executive order. Per CNN:

Republicans, Biden argued, would “rather threaten to default on the US economy, or get rid of some $30 billion in taxpayer subsidies…than getting rid of $30 billion in taxpayer subsidies to an oil industry that made $200 billion last year.”

“Imagine seeing all this happen – the wildfires, the storms, the floods – and doing nothing about it,” he continued. “Imagine taking all these clean energy jobs away from working class folks all across America. Imagine turning your back on all those moms and dads living in towns poisoned by pollution and telling them, ‘Sorry, you’re on your own.’ We can’t let that happen.”

Critique From the Left

Criticism of Biden’s past climate policies does not only originate from conservatives. Some environmental activists argue that Biden’s actions have been insufficient, and sometimes counterproductive.

Politico describes comments made by environmental activists such as “Raul Garcia, vice president of policy and legislation with the environmental group Earthjustice”:

Recent decisions by the administration would exacerbate environmental and health inequalities for some communities, he said, such as the Interior Department’s approval last month of the Willow oil project in Alaska. He also criticized the White House embrace last year of a bill from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) that would have changed environmental review laws to speed permitting for energy projects.

While his administration set lofty goals, the White House has taken criticism from many advocates in the environmental justice movement, which seeks to address systemic imbalances in the way pollution and other harms burden low-income communities and people of color. They have accused the Biden administration of failing to properly staff its environmental justice initiatives, and have sought more transparent accounting of how the administration is reaching its 40-percent goal.

The activists have also slammed the subsidies for carbon capture and hydrogen power found in the IRA and in 2021’s bipartisan infrastructure law.

Harm to Humanity

The urgency these activists have is not unfounded. Putting aside the negative impacts to the planet caused by climate change such as sea level rise, intensified natural disasters, and the elimination of ice in the Arctic, the burning of fossil fuels causes direct and immediate harm to humans.

USA Today provides a brief summary of these effects, as well as evidence supporting the idea that minority communities should be examined closely when engaging in climate-modifying behaviors:

Air pollution from fossil fuel burning has been found to harm every organ in the body. A study published this year found that particulate matter caused 32,000 deaths across the U.S. in 2020. Researchers found that Black, Asian, Latino and low-income communities disproportionately have higher levels of particulate matter than white and richer communities.

On a global scale, air pollution from fossil fuels is potentially significantly more harmful. Research performed by Harvard has identified that “more than 8 million people died in 2018 from fossil fuel pollution…meaning that air pollution from burning fossil fuels like coal and diesel was responsible for about 1 in 5 deaths worldwide.” These effects largely impact “low-income and middle-income countries.”

The Economic Perspective

A common argument against making broad policy changes to mitigate the effects of fossil fuel usage is that such changes will cause more harm than good, as they will supposedly cripple the economy. Most of this is speculation which overlooks the direct economic benefits in bolstering various sections of the economy and modernizing our infrastructure to increase efficiency.

The debate surrounding the cost of climate change mitigation can lead to the perception of increased economic burden. However, discussions on this topic often leave out a crucial component. An article in Nature’s journal on climate change points out:

Perhaps the most important omission from estimates of economic impacts of mitigation is that calculated costs do not include impacts from climate change itself, and the associated economic benefits of avoided impacts11,12,13,14. That is, reported estimates represent the gross costs of mitigation. Impacts include loss of agricultural productivity15, heat-induced mortality and morbidity16,17 and loss of labour productivity18,19, infrastructure losses from extreme events and sea-level rise20, biodiversity losses21 and many others22. Climate stress also has a complex relationship with migration and related geopolitical instability23 and with financial instability24,25.

The arguments levied against taking mitigating steps toward climate change often do not account for the immense financial burdens of doing nothing. NPR reports that in 2022 alone, the United States was dealt $165 billion in damages due to extreme weather, and that “[in] five of the last six years, costs from climate and weather-related disasters have exceeded $100 billion annually.” While extreme weather events would still occur without climate change, they would likely be much less severe and significantly less frequent, doing a fraction of the damage we have been facing.

While estimates of financial costs of future damages spurred on by climate change are notoriously difficult to accurately conceive, such estimates have not remained purely in the academic realm. The New York Times discusses a report out of the massive insurance company Swiss Re:

The effects of climate change can be expected to shave 11 percent to 14 percent off global economic output by 2050 compared with growth levels without climate change, according to a report from Swiss Re…That amounts to as much as $23 trillion in reduced annual global economic output worldwide as a result of climate change.

Should our greenhouse gas output go unchecked, the potential economic damages to the United States and the world at large could be catastrophic.

Organizations: Earthjustice 

People: Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy 

Tags: Climate Change Environmentalism 

Type: News