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Black Lives Should Matter More to the Environmental Movement

Trump's attacks on EPA regulations don't just worsen climate change—they harm vulnerable communities, too.

Bill Pugliano / Getty Images

When Mustafa Ali resigned from the Environmental Protection Agency earlier this year, he sent a letter to Administrator Scott Pruitt pleading with him to continue the EPA’s tradition of protecting vulnerable communities from pollution. “Communities of color, low-income communities, and indigenous populations are still struggling to receive equal protections before the law,” wrote Ali, a 24-year veteran of the agency and the founder of its environmental justice office. “The upcoming choices you make will have significant impacts on the public health and environment of our country.”

Since Ali’s letter, President Donald Trump has started making his choices. On Tuesday, he signed an executive order to begin dramatically reversing Obama-era policies intended to protect clean air and slow global warming. The order begins the process of undoing the Clean Power Plan, which restricts greenhouse gas emissions at coal-fired power plants. It lifts a 14-month-old ban on new coal leases on federal lands. And it orders a reconsideration of regulations on methane emissions from oil and gas operations, a move intended to boost the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) industry.

“I think it’s a very clear indication, especially for vulnerable communities, that their lives don’t seem to matter to this administration,” Ali told me.

Not that Ali was surprised. He left the agency because he saw “the writing on the walls,” Trump’s budget recommended closing the environmental justice office and transfering any work on vulnerable communities to the EPA’s more general Office of Policy. While EPA spokesman John Konkus insists Trump’s order will “strengthen disadvantaged communities who have suffered from job-killing regulations,” Ali said he could not, in good conscience, work for an administration that ignored the fact that low income and minority populations were more likely to experience negative impacts of pollution. “This order helps to reaffirm my suspicions at one time that vulnerable communities were not a priority,” he said. 

And yet, Republicans aren’t the only ones ignoring the pleas of Ali and other environmental justice advocates. At this crucial moment for U.S. environmental policy, green groups and their progressive allies are largely focusing their attention elsewhere. Take the deluge of responses to Trump’s executive order this week: Al Gore denounced Trump’s threat toa sustainable, carbon-free future.” In separate statements, a group of governors and mayors and a group of major companies both said the order puts “American prosperity at risk.” Organizations like Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, and NRDC headlined their press releases with dire warnings about America’s continued ability to stop climate change.  

Largely missing from these attacks were fears about how Trump’s executive order could disproportionately hurt people living in low-income, minority, and indigenous communities. Environmental justice advocates say they’re used to this issue being overlooked. And perhaps there is some logic to the broader focus on global warming; after all, if the planet gets too hot, we’re all doomed.

But at a time when vulnerable communities aren’t just ignored by the party in power, but often vilified, it’s all the more important that their allies on the left provide support and solidarity. And if the moral case isn’t persuasive enough, here’s another argument: It’s smart electoral politics.

Environmental justice, as defined by the EPA (for now), “is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” But here’s a more concrete, if grossly simplistic example: No one wants to live near a coal-fired power plant, but not everyone can afford to live elsewhere. This explains why a disproportionate percentage of minority and low-income communities live near power plants. 

But Trump intends to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-era policy that requires coal plants to reduce carbon emissions. This, in turn, reduces more directly harmful emissions like benzene and particulate matter, because those co-pollutants are also released when carbon emissions pour out of power plants. Relatedly, non-white children face the biggest health risks from pollution, for reasons that are not totally understood. According to the EPA, the asthma rate among black children is nearly double that of white children. Black children are also twice as likely as white children to be hospitalized from asthma, and four times as likely to die from it. 

The American Lung Association’s Paul Billings notes that Trump’s executive order also contains a section ordering an immediate review of “all agency actions that burden safe development of energy resources.” That means virtually any pollution control could be reconsidered—rules on mercury, rules on air pollution that crosses state lines, even rules on fine particulate matter, such as soot. “That’s where I believe we may see the greatest impact on vulnerable communities,” Billings said.

Indigenous populations also have a lot at stake. Trump’s decision to allow coal leases on federal land affects the many tribes whose reservations abut such land. Some tribes welcome nearby mining for economic reasons, but others are concerned that it would have “significant socioeconomic and environmental impacts.” On Wednesday, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in southern Montana sued the Trump administration over environmental concerns about opening up mining.

Trump’s order also kickstarts the rollback of regulations on methane, the main component of natural gas, a good deal of which is located either directly on or close to Native American lands. The NAACP’s Jacqui Patterson said the fracking boom has flooded these areas with so-called “man camps”—temporary housing units for oil workers—which has fueled an increase in sexual violence against Native women, not to mention increases in drug use and general environmental degradation. 

It’s not that progressives or green groups have been ignoring these justice concerns. The Sierra Club, for instance, has a robust environmental justice program, as do many other large groups. But these concerns have rarely been central to their messaging under the Trump administration.

Certainly, there have been efforts to get environmental groups to pay more attention to environmental justice and there has been progress to some extent but yes, it continues to be marginalizing and often forgotten, for sure,” Patterson said. She suspects this is because both the membership and leadership of the bigger green groups tends to be disproportionately white and middle class. “They are speaking from the experience and concerns of their constituents, and their constituents by and large are not necessarily environmental justice communities,” she said. 

Progressives have a moral obligation to uplift marginalized communities, but it would also be good politics in the age of Trump. Those on the left have opened their wallets to support causes imperiled by the new administration, and green groups in particular have seen an influx of donations. Surely many donors are motivated by fears about climate change, but environmental justice conveniently marries that issue with another target of the Trump administration: Minority communities. It should be an easy pitch, both to donors and activists. 

It might also help Democrats with their post-Obama turnout problem with minorities. Most polls show that minority voters are more concerned about climate change than white voters, and according to one 2014 study from the University of Michigan, minority and low-income populations are much more likely to support funding environmental initiatives. “From a political perspective, it makes sense for environmental groups to engage low-income communities because a lot of political support sits in those communities,” a study author told the Los Angeles Times.

This is a priority for Ali, who’s now an environmental justice advocate at The Hip Hop Caucus. He says the environmental community needs to adopt “a more expansive view” on the communities impacted by pollution. That’s true, but it’s not just the environmental community that needs to shift its perspective. Democrats talk a lot about intersectionality these days, but two of the party’s core concerns—fighting climate change and vulnerable communities—are intersecting like never before, and few are raising hell about it.