By: Danielle Fossett, Environmental Justice Initiatives Associate
The Justice 40 Initiative (J40), a whole-of-government initiative presented by President Biden, made it a goal as part of Executive Order 14008 on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad that forty percent of overall benefits of certain Federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are underserved, marginalized, and overburdened by pollution. An essential component of the Justice 40 Initiative is the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST). Developed by the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the tool incorporates recommendations from the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC), environmental justice leaders, agency staff, researchers, and other stakeholders to be as insightful as possible.
Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST)
The CEJST is used to identify communities that are overburdened by pollution, marginalized, and/or underserved. The criteria used to determine whether or not a community is disadvantaged is divided into eight categories: climate change, clean energy and energy efficiency, clean transit, affordable and sustainable housing, reduction and remediation of legacy pollution, critical clean water and wastewater infrastructure, health burdens, and training and workforce development. Communities that meet or are above the specified thresholds in at least one of the eight categories are determined to be disadvantaged. Currently, there is a beta version of the CEJST publicly available online that the public was able to comment on via online listening sessions from March 22nd to May 19th 2022.
There is no doubt that the CEJST will be an invaluable tool for government agencies and ensuring their efforts impact those most vulnerable. However, there are several shortcomings that need to be addressed. Once the beta version of the tool was made available, the public and environmental justice advocates made it clear that they did not approve of race not being used as an indicator as to whether or not a community is disadvantaged. America has an extensive history of racism that is prevalent in policy, infrastructure, and more due to its systemic implementation. However, according to Nicky Sheats, a WHEAJAC member and director of the Center for the Urban Environment at Kean University, when using policy to rectify the legacy of racism “It’s very hard, if not impossible, to account for all the impacts of race if you don’t use it directly.” By not incorporating race as an indicator, J40 will exclude communities that suffer from a legacy of environmental racism.
The ultimate goal of J40 and the CEJST is to identify disadvantaged communities across the country that would benefit most from significant investments by the Federal government and agencies. However, the CEJST is considerably less effective by not using race as a criterion when identifying disadvantaged communities. Environmental organizations, WHEJAC, and other parties recommend that race be used as an indicator for similar reasons. Without race, the CEJST may identify a non-white community that is disproportionally polluted and experiencing health issues as a result. However, if governments do not regulate pollution from existing facilities and infrastructure as well as the racist zoning and development practices that led to the conditions those communities face, then investing resources into that community alone may not address the root of the problem. In fact, there is a serious risk that the existing injustice could be perpetuated, exacerbated, and create new inequities through the growth of the clean energy economy that prioritizes the health and safety of white communities through existing processes and policies.
Environmental justice has been growing in political significance for years. With the Biden Administration, it seems to have entered the arena with the Justice 40 Initiative and Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool. The CEJST has serious potential to make headway in efforts to “renew” disadvantaged communities that have historically suffered, but race is an essential factor to consider and should be included within the criteria for the tool to be successful.
Driven by her spirit and ancestry, Danielle is a passionate and resilient advocate for environmental justice. Danielle is currently the Environmental Justice Initiatives Associate, where she advocates for environmental justice legislation through the collaborative efforts of youth leaders and environmental justice coalitions. She additionally works to amplify and solidify the organization’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusivity, Belonging and Accessibility (DEIBA) initiatives. Danielle is a soon-to-be graduate of SUNY-ESF with a degree in Environmental Studies with a focus in food justice and environmental health. Outside of her work for Our Climate, she enjoys dance parties with friends, crocheting, and mycology. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram @danifoss.