Since President Biden took office, his administration has put environmental justice front and center in its strategies to combat climate change. Last year, the Inflation Reduction Act made billions of dollars available to environmental justice–related initiatives; in April, the president signed an executive order mandating that environmental justice principles be worked into the mission of every federal agency, not just the ones dealing directly with the environment. It’s a long-overdue effort to correct the systemic inequities that Black and brown people face when it comes to climate change and other environmental factors.
Unfortunately, advocates and federal workers may have to grapple with the Supreme Court to make some of these changes a reality. None of the Supreme Court decisions that made headlines last week dealt directly with environmental issues, but the rulings have real ramifications for how the government could help vulnerable communities moving forward.
As E&E News reporter Pamela King reported this week, the Supreme Court’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, which dealt with affirmative action on college campuses, could have serious implications for government attempts to prioritize racial equity, including on environmental matters. Last week’s historic ruling, which effectively banned race-based admissions policies, “does not mean that race-conscious environmental justice efforts are doomed—but the court clearly signaled that the strict-scrutiny test has very sharp teeth,” Emily Hammond, a professor and vice provost for faculty affairs at George Washington University Law School, told King. “Federal, state and local governments will need to tightly craft their environmental justice policies to meet this standard.”
The court is already looming large in how the administration deals with potential oncoming legal challenges from conservative states. Last Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would drop an investigation into whether Black communities living in an industry-heavy stretch of coastline in Louisiana suffered disproportionate cancer risks thanks to the state’s failure to regulate chemical plants there.
For decades, residents of the region, commonly referred to as “Cancer Alley,” have complained of health problems from petrochemical and oil facilities. According to the NAACP Legal Fund, one school district that sits half a mile from a chemical facility has a 25 percent higher incidence rate of all types of cancers compared to the rest of the state. The area has been the subject of countless media investigations over the past few decades, and Biden mentioned the region by name when signing a major environmental executive order at the start of his term.
The administration’s adoption of the case last year was seen as a substantial win for the environmental justice movement and a long-awaited chance to bring changes to Cancer Alley residents. But the EPA said last week, just two days before the affirmative action ruling was announced, that it had taken sufficient enforcement against Louisiana’s Departments of Health and Environmental Quality based on the deficiencies it found, and would not be pursuing a Civil Rights Act investigation.
The Biden administration has centered much of its environmental justice investigation and enforcement around Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in programs and entities receiving federal funds. Title VI has historically been used in areas like housing, education, and transportation, but the Biden administration has taken the idea for a new spin with regard to climate and health.
It’s seen some success with this strategy. Earlier this year, the Justice Department reached an agreement with the Alabama Department of Public Health, finding that the state had violated Title VI in neglecting to address sanitation conditions in the majority-Black Lowndes County. Residents have for decades complained about open sewage pits in their yards, high rates of disease, and a lack of help from the local government.
But in late May, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry—who is also running for governor—filed suit against the EPA and the Biden administration. While the suit doesn’t specifically name the agency’s investigation into conditions in Cancer Alley, it claims that the EPA’s attempted use of Title VI in enforcement procedures oversteps its authority. The EPA has “lost sight of the agency’s actual environmental mission, and instead decided to moonlight as […] social justice warriors fixated on race,” Landry wrote.
The majority opinion in the Harvard case last week focused mostly on the constitutionality of race-based admissions rather than specific issues with Title VI. But in a concurring opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch echoed some of Landry’s specific allegations about the use of Title VI. In the suit, Landry also raised the “major questions” doctrine, a conservative legal interpretation that aims to limit how much government agencies can do without explicit permission from Congress; the doctrine formed the bedrock of the court’s decision last year in West Virginia vs. EPA, which constrained the agency’s ability to regulate emissions from power plants. The doctrine was also brought up last week in the Biden v. Nebraska student loan ruling, suggesting that the question around what Congress explicitly allows specific agencies to do will be a continual theme in decisions to come.
Legal experts told the AP that it’s likely the EPA dropped the investigation in Louisiana in order to avoid the risk of this suit being brought before the right-wing court. But that raises questions of how the administration can otherwise help vulnerable communities—and it doesn’t mean anything to the residents of Cancer Alley, who have been living in environmentally dangerous conditions for years.
“I would never support the government abandoning their obligation,” Robert Taylor, a resident of St. John the Baptist Parish and founder and executive director of the Concerned Citizens of St. John, told The Washington Post. “It will not help the residents here. They know that we are the targets of these industries.… We have the least protection. And now the federal government can’t provide protection.”
Wind and solar are pulling more than their fair share in Texas, where a sustained heat wave and increased air conditioner use have made energy demand skyrocket. The state set a record for renewable energy generation last week, and renewables provided up to 40 percent of Texas’s energy mix during peak use times.
It’s not just you—this July 4 was really, really, really hot. The global average temperature on July 4 reached 62.92 degrees Fahrenheit, making it the hottest day on record, according to data from the U.S. National Centers for Environmental Prediction.
Stat of the Week
That’s the rate at which incidences of domestic violence against women in South Asian countries increase as the ambient temperature rises by one degree Celsius, a new study published last week in the journal JAMA Psychiatry has found.
Elsewhere in the Ecosystem
An island in Maryland threatened by sea level rise is experiencing a surge in real estate sales, The Washington Post reports:
More homes have sold on Smith Island in the last three years than in the previous 11 combined, according to sales data. Locals see a story of hope. Their efforts to rescue a 400-year-old way of life tied to tide and season are beginning to bear fruit. Many question the doomsday predictions for the island or hope they can find a way to ride out rising waters.
Environmentalists see a dangerous kind of denialism. They say Smith Island’s long-term survival is doubtful, so the only rational path is retreat. They see the recent interest in the island as part of an unsettling national trend—studies show more Americans are moving into climate danger zones.
This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by contributing deputy editor Molly Taft. Sign up here.