Enjoying New Clout, Environmental Justice Groups May Press Biden

Trucks line up to enter a berth at the Port of Oakland on February 11, 2015 in West Oakland, California.
Trucks line up to enter a berth at the Port of Oakland on Feb. 11, 2015, in West Oakland, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Though it may have been eclipsed in headlines and worrying by the coronavirus pandemic, the climate crisis has not gone away.

As new President Joe Biden tries to implement policies with the goal of redirecting economic development toward greenhouse gas reduction, he'll have to contend with pressure not only from groups on the right who oppose environmental regulations, but with those on the left who may see Biden's plans as too timid.

KQED science reporter Kevin Stark has been following the rising clout of an environmental coalition that has not always been a part of mainstream environmental thinking, but which helped derail the candidacy of California's well-regarded environmental official Mary Nichols as head of Biden's Environmental Protection Agency. He spoke with KQED's Brian Watt about what these groups may want from the new administration.

Who is this new coalition and what do they care about?

Kevin Stark: These are small advocacy groups — like the California Environmental Justice Alliance, Asian Pacific Environmental Network and the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project —often organizing in their own neighborhoods. They're animated by what they see as systemic racism, with communities of color disproportionately living around industrial sites and in neighborhoods with pollution and smog. Many of these groups argue that environmental policy should be combined with social justice measures. They supported Joe Biden's candidacy because he promised to fight for environmental justice, and they're promising to hold him to account.

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If these groups are small and don't have a lot of money, how do they have so much clout right now?

These groups have really been empowered by two of the biggest events of 2020. First, the anti-racism movement in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, and then the dual impacts of pollution and the coronavirus.

The same people who are suffering from pollution in their neighborhoods are essential workers. And we know from contact tracing that they're getting COVID-19 at higher rates than other populations. Also, studies show that breathing more polluted air over many years may itself worsen the effects of COVID-19. So there are two crises that because of structural racism are impacting the same people. And leaders from these communities are heading up these environmental groups empowered by the anti-racism movement.

So looking at California first, what will these groups be looking to do in the coming year?

From the very beginning, the state's environmental justice groups were ideologically opposed to California's cap-and-trade program, which aims to fight climate change by setting limits on industry emissions of greenhouse gases and allowing businesses to buy and sell credits at quarterly state-sponsored auctions. The groups argue that the program allows industries to pollute, and they they say it exacerbates environmental racism. Some new research supports this argument.

These groups prefer traditional industrial regulations and increasingly outright bans on oil and gas drilling and the use of fossil fuels. They'll be pushing for these policies as the Legislature considers a fracking ban this year.

Mary Nichols has been an incredibly powerful figure in California, and she's just retired. What impact will that have on cap and trade?

Well, with the naming of Nichols' successor to the head of the California Air Resources Board, the governor has a chance to put his stamp on the state's climate policies and possibly shift away from a reliance on cap and trade. Nichols oversaw the implementation of that program, and it was supported by governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown. The state's air board under Nichols' leadership aggressively defended the program, but the Newsom administration has agreed to reexamine it this year.

Nichols was reportedly Biden's top choice to lead the EPA, but the group spoke out against her in large part because of her support for cap and trade.

What will these groups now want from President Biden?

They'll be looking for a Green New Deal-style policy, legislation and executive actions that both reduce emissions and fight pollution in communities of color. And they'll be pushing for a national fracking ban and other strict regulations on industry.