A whirlwind of issues has defined Joe Biden’s first 14 months in office: the constant rise and fall of COVID-19 cases and deaths, wavering levels of support for police and prison reform, a generation-defining battle over reproductive rights, and America’s tumultuous role in conflicts in Afghanistan, Palestinian territories, and Ukraine. The administration and media’s focus has been so cyclonic that a stated priority of Biden’s presidency — putting the U.S. “back in the business of leading the world on climate change” — seems to have become more insignificant to most Americans and even Biden himself.
It doesn’t help that the administration’s most ambitious climate plan — $550 billion to build out clean energy and climate resilience — has been stalled in the Senate for six months as part of the Build Back Better bill. Mother Nature hasn’t slowed down, however, as the country waits for Sen. Joe Manchin to vote in favor of climate policy: 2021 was the third-costliest year ever for weather disasters. The prospects won’t get any better for Biden’s climate agenda after the November midterms, when Democrats may lose their majority in Congress.
The government’s standstill in the face of climate disasters has left Black climate leaders unsure about the likelihood of the Biden administration reaching its goals, as climate and environmental issues continue to disproportionately affect Black people. For many older advocates, Biden’s environmental work is groundbreaking, but for a younger crop of changemakers who will feel the brunt of climate change’s wrath, the administration has repeatedly dropped the ball.
“There’s almost no comparison between what the Biden administration is putting forward with environmental justice to what’s been done by any president in the past, including Obama,” said Dr. Beverly Wright, who is an environmental justice adviser to the White House and executive director at the New Orleans-based nonprofit Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. “I think that the groundwork has been laid for what I would call transformative change in our communities.”
On the federal level, that groundwork includes the elevation of several federal agencies tasked with guiding the country’s climate and environmental justice priorities, namely the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council — a liaison between the federal government and community groups that is supposed to help bring on-the-ground environmental issues and solutions to the White House. Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency, now led for the first time by a Black man, Michael Regan, has also given an unprecedented look at environmental issues in the South, including “Cancer Alley,” a Black community in Louisiana that’s home to the country’s highest concentration of pollution.
The administration has also helped pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which includes $240 billion for environmental justice projects such as revitalizing drinking water systems, cleaning up sites of historic pollution, and expanding the country’s public transit and rail networks.
While Biden’s environmental justice actions slowly rack up, Wright, who is one of the nation’s earliest advocates for environmental justice, says the government’s inability to pass climate legislation is anything but surprising. For this reason, she says, rather than grading the administration on its ability to pass legislation, it’s just as important to focus on what is moving forward — especially at the grassroots community level. “It’s like we’re building a bridge while we’re trying to walk across it,” she said.
A climate policy standstill has life-or-death implications for Black Americans
While Wright says it may not be fair to grade Biden on his accomplishments yet — “as Black folks,” she said, “we already know the wheels of government move very slowly” — the need for action is urgent. For Black Americans, who are most likely to feel climate change’s worst impacts in the U.S., the federal government’s failure to act decisively on climate justice could have dire consequences.
Over the last decade, with significant flooding events becoming more common, majority-Black communities have already been left with the false choice of either constantly rebuilding their neighborhoods or packing up and leaving the South, where the country’s biggest storms happen, for greener pastures. The problems are only bound to get worse and more expansive. Black people are 40% more likely than other races to live in places where the effects of climate change will result in higher mortality rates, according to a 2021 Environmental Protection Agency analysis.
When considering the existential threat that is climate change, relying on the churn of government is inherently limiting. T.J. Osborne, a 25-year-old climate policy adviser, feels his generation has been left in a challenging position.
“We’re told this is the most important time to get out and vote,” the energy and climate policy master’s candidate at Johns Hopkins University said. “Then we go ahead and do it, and we see that so many of the policies we were guaranteed have yet to be established.”
One of the administration’s initially most groundbreaking programs, the Justice40 Initiative, has caused the most heartache. The program, which directs all sectors of the federal government to ensure that 40% of its investments benefit communities most significantly burdened by pollution and poor health outcomes, blew by most of its deadlines in 2021. Specifically, the program, which was packaged as a way to bring transparency to federal government spending, failed to define its main metrics of success — an outline of how funds are being spent and who is receiving them.
And since January, the White House’s top climate adviser, Gina McCarthy, and top environmental justice adviser, Cecilia Martinez, have announced their exits from the administration amid accusations of being overworked and under-supported. Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome has now replaced Martinez.
Osborne, who believes that government action can do a lot to curb the worst outcomes of climate change, knows it would be even harder to prioritize climate action under a Republican administration. Still, he says Black environmental activists seem to have been taken advantage of: “Black voters consistently show up blue and young voters came out in droves because they heard climate change was Biden’s number one issue,” he said. “Without proven results, it comes down to us voting for Democrats just because they’re not Republican.”
However, for Wright, who has worked under just as many Republican administrations as Democratic ones, the act of making communities healthier and more protected from weather events has little to do with who is in the White House. “We have a Congress and government that was never really set up to be representative,” she said. “Federal policies sure do get the world moving in the right direction, but it’s still up to us on the ground to act on them.”
While advocates take different tacks on the approach to utilizing government policy for climate and environmental justice, one thing is clear to Osborne and other activists and experts hoping to have seen more climate action by now: The U.S. is not “back in the business of leading the world on climate change,” he said. “It’s very easy to overpromise and underdeliver, and today, that’s what’s happening with the Biden administration and climate policy.”