Environmental justice leaders talk next steps after major climate change bill
Congress has passed a major climate change bill. Now what?
Environmental justice leaders in the United Church of Christ and its partner organizations are answering that question. During a monthly Creation Justice webinar Wednesday, Aug. 10, several experts shared insights and action steps that anyone can take.
On Sunday, Aug. 7, the Senate passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Five days later, on Aug. 12, the House approved the legislation. The bill includes about $370 billion to reduce emissions and promote clean energy.
“The IRA is going to be passed, which is a good thing because the main benefit is it gives us resources to really address some of our macro-level problems when it comes to reducing emissions,” said Thaddaeus Elliott, justice and peace policy fellow in the UCC Washington, D.C., office.
Fellow webinar participant Lynn Thorp, campaigns director at Clean Water Action, echoed that sentiment.
“I look for hope always,” she said. “And one of the hopeful things I’ve noticed in this bill … is that a lot of these investments that get us the greenhouse gas reductions are real. It’s real money, and it’s things that will happen.”
However, each of the panelists warned that the IRA is merely a first step in the right direction. Anyone invested in environmental justice must keep pushing for further action, they stressed, and not settle for compromise.
“At what point do we stop compromising over lives?” asked the Rev. Michael Malcom, a UCC minister and executive director of Alabama Interfaith Power and Light. “At what point do we stop compromising over the life of a planet?”
Pros and cons
Malcom called the IRA a “mediocre bill” that activists should look at as a “launching pad.” While acknowledging the bill has pros, he cautioned against complacency.
“When we look at the Inflation Reduction Act, we see there are provisions that benefit us as a whole, universally, in some of the (emissions) reduction rates, the various investments in climate projects, green infrastructure,” he said. “But at the same time, I have to wrestle with the cons that come with that.”
Malcom emphasized that those most impacted by environmental risks, such as poor people or communities of color in the South, need much more support. He stressed that the bill doesn’t do enough to protect them. In particular, he noted that it doesn’t stop an overreliance on fossil fuels and other environmental hazards that primarily impact people in marginalized communities.
That, he insisted, is not satisfactory for environmental justice advocates.
“The reality is none of us got what we wanted out of this deal,” Malcom said. “But we still have an opportunity to do so.”
Pushing for further action
One notable concern addressed during the webinar are PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), often referred to as “forever chemicals.”
“As one who’s married to the South, I know that we are heavily under attack by PFAS,” Malcom said. “… How do we, as communities of faith, get involved in a very substantial way, a very tangible way, in this fight against PFAS?”
Thorp said that consumers can demand companies stop using these chemicals. But she also pointed out that they can pressure President Joe Biden and the federal government to take action now to address issues such as PFAS.
Speaking up, the panelists said, is key to promoting legislation and policies rooted in environmental justice.
“In addition to the legislature, we need to be calling on the president to do a heck of a lot more,” said Andy Wells-Bean, UCC environmental justice fellow. “… We have legislation, but it is not nearly what we need to meet the climate and environmental justice crises.”
And it doesn’t need to be at the federal level alone.
“I will always be the kind of person who says, ‘Oh, look for ways to influence our federal government. Tell Congress what they’re doing right, what they’re doing wrong. Push the president. Push the Environmental Protection Agency and the other federal agencies,’” Thorp said. “(But) we know that so much of this also, in the end, plays out at the state level, where you live, where we live, and in our cities and towns.”
While the political process may be slow, Elliott emphasized the importance of staying engaged, such as through voting. He also requested that individuals “signal boost” the Environmental Justice For All Act. He explained that the proposed legislation is a “comprehensive bill” created with community input that could have real, positive impact on the most disadvantaged communities.
The proposed legislation attempts to address environmental racism (a term coined by UCC environmental justice advocates) by bolstering existing laws and directing federal agencies on policies regarding oversight, regulations, research and data. Even though Congress is unlikely to pass it, Elliott noted, its message is important.
“It’ll at least be another kind of motivating factor for those of us in the environmental (justice) space going into election season to get riled up and kind of motivated to stay in the fight,” he said.
He and Wells-Bean shared links for two different campaigns from the UCC: a call for environmental justice, urging lawmakers to support the Environmental Justice for All Act, and a pledge to vote on election day.
Viewers can join Creation Justice webinars on the second Wednesday of each month at 1 p.m. To learn more, visit the UCC Environmental Justice Ministries webpage.
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