President-elect Joe Biden signaled on Thursday that his administration will make “environmental justice” a top priority with the announcement of two new cabinet appointments.
Biden, whose team suggested last month that combatting climate change would be an “all-of-government agenda,” announced his picks to lead the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), respectively. For both positions, the president-elect chose two individuals, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) and North Carolina Secretary of Environmental Quality Michael Regan, that have made a name for themselves in recent years by championing the cause of “environmental justice.”
The term, which first appeared in the 1980s among environmentalists, initially was used to argue in favor of policies that more fairly distributed natural resources and provided equal protection from environmental hazards to communities “regardless of race, color, national origin, or income.” In recent years, however, the term has been coopted by progressives and social justice advocates, who often link the term to broader calls for ending systemic racism.
Although the push for “environmental justice” did not emerge on the national stage until 2014 when the water crisis occurred in Flint, Michigan, the cause has quickly ascended among Democrats. During his failed bid for the 2016 Democrat nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) injected the term into the national dialogue by proposing a federal climate change plan that placed “environmental and climate justice” at its center.
Even though Sanders failed to win the nomination that year, his calls for ending “environmental racism” proved popular enough that a number of Democrats, including self-avowed Democratic socialists like Rep. Alexandria (Ocasio-Cortez), adopted cause during the 2018 elections. Broad support for the issue was further evidenced in February 2019 when 101 House Democrats co-sponsored Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal resolution, a proposal billed as a means to rectify longstanding economic and racial inequities.
By the start of the 2020 Democratic presidential contest, nearly all of the 17 major candidates subscribed to the cause of “environmental justice” in some form or another. Biden, who campaigned as a moderate Democrat, even played up his support for securing “environmental justice,” while refusing to support the Green New Deal or politically controversial issues like banning fracking.
After Biden won the nomination and the subsequent general election, climate change activists began mobilizing to ensure that the president-elect kept his campaign promises.
Earlier this month more than 70 environmental groups penned a letter to the Biden transition urging him to pick an EPA administrator that would champion policies to not only tackle climate change but also uplift minority communities. The letter came as reports were emanating out of Washington, DC, that Biden was seriously considering Mary Nichols, the chair of California’s air resources board, to helm the EPA.
To many of the activists signing the letter, Nichols was an unacceptable choice because she had repeatedly shown “disregarded [for] the recommendations of the environmental justice bodies.” The letter’s signatories, in particular, noted that Nichols’ had championed “carbon trading, while minimizing state policies that required direct emission reductions and other … programs that benefit environmental justice communities.” The signatories proceeded to argue that carbon trading “increased pollution hotspots for communities of color.”
Opposition to Nichols only grew in recent days with some sources suggesting her nomination would be dead upon arrival. Such unwillingness to accept Nichols likely cleared the way for Regan. The North Carolina regulator is considered a strong choice among environmental advocates. Regan has a long history with the EPA, having served in the department under both former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, before joining the Environmental Defense Fund.
In 2017, he was appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper (D-NC) to lead North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality. Regan has particularly garnered praise for his department’s proposal to make North Carolina carbon neutral by 2050. His accomplishments in office, however, have been somewhat stymied by the Republicans-controlled North Carolina state legislature.
As such, the initiative that Regan is best known for creating environmental justice and equity board within his office. The board, which is advisory in nature, has drawn plaudits from environmental groups and racial justice advocates for seeking to ensure that communities in North Carolina regardless of race or income, receive the same attention.
“Regan’s record on environmental justice, including his creation of the state’s Environmental Justice and Equity Board, helped secure him secure” the role as EPA administrator, according to the Charlotte Observer.
Similarly, Haaland appeared to have secured the post of Interior Secretary because of her commitment to “environmental justice.” Haaland, a first-term congresswoman, has made headlines recently for pushing legislation to require the Interior Department to audit how its actions impact environmental justice. She has also come out in support of banning all oil and gas drilling in the vicinity of federal land.
Biden’s choice of both Haaland and Regan indicates that “environmental justice” will be a central tenant of his administration, not just the purview of one department.
The president-elect is also likely to make good on a campaign pledge he made earlier this year to create a new division within the Department of Justice to combat pollution and advance “environmental and climate justice. This new division will be responsible for cracking down on businesses and corporations that pollute, including holding their executives personally liable.