Driving an Equitable Green Recovery
I served as EPA Administrator under President Clinton for eight years, and spent another two years in the Obama White House leading efforts on climate change and energy. My experience in government and in the environmental movement makes crystal clear to me that we face a critical moment arriving at a critical time. Our planet is endangered, and after four years of moving backwards, we have an unprecedented opportunity to secure climate solutions that simultaneously build a more just and equitable society.
This opportunity comes not a moment too soon. The Trump administration walked out the door the same way they entered it: doing everything possible to bake in an anti-science approach. As a result, they made it as hard as possible for the Biden Administration to restore science-based decision making to public health and environmental protection. Their 11th hour decision, for example, to exempt real world benefits from clean air protection would've cost lives and impacted health in vulnerable communities, especially communities of color that traditionally bear the brunt of pollution impacts.
"How do we arrive at an equitable green recovery? It starts with a high-level commitment. Twenty-seven years ago, President Clinton signed the first-ever executive order on environmental justice, creating a government-wide effort..."
How the United States Can Achieve a Green and Equitable Recovery, a WRI and WW0 live conversation streamed on February 24, 2021. Participants: Carol Browner, Raya Salter, Brad Markell and Neela Banerjee moderated by Dan Lashof.
On day one, President Biden rolled back the worst of the Trump policies with several strokes of his pen, but moving forward instead of clawing our way back to higher ground requires more from all of us.
How do we arrive at an equitable green recovery?
It starts with a high-level commitment. Twenty-seven years ago, President Clinton signed the first-ever executive order on environmental justice, creating a government-wide effort that I chaired to bring a justice perspective to issues of environmental protection. But those were also years when the concept of environmental protection itself was under massive assault from the Gingrich Revolution. Almost three decades later, we are in a different place as a country -- positioned to provide more answers to the disproportionate impacts that occur in communities of color and low-income communities from pollution, lack of jobs, and illness. President Biden has fully embraced the need to address environmental justice.
"By listening to science and following facts instead of ignoring them, we can show the entire country which communities are disproportionately impacted."
WW0: Global Climate Justice - Rt Hon David Lammy MP in Conversation with Catherine Coleman Flowers, April 7, 2021.
The Rockefeller Foundation's live conversation, Powering a Green and Equitable Recovery, streamed on December 11, 2020.
So, where do we go from here?
The President can continue to sign executive orders, which are important because they focus the attention of the agencies. But he can go much further. Just think about the primary tools in an Administration's toolkit.
First, there's science itself. By listening to science and following facts instead of ignoring them, we can show the entire country which communities are disproportionately impacted. We can show how air pollution, for example, is worse in these communities than in other areas.
Second, the Administration can set regulations that take these disparate impacts into account, and require that we reduce pollution. Whether it's strengthening conventional air and water pollutant requirements, or new climate change requirements -- it opens up a new world of opportunities.
"We need to engage communities in environmental conversations."
Third, open up the conversation by opening up the government. Transparency is essential. We need to empower folks so they really understand what the government is doing to make their air cleaner and their water more drinkable. We need to engage communities in environmental conversations. When I came to the EPA, we had a Superfund program that was supposed to be cleaning up contamination and environmental emergencies at a lot of sites, but really wasn’t. It occurred to us that maybe we should go to the communities first and say, "You have this polluted site and think it needs to be cleaned up? We totally agree. What would you like to have happen with that site?" It's not just about cleaning up. It’s about what comes after -- whether a clean-up goes on to become a playground or a new industrial site. By engaging the community on the front end, we cleaned up over 600 sites in eight years. I learned a really valuable lesson about going to the community and engaging them early. That’s how you make change irresistible.
"...these are exciting times filled with enormous opportunities. But they are not automatic. We all need to drive these opportunities forward so that instead of going back to an old normal that created the crisis we're in now..."
Fourth, enforce regulations. It's one thing to put a regulation on the books, but if you don't enforce it, it has no meaning.
Fifth and finally, the careful allocation of funds for clean infrastructure -- the single biggest factor central for an equitable recovery. Willie Sutton said he robbed banks because "that's where the money is." Well, if you want to go where the money is and transform an economy, it takes investment. Biden's "Build Back Better" campaign plan will form the bedrock of the infrastructure legislation to come later this year. But it's hugely important how the money will be distributed, how jobs will be created, and in which industries.
Here's the bottom line: these are exciting times filled with enormous opportunities. But they are not automatic. We all need to drive these opportunities forward so that instead of going back to an old normal that created the crisis we're in now -- we create a new normal that's thriving. We stand on the precipice where we can address science-based climate pollution and where creating jobs and justice are the new rule, not the exception. Let's make sure this once-in-a-generation opportunity doesn't slip through our fingers.