Ending Environmental Injustice with Infrastructure Investment


This blog is the fifth in a series, “The ABCs of the AJP.”

President Biden’s American Jobs Plan (AJP) would mobilize $2.2 trillion in investment to address climate change and create jobs for Americans. According to the White House, “unlike past major investments, the plan prioritizes addressing long-standing and persistent racial injustice,” in part by “target[ing] 40 percent of the benefits of climate and clean infrastructure investments to disadvantaged communities.” These investments would give life to the President’s “Justice40 Initiative,” established by his January 27, 2021, Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad (EO).

To fulfill the Justice40 pledge, the January 27 EO ordered the Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to develop a geospatial Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool for the purpose of identifying disadvantaged communities. It also ordered the Chair of CEQ, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget and the National Climate Advisor, in consultation with the newly established White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, to publish recommendations by the end of this month on how to achieve the 40-percent goal through a broad range of investments.

The AJP describes how past infrastructure investments, such as construction of Interstate 81 in Syracuse, New York, literally split communities apart, often in the name of “urban renewal.” In the case of Syracuse, an elevated freeway was erected through the middle of a predominantly African American neighborhood, displacing residents and corroding the sense of community. The AJP would spend $20 billion to reconnect such neighborhoods through community development and infrastructure projects, such as one favored in Syracuse to replace the aging I-81 viaduct with a street-level “community grid.”

The AJP also includes $5 billion to remediate and redevelop idle industrial sites that add to blight and pollution in rural and urban communities. It would also provide a source of dedicated funding for community-driven environmental justice efforts, including capacity-building and project grants to address legacy pollution and the cumulative impacts experienced by communities on the front line of pollution sources.

These targeted investments would all be in service of the Administration’s commitment to ensure that efforts to address climate change also advance environmental justice. That commitment was first formalized by the President’s Day One Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis, which places protection of disproportionately burdened low-income communities and communities of color at the center of the Administration’s climate agenda.

President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898 (Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations) in 1994, ordering federal agencies to evaluate and address the impacts of their actions on minority and low-income communities. Since then, agencies’ consideration of environmental justice rarely moved the needle on federal decision-making and with only modest results. So how is it that, after more than a quarter century on the books, EJ has become an animating principle of this Administration’s agenda?

COVID-19 laid bare the profound impact that racial and economic inequality has on public health.

  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented among COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, with the disparities in deaths most pronounced when adjusted for age.
  • Consistent with decades of research documenting racial-ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in exposure to air pollution, a study released just last week concludes that sources of fine particle pollution “disproportionately and systemically affect people of color…

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