Excluding race in federal climate justice toolkit could exacerbate disparities, analysis says


A Filter tool The federal government is using it to determine which neighborhoods have disproportionate levels of pollution, and the damage from climate change could exacerbate racial disparities in air pollution exposure, a new analysis shows.

Researchers from several universities in the United States are modeling the tool’s potential in guiding federal investment, they told The Associated Press. Because race is excluded It’s part of the equation that determines which communities need it most.

The analysis, published Thursday in Science, brings important context to the decades-old debate between the federal government and the environmental and climate justice community about how to improve environmental and climate disparities.

Researchers used the tool to model three 20-year scenarios: one in which no action is taken to reduce emissions, one in which emissions are drastically reduced, and one in which emissions are drastically reduced. Although the tool is useful for reducing disparities in air pollution exposure for low-income and disadvantaged communities, racial and ethnic disparities have not improved and have worsened in some communities.

“The use of seed in land-use planning is part of what got us here,” said Julian Marshall, study co-author and professor of environmental engineering at the University of Washington, referring to urban planning processes that determine where to build infrastructure such as highways and factories. “So the results we’re seeing are that if you don’t include race in the solution, it’s very difficult to solve the problem.”

Building on the Biden administration’s historic efforts to reduce pollution and prevent climate change, 40% of environmental and climate policies benefit disadvantaged communities. It’s called the Justice 40 Initiative.

To invest in communities that need help the most, the administration created the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool and will open it to the public in February 2022. The mapping tool uses a myriad of factors such as income, flood risk, air pollution exposure, asthma rates, census tracts to determine whether or not a census tract is problematic.

But the administration abandoned the use of racial and ethnic data when developing the tool, a move that was heavily criticized by environmental and climate justice advocates at the time.

At the time of its release, Council on Environmental Quality officials said race was excluded from the tool to ensure it could survive legal challenges, but to reflect the reality that communities of color often face a disproportionate burden of pollution and climate threats.

But that’s unlikely, according to environmental justice scholars and advocates who were not involved in the tool’s analysis.

“Disparities in air pollution exposure may not improve and may even worsen if CEJST is used to distribute Justice 40 funds, which is very concerning but not surprising,” said David Pellow, an environmental studies professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who was not part of the analysis. “We’ve known for four decades that race/ethnicity is the single most important determinant of the distribution of environmental risk in the US, so ignoring or wishing for that fact will only make the problem worse.”

Pellow points to a deep body of scientific research that shows that race is a major determinant of environmental damage.

Robert Bullard, a member of the White House Council on Environmental Justice and a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, said the screening tool is a “work in progress” that needs to be refined to find more accurate and precise environmental and climate burdens.

The researchers who conducted the analysis recommend that race and ethnicity be included in the development of federal initiatives, regulations, and decision-making tools designed to address environmental inequities.

“If you don’t include race in CJEST and use income or poverty as a proxy for harm, you leave out populations that are disadvantaged by environmental inequality,” Bullard said.

A spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality said the study doesn’t show how Justice40 is being implemented, and said the tool is being used to reach communities most disadvantaged by the bipartisan infrastructure and inflation-reduction laws.


Follow Drew Kosley on Twitter: @drewcostley.


The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science and Education Media Group. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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