Environment & Energy Report

New Congress, New House Push for Environmental Civil Rights

Jan. 15, 2019, 8:48 PM

The new 116th Congress may spend more time examining the intersection of race and the environment, and specifically look at how poor and minority communities are affected by climate change.

Two dozen of the 101 new members of the House are people of color, and several of them told Bloomberg Environment they believe any environmental legislation must account for historically disadvantaged communities.

Additionally, Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), co-founder of a congressional environmental justice task force, is now a member of the House’s Energy & Commerce Committee, which primarily handles environmental and energy issues.

He described climate change as “one of the most urgent civil rights issues of our time” and said he wants to ensure “green-collar jobs” are available to “minority communities and not just a fortunate few.”

Climate and Race

McEachin joined several activists to discuss environmental justice and climate change at a Jan. 15 press conference commemorating what would have been the 90th birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.

In the past, environmental justice activists have focused on the way factories and other polluting facilities are frequently located in areas where minority or low-income residents live. A defining moment for the movement was the 1987 publication of the study, Toxic Wastes and Race, which found statistical links between race and hazardous waste sites.

But Mustafa Santiago Ali, an environmental justice official at the EPA during the Obama administration, said climate change is a crucial issue for the movement as well, because disadvantaged communities are often the least able to cope with the natural disasters, food shortages, and other effects of a warming planet.

“If we don’t win on environmental justice, we can’t win on climate change,” Ali, now a senior vice president for climate and environmental justice at the Hip Hop Caucus, said.

Local Buy-In

With Democrats back in control of the House, the odds are high that the lower chamber of Congress will at least consider some form of climate legislation.

Any comprehensive climate bill should include provisions that encourage the adoption of renewable energy, developing new energy technologies, and the rehabilitation of areas already suffering from climate change, McEachin said.

He said his biggest priority for climate legislation is that Congress follows the lead of, rather than dictates to, local communities.

“There needs to be folks at the table who are actually impacted by the decisions made,” McEachin said. “Without local buy-in, this just won’t work.”

But McEachin also said he has work to do to win over his fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Many of the caucus’ members “are worried about raising the price of energy,” he told reporters.

New Members

The composition of the Congressional Black Caucus is significantly different than it was at the end of the last Congress.

This new session features nine new African-American lawmakers, all of them in the House and all of them Democrats. Additionally, the 2019 freshman class of Congress includes 10 Latinos, two Asian-Americans, two Native Americans, and one member of Middle Eastern descent.

Several of these new lawmakers come to Washington with environmental justice already at the top of their minds.

Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) worked on legislation that addressed the socioeconomic consequences of climate change as a member of the California legislature. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (D-Ill.) told Bloomberg Environment that air pollution and lead poisoning are major problems in the urban Chicago district he represents.

Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-Calif.) told Bloomberg Environment that he’s already joined McEachin’s task force because “people who live and work in California’s most polluted environments are more commonly people of color.”

These freshman members of Congress bring “the enthusiasm and the passion” for environmental justice, McEachin told Bloomberg Environment.

Now, he said, it’s time for Congress to move into the next, more complicated phase of actually legislating—and striking deals with the Republican-controlled Senate.

To contact the reporter on this story: David Schultz in Washington at dschultz@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Andrew Childers at achilders@bloombergenvironment.com; Steven Gibb at sgibb@bloombergenvironment.com

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