An Executive Order on Environmental Justice

Robert Verchick

Nov. 13, 2008

President-Elect Obama has promised to support spending $150 billion over 10 years to create 5 million new “green collar jobs.” If allocated correctly, these jobs could jump-start the economies of urban neighborhoods and pockets of rural poverty. Imagine a country where a new generation of workers earns good wages and benefits— even saving for the kids’ education — while building light-rail systems, servicing wind turbines, and installing solar panels on neighborhood homes. A green economy like this would not only reduce reliance on fossil fuels and boost technological development, it would bring hope to thousands of the working poor whose communities have long been vexed by racism, pollution, and crime. Green-collar jobs are just one example of what we would see if the president renewed our commitment to Environmental Justice. Environmental Justice is a movement concerned with the distribution of environmental harms and benefits on the basis of race, income, and other personal characteristics. For years, advocates have focused on the “harms” part of the equation, and for good reason. While environmental laws have improved the quality of the nation's air and water, and saved countless lives, they have also left many people out. African-Americans are still more likely to live in polluted airsheds and continue to have the highest rates of asthma in the country. The nation’s laws also fail to protect many “non-traditional” populations, like native peoples or some Asian immigrants, whose diets are more likely to consist of fish contaminated with mercury and other chemicals. But environmental justice is about more than environmental harms. The poor and people of color often miss out on environmental benefits too. Parks, bike trails, and public swimming pools are nearly always more plentiful in communities that are more affluent and white. That inequality is especially important when one considers that children deprived of regular outdoor activities are more likely to experience obesity, diabetes, and behavioral disorders. Like trails and parks, green-collar jobs are another benefit of the environmental thinking. They, too, must be allocated among communities in a fair way. The new green economy must blossom in cities like Austin and Seattle as well as Scranton and New Orleans. President Obama could renew the country’s commitment to environmental justice by improving and updating Executive Order 12898, an environmental directive launched 15 years ago by President Bill Clinton. That order sought to reshape federal actions in order to achieve environmental justice for poor and minority communities. But Clinton’s policy never completely delivered, in part because it only vaguely defined the target populations (what is an “environmental justice community” anyway?) and it lacked a positive agenda for economic development in poor communities. The Bush Administration made things worse by interpreting the order so narrowly as to deny help to some of our most desperate and polluted communities. With the stroke of a pen, President Obama could offer a change that both environmentalists and the working poor can believe in. He could offer a new Executive Order that would clarify the application of environmental justice principles to populations most in need (whether urban, rural, or tribal) and launch an affirmative agenda that puts green-collar jobs in the most deserving places. A new Executive Order could also hold agencies responsible for better follow-through, as we discuss in our full proposal. CPR Member Scholars spelled out the specifics of such an Executive Order in Protecting Public Health and the Environment by the Stroke of a Presidential Pen: Seven Executive Orders for the President's First 100 Days, issued November 11, 2008. A cornerstone of President-elect Obama’s campaign was that the government should work for everyone, regardless of region, race, class, or party. This is especially true for environmental protection and economic development. Each reinforces the other. And each should be available to all.  

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