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Exploring Policies that Address Climate Change and Different Degrees of Climate Justice

by Katie Rygg

The framework and inspiration of this article is taken from two recent workshops hosted by 540W Main Communiversity and led by two incredible educators, Sue Hughes-Smith and Kristen Van Hooreweghe of RPCC: Environmental Justice and Federal Climate Law - 5/20/20 & Environmental Justice and NYS Climate Law 5/27/20.

What is Environmental Justice?

According to the EPA, environmental justice 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. This goal will be achieved when everyone enjoys:

  • the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and

  • equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.

What is Environmental Racism?

Environmental racism is the inverse of environmental justice. Even controlling for levels of poverty, polluters are more likely to be located in communities with a higher percentage of people of color. Here in Monroe County, according to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory Map, there are dozens of Brownfields in Rochester and one in Penfield (the quarry on Whalen Rd *See note 1 for more information).

A brownfield is a property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant (EPA). When these areas flood, toxic chemicals (including known carcinogens) may be released into the waterways and during heat waves, VOCs (volatile organic compounds) may be released into the air.

Climate change is expected to cause more flooding events and more intense and frequent heat waves in this area, exacerbating an already unjust system.

The Greater Rochester Black Agenda Group has called on local organizations and individuals to publicly acknowledge that racism is a public health crisis and commit to fighting for racial justice. ColorPenfieldGreen has signed on in support of their statement and we encourage readers to consider doing the same. Not only is racism a public health crisis, climate change will only exacerbate the dangers. We will support initiatives at the local, state, and federal level that advance social and economic justice. We commit to advocating for policies that will improve health and climate resiliency in communities of color.

Climate change is an existential threat to everyone on this planet, but the effects will hit, are hitting, and have been hitting indigenous populations and people of color first and hardest. These populations are more likely to be exposed to the harmful air pollutants that are released when burning hydrocarbons, and therefore have much higher rates of asthma, respiratory diseases, and other chronic illnesses – some of which are the very underlying health issues causing Covid-19 to be so much more deadly to these populations.

According to the overwhelming majority of Climate Scientists, reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in a way that keeps average warming under +2oC (hopefully more like +1.5oC) will head off the very worst effects of climate change. We MUST pass meaningful federal legislation that will speed up our transition away from fossil fuels as soon as possible.

What are some of the policies at the state and federal level aimed at climate action?

Federal Legislation: HR 763 - The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (EICDA)

One approach that was successfully implemented in Canada 18 months ago and is gaining popularity here across the US is “Carbon Cashback” or Carbon Fee and Dividend. States like NH, NJ, WA, and NY are looking to place a fee on carbon pollution and return some or all of the net revenues to residents. At the federal level, there are 8 carbon pricing bills that have been introduced to Congress. By far, the most well known, the most supported by members of Congress, and the only bipartisan bill is HR 763: The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (EICDA). A bipartisan approach is appealing because it will have staying power through future shifts of the political winds.

This model is supported by

  • 3500+ Economists (including 27 Nobel laureates and all four of the living former chairs of the Federal Reserve),

  • 81 members of the House of Representatives, including Monroe County’s Joe Morelle (thank you, Representative Morelle!), and...

  • Our very own Penfield Town Board, who endorsed this legislation a year ago in a letter written by Supervisor LaFountain that was delivered to our members of Congress.

Join the 200,000 worldwide volunteers of Citizens’ Climate Lobby to help pass this bill. We have a very active local chapter here in Rochester!

Many climate advocates agree that Carbon Cashback is the best first step to solving climate change. However, one criticism of the EICDA is that because it is a revenue neutral approach to addressing climate change (revenue neutral = no revenues are kept by the government, so the size of government does not grow) there is no dedicated, funded way of addressing systemic inequalities. Proponents of the bill argue that since climate change affects disadvantaged populations disproportionately, slowing climate change will help them more. Furthermore, 2/3 of Americans (lower and middle income families in particular) will receive enough in the monthly dividend checks to cover the increased prices of energy, products and services derived from burning fossil fuels. Many will even see extra money in their pocket at the end of the month, so there is a small redistribution of wealth in this fee and dividend model from those with large carbon footprints (typically higher income families) to those with smaller ones. In this country, people of color on average have smaller carbon footprints (due to many layers of racial inequalities).

Climate justice means supporting those groups’ transition to a carbon-reduced world who have contributed the least to the problem. EICDA would begin the work of a just transition, albeit in a modest way.

Where Does the Green New Deal Fit In?

The Green New Deal prioritizes Environmental Justice. I am optimistic that we will see some of these big ideas put into action in the coming years but so far, there is only one piece of legislation that has come out of it: The Green New Deal for Public Housing Act. This would retrofit 1.2 million public housing units, making them energy efficient and would support growth in high paying jobs. These are great ideas with long lists of benefits, but the political will isn’t yet there for them to become reality.

I believe that the EICDA or something like it is the best we can accomplish at the national policy level right now - and now is the time to act. I have greater hope for individual states taking a leading role on environmental justice in climate policy and am very proud of the work being done in New York.

New York State Legislation: Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act

Last fall, NY signed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA or Climate Act) into law. It made NY the undisputed leader in emissions reduction goals to date – net zero by 2050 with a 70% renewable energy by 2030. It also has Environmental Justice provisions.

  • There is a Just Transition Working Group and

  • 35-40% of overall benefits must go to disadvantaged communities.

So far it has come up short on specifics as to how those goals will be met. However, a Climate Action Council has been convened and they will have their second meeting next week, June 24th at 2pm. The public is invited to watch the proceedings. Click here to attend, password: Climate.

Proposed NYS Climate Legislation: Parker-Cahill Bill vs Climate and Community Investment Act

Here in NY state, there are two climate bills in the works that put a price on carbon pollution:

The first, “Parker Cahill Bill,” proposes a carbon-based fuel tax. The money would end up in a fund to be redistributed through tax credits. It is quite similar in structure to the EICDA. What are the advantages?

  • As it is a more conservative approach, it will likely enjoy bipartisan support

  • It could potentially pass sooner (remember: time is not on our side), and

  • It would likely have staying power.

Any success at the state level for carbon cashback programs will make federal programs like EICDA more likely to pass. This is exactly what happened in Canada. British Columbia had a carbon fee and dividend in place for years before the rest of the country. The experiment was effective at lowering emissions and people were in favor of it in BC. The Parker Cahill Bill and others like it in NH, NJ and elsewhere might start that process in the US.

The second, Climate and Community Investment Act (CCIA), has a similar fee on carbon pollution but a significantly higher portion of the revenues are earmarked for environmental justice efforts:

  • Energy rebates for low-income residents

  • Grant funding for disadvantaged communities to build resiliency and sustainability

  • Helping communities rebuild as the fossil fuel industry ramps down (with job training, clean-up, etc)

Legislation like the CCIA enjoys more support on the Democratic side of the aisle and critics will balk at increased taxes in a state with already high taxes, but we must push the limits of what is possible in a state like NY. We have an opportunity to not just lower greenhouse gas emissions but to right past injustices in the process. Along with California, Washington, Massachusetts, and Connecticut and other leading states, NY can accomplish this, making revenue neutral policies like EICDA more palatable options by comparison for conservative audiences nationwide.

Two statewide groups with local chapters are championing CCIA:

  • NY Renews helped write the CLCPA and are now part of the implementation. The organization has authored the CCIA and is working hard to pass the legislation. They are also advocating for climate justice during the Covid-19 recovery and you can find out more (and sign their petition) here.

  • New York Youth Climate Leaders, a passionate group of student climate activists (that include some notable members of the Penfield High School Environmental Club!), are calling for a Green New Deal for New York. They have three policy demands:

  1. Pass the CCIA.

  2. Divest the NY Common Retirement Fund and the Teachers’ Retirement Fund from fossil fuels.

  3. Stop all new construction of fossil fuel infrastructure.

Learn more about their policy platforms and sign petitions supporting them

Where does ColorPenfieldGreen Stand?

We want to see all of these things happen:

  • immediate climate action

  • aggressive climate action and

  • concurrent environmental justice action

A handful of us are dedicated volunteers with Citizens’ Climate Lobby and have been lobbying for carbon fee and dividend for years. Citizens’ Climate Lobby - Rochester just joined the NY Renews coalition to lobby for CCIA. As the Green New Deal takes shape, we may support the emerging legislation as well.

There will be situations where our goals must be weighed against each other. But at the moment, we can strive to increase the visibility of all of these goals in the public dialog, and advocacy for any will advance the public discourse. Regardless of what our group officially endorses, we will strive to ensure that we keep our readers informed.

For further reading/listening:

75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice by Corinne Shutack, Originally posted August 13, 2017 & is continually updated

Trump's EPA Concludes Environmental Racism Is Real by Vann R. Newkirk II, February 28, 2018


1: Brownfield in Penfield:

The quarry on Whalen Rd is a Toxic Release Inventory Facility monitored by the EPA. It produces approximately 0.2lbs of polycyclic aromatic compounds into the air (I assume) each year. The TRI summary report below states that the facility had 0lbs in total releases in 2018 so again I assume 0.2 lbs is not of great health concern to residents.

Polycyclic aromatic compounds are a class of compounds made up of hydrocarbon rings, possibly with other groups attached. They are likely carcinogens, especially associated with lung cancer, and have also been associated with low birth weight.

If anyone has more details to share about this facility regarding toxic releases, please let me know at and I will pass it along in a future blog.

My goal in including this piece of information was to make a comparison between the industrial toxins that we are exposed to in Penfield (which, after my research, I believe is minimal) living near a single brownfield and those residents who live, work, play, and raise their families within 5 miles of dozens of brownfields in Rochester.

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