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Introducing the Justice40 Initiative

Ocean climate action must center climate justice

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© Thomas Horig

A few days after taking office last January, President Biden announced a historic Executive Order outlining the Biden-Harris strategy for confronting the climate crisis. Included in this plan was an initiative called Justice40, which aims to address how systemically oppressed communities have been largely excluded from, or even harmed by, past and current climate policies. This government-wide effort seeks to ensure that at least 40% of the overall benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy are realized in disadvantaged communities.

This work is sorely needed as we continue to see the impacts of climate change all around us. A new report showed that in 2021 the ocean held the most heat energy ever recorded in 60 years of monitoring. Devastating climate impacts, from rising sea levels to more intense storms facing our coastal communities simultaneously, come with this global warming. For communities of color, these climate stressors magnify the impact of centuries of systemic racism and discriminatory policies. In addition, these overburdened communities receive the least amount of financial relief and other resources for climate preparedness and disaster recovery.

We can’t solve the climate crisis without putting environmental justice at the forefront.

Justice40 is now in the pilot stage, and a large team of climate policy and environmental justice experts are working to make Justice40 a success. The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is responsible for guiding these important efforts, and the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC) serves as an essential advisory body, ensuring principles of equity and justice are central to any decisions made. On the ground, there are 21 federal pilot programs putting plans in place to make certain that climate policies benefit the communities that need them most. Within the next few months, the CEQ is expected to release finalized guidance to help the pilot programs effectively implement Justice40, directing 40% of investments to maximize community impact.

Two of these pilot programs deal with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) investments into systems that manage wastewater, storm water and drinking water. Climate change poses a significant threat to existing water infrastructure, especially in coastal areas. For example, when stormwater systems are permanently inundated by sea level rise, they are increasingly unable to handle rainfall from supercharged storms. This can result in sewer overflows that pollute the surrounding water and land. These threats can worsen disparities around water quality and access, which is why it’s so important that the EPA ensures water infrastructure improvements focus on communities of color.

Ocean Conservancy is working with environmental advocates and the EPA to learn how best to support Justice40 principles. We are paying close attention to testing tools and procedures introduced by the CEQ, determining whether their application promotes equity in these critical funds. Our work specifically focuses on Florida, a state where economic and community wellbeing are so deeply tied to our ocean. The state recently received a ‘C’ on its infrastructure reportcard marking a need for improvement in its drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems. We are working with Florida state and municipal governments, underserved communities and other impacted stakeholders to support communities that would benefit most from resources provided by the Justice40 Initiative.

Together, we hope to identify successes and challenges of Justice40 and work to improve the resilience of coastal communities and ecosystems.

There is still work to be done, and it will take ocean advocates like you to hold federal agencies to a high standard when implementing Justice40. At Ocean Conservancy, equity and justice are at the center of our work to protect the ocean and all that relies on it. At the end of January, Ocean Conservancy staff attended the WHEJAC’s public meeting and provided the following recommendations to strengthen the implementation of Justice40:

  • Make investments in climate adaptation and resilience. Many of the issues this initiative is working to address have their roots not in climate change but in systemic racism and marginalization. For example, Black and brown communities are more likely to be situated near toxic sites as a result of decades of discriminatory housing practices like redlining, which result in public health concerns such as high rates of asthma or cancer. Climate change is making these toxic sites more dangerous, leading to more pollution that intensifies these public health and housing disparities. Therefore, when deciding how to prioritize Justice40 investments, it’s imperative that all agencies consider where the worst climate impacts are occurring now, where they’re expected to be the most severe in the future, and how investments can benefit the communities that need them most.
  • Alongside the Environmental Justice Scorecard (initiated through President Biden’s Executive Order on climate change), create a community-accessible living “tracker” that would provide transparent details about investments to the public. This tracker would provide both a useful tool and transparency for tracking how agencies are directing investments into disadvantaged communities and would help improve trust and further mitigate misuse of funds.
  • Develop guidance for creating a “Justice40 Oversight Committee.” Oversight committees, like the one created in South Carolina to monitor Justice40 in that state, provide another layer of accountability. Guidance from committees like this one would be beneficial for those interested in advocating for similar committees in their respective states.
  • Accept community-generated ideas around the meaning of “benefits.” Given that agencies have the flexibility to define and deliver “benefits” as related to their programs, consultation with communities to determine what benefits would be most valuable in addressing issues of environmental and climate justice is necessary. For instance, a community concerned about children consuming lead in drinking water may want the EPA to track decreases in water-related lead poisoning in children as a benefit rather than tracking the amount of pipe replaced.
  • Require that agencies provide services and technical assistance to help communities access the benefits.These services may look different depending on the agency and types of operations. Taking the EPA Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds as an example, it’s important for the agencies to offer technical assistance with loan or grant applications for those who may not have personal experience in completing applications or the capacity to hire an grant writing experts. In addition, access to a translator or translated materials may need to be provided for those whose first language is not English.

At Ocean Conservancy, we recognize the sense of urgency around addressing both the climate crisis and systemic injustices. As implementation of Justice40 continues to unfold, we look forward to doing more to support the initiative and the communities depending on its success.

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