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Climate Justice

2014 April 22
Charles Lee


April 22, 2014
6:00 pm EDT

Climate change is impacting our lives today, including record high temperatures, reduced air quality, extreme weather, severe droughts and sea-level rise, just to name a few examples. While we all share this burden, these impacts greatly exasperate the many environmental and public health challenges in minority, indigenous and low-income communities. That’s why EPA promotes “climate justice” – a movement, building on more than 20 years of commitment to Environmental Justice, to protect disadvantaged communities disproportionately affected by climate change.

The impacts of climate change on our lives, families and communities are felt by everyone. In low income communities, these impacts are often devastating, including compromised health, financial hardship, and social and cultural disruptions. Often they are the first to experience heat-related illness and death, respiratory ailments, infectious diseases, unaffordable rises in energy costs, and crushing natural disasters.

At the same time, these communities receive less support and experience greater obstacles when trying to influence decisions about mitigating and adapting to climate change impacts. Their voices, concerns and ideas can easily be discounted. We must develop processes that make them active participants in developing solutions.

I know from experience that these communities want their voices heard and valued. They want to participate meaningfully in climate change negotiations and help to develop solutions that will affect their lives and their children’s lives for generations to come. Indeed these communities have much to contribute. For millennia, many indigenous communities have survived through cycles of environmental change using “traditional ecological knowledge” (TEK). This can be immensely useful in developing adaptation and mitigation strategies. For example, TEK may assist in predicting weather patterns, identifying medicinal plants, and adapting new plants to a changing ecosystem.

A 2010 study from the Yale Project on Climate Change and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found that “in many cases, minorities are equally as supportive, and often more supportive of national climate and energy policies, than white Americans.” In particular:

  • 89% of blacks supported the regulation of carbon dioxide as a pollutant
  • 70% of Asian-Americans consider themselves as environmentalists
  • 60% of Asian-Americans prioritize environmental protection over economic growth

A recent poll shows 74 percent of Latinos believe climate change is a serious or very serious issue, and 86 percent of Latinos support the President taking action to reduce carbon pollution.

As part of EPA’s focus on climate justice, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), a federal advisory committee to EPA, is preparing advice and recommendations on how EPA can help improve community resilience in or near industrial waterfronts with environmental justice concerns. This project highlights the efforts of former NEJAC Chair Elizabeth Yiampierre to strengthen community resilience and emergency planning in her overburdened Brooklyn, NY community. NEJAC also embarked recently on a project to provide advice and recommendations for EPA’s individual program and regional climate adaptation implementation plans.

In 2012, communities in California took climate justice to a new level. Their advocacy resulted in legislation that ensures that resources go to communities most hurt by climate change. SB 535 calls for 25 percent of proceeds from the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund go to projects that benefit disadvantaged communities. By using CalEnviroScreen to identify disadvantaged communities, the state will make both socio-economic and environmental factors important considerations for determining where potentially billions of dollars of climate change resources will go.

It’s evident that minority, indigenous and low-income communities not only care about the impacts of climate change, but have been leaders in creating solutions. They believe strongly that as a nation, we can address climate change with common-sense, comprehensive strategies. In that process, they will help us build healthier and more sustainable communities, as well as a stronger more inclusive economy beneficial to all citizens.

Charles Lee is the Deputy Associate Assistant Administrator for Environmental Justice at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Mr. Lee is widely recognized as a true pioneer in the arena of environmental justice, as the principal author of the landmark report, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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