President Joe Biden ran for president with lofty goals for the environmental policy in the United States, including achieving a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions before 2050. The Biden administration also committed to environmental justice as part of its policy plan. While the list of environmental policy aims is extensive, these two areas are perhaps the places where the Biden administration has made the most progress in staying true to its promises.
The Trump administration rolled back over 100 environmental rules, which “were estimated to significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade and lead to thousands of extra deaths from poor air quality each year,” according to the New York Times. Biden’s appointment of Robert Bullard to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council in 2021 demonstrated a shift in priorities by the new administration. Bullard, known colloquially as the “father of environmental justice,” has been an influential force of nature since the 1970s. His book, “Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality,” has been a standard text in the field of environmental justice since its publication in 1990. However, Bullard’s rise to prominence has not been without difficulties - or pushback. “Dumping in Dixie,” was rejected by multiple publishers when it was just a manuscript; the intersection of racism and environmentalism was not something that was viewed to be of interest or importance to many publishers. Yet, this skepticism from publishers did not deter him; he has now written almost twenty books about environmental justice, and is currently a Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University, and Director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) , environmental justice is “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.” The EPA further defines the two goals of environmental justice; the first aims to give everyone the same protection from both environmental and health hazards, and the second looks to give equal access to the decision-making related to ensuring a healthy environment for all. The idea of environmental justice is fairly new; the movement took off in the 1980s with the publication of the Toxic Waste and Race report in 1987. The report was initiated largely due to the disposal of thousands of tons of PCB-ridden soil in a facility in a Black community five years prior in North Carolina despite the protests of community members. This report exposed and examined instances where low income and minority communities were faced with unequal burdens of environmental degradation and the cost of pollution.
Bullard’s impact on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council can be seen in the recent climate spending passed by Congress in the later months of 2022. $60 billion of the $370 billion passed by Congress has been set aside for environmental justice. While this is a big win for the environmental justice movement, Bullard himself is cautious in his celebration. “Too often, federal money and relief funds are doled out inequitably by state and local governments, and away from people of color and poor communities, who are the most afflicted by pollution and most vulnerable to climate change,” Bullard told New York Times. His role as a spokesperson of environmental justice is far from over, as he fights to ensure Congress’s climate spending is dedicated toward matters in regard to environmental justice.
During his campaign, Biden committed to improving renewable and clean energy. In February the Biden administration announced its conditional commitment for a $2 billion loan to Redwood Materials Inc., a Nevada-based company created by J.B. Straubel, co-founder of Tesla. The loan aims to aid Redwood in producing necessary parts for electric vehicle batteries and to help expand the premises of the company. Redwood stated that it plans to increase its production of battery-grade material from new and recycled sources in the US to 100 gigawatt-hours per year. J.B. Straubel emphasized that, while this is a big step, there is still “an incredible amount of work overall for our country ahead of us as we transition to a sustainable energy economy.”
The future of both environmental justice and sustainability in the United States is outlined succinctly in the words of Robert Bullard: “the quest for justice is no sprint. It’s a marathon relay (where we must) pass the baton to the next generation of freedom fighters.” Bullard’s appointment represents progress for the environmental justice movement, and the Biden administration's loan to Redwood is similarly encouraging for the future of sustainability. Despite progress, Bullard has been part of the fight for almost 45 years, and reminds Americans that the next generation must be called upon to make a significant and lasting change.