2019 Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice is defined as “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.” On Friday, November 8th, 2019, the first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice was held at SC State University in Orangeburg, South Carolina. While all of the potential 2020 presidential candidates were invited to the forum, only six accepted the invitation. The six candidates in attendance were entirely democratic and included Tom Steyer, Marianne Williamson, John Delaney, Joe Sestak, and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker. In addition to addressing the issue of environmental justice itself, this forum included discussions about many of the pressing environmental issues of today, including global warming, climate change, food security, and rising sea levels. In this article, I will be briefly outlining what each of these candidates had to say at the forum to give a general idea of their stances on each of these issues. From there, you can make informed decisions about these candidates for yourself. For more information about the forum or to watch the event in its entirety online, it can be found here
  1. 1. Tom Steyer 

    "You can't do climate, you can't do the environment, you can't do pollution unless you have environmental justice at its core. Environmental injustice is just another word for saying racism...If we're going to repair that injustice, we're going to have to do it deliberately." 

    Above all else, Tom Steyer made it prevalent that his number one priority is to rebuild America as a country in a sustainable fashion. In addition to this, he strives to make efforts to solve the climate crisis with environmental justice at the core of the solutions. This means keeping community leaders at the head of the planning process. Steyer plans on any jobs that develop from these sustainable solutions going straight back into these communities that have been at the receiving end of the majority of the country's environmental issues in the past. Steyer claims that these issues go far beyond just air or water pollution and are actually major examples of racism and injustice in this country. As a billionaire himself, Steyer admits that he is running for president because he believes that large corporations such as tobacco and oil have "bought the government." He believes that obtaining environmental justice will only be achievable when these corporate executives are taken down. Steyer's final claim was that he would be using his presidential power to declare a state of emergency on climate on his first day as president, stating that he can no longer wait on the passing of the Green New Deal to start working towards a solution.  

  2. 2. Senator Elizabeth Warren

    "We have an obligation to future generations. It’s not about what they will inherit; it’s about what we are borrowing from them. And we must meet that obligation."  

    Elizabeth Warren prefaced her plans to address environmental justice as president by acknowledging the fact that environmental injustice is ultimately an issue of racism in the US. She went on to boldly promise that should she become president, Warren will spend $3 trillion solely on fighting climate change. She claimed that one third of that money will be put back into the communities that have been devastated by environmental injustice in the past years. Her final plan for her presidency is to establish a Council committed to Environmental Justice in the White House to begin strategizing how the U.S. will combat future environmental injustices. Warren intends to treat the issue of climate change as a public health emergency as in her eyes, it is one. She stated that this is a problem that requires economic investments toward housing, schools, and communities. She even went as far as to claim that on day one of her presidency, Warren plans to completely stop all mining on federal land as well as end drilling both on land and offshore. Finally, she shared about her family’s love of hiking and expressed her concern about humans ruining the Earth’s natural beauties before future generations can enjoy them. Warren made it clear that for her, the issue of environmental justice is a personal one.   

  3. 3. Senator Cory Booker

    “You have two choices in life: to let the future happen to you, or to shape the future and make sure it happens in a way that’s just.”

    Cory Booker utilized the first few minutes of his time on the stage to admit his disappointment surrounding the Environmental Justice forum as well as a previous forum which he attended on Criminal Justice Reform with formerly incarcerated people. The reasoning behind his disappointment was that he found that the two forums surrounding issues that disproportionately impact people of color, were the two forums with the lowest attendance of candidates hoping to run in the 2020 presidential election. Having come from a low-income community with a majority of its population made up of minorities himself, Booker takes the issue of environmental justice incredibly personally. In fact, Booker has spent his career in the U.S. Senate focusing on these very issues. He made the point that there is “a whole lot of talk on [environmental injustice] issues like this and not enough action.” As president, Booker plans to give local communities the power to sue their governments and collect damages, handing legal power back to the people. He is also a proponent of nuclear energy, believing it is the necessary alternative to the fossil fuels that our country so heavily relies on today. Booker has two major goals for his presidency: the electrification of the US transportation sector by 2030 and to reach carbon neutrality as a nation by 2045. He claims that these environmental issues are not right or left, they are right or wrong. Environmental justice to Booker is not a political issue, but a human one.  

  4. 4. John Delaney 

    "The point is, while our country has remained segregated, pollution has also been segregated." 

    Much like the candidates to take the stage before him, John Delaney reiterated on the devastating impacts that environmental injustice has had on low-income and minority communities in the U.S. Delaney explained this issue with a scenario that could very well become a reality in the next fifty years if nothing is done to combat the climate crisis. Delaney brought up a recent scientific prediction that by the year 2100, the city of Boston will be underwater if climate change continues to progress. However, he combated that prediction by stating that a city with so much wealth will do everything it can to prevent this from happening and they will have the resources needed to do so. According to Delaney, it will be the lower-income communities without those resources which will bear the impact of this blow. According to Delany, this is environmental injustice. Delaney proceeded with making a commitment to the audience members: during his presidency, every law and regulation made will be viewed through the lense of environmental justice. His plan is as follows: make policies to stop pollution and make polluters pay, create a universal healthcare system in the US to cover health conditions that have impacted citizens as a result of exposure to pollution, and address the damages that have been inflicted upon US communities from this pollution. Delaney explained that the way he plans on solving the problem of climate change requires strategic planning with realistic benchmarks to reach the ultimate goal of net-zero by 2050, in a way that is both practical and attainable for the nation. 

  5. 5. Joe Sestak 

    “We need to make our government effective. When the EPA has an office called the Office of Environmental Justice and it doesn’t enforce environmental injustices... something is wrong.”

    After giving a brief synopsis of his life and career in the U.S. government thus far, Joe Sestak prefaced his onstage conversation with two major points. First, Sestak made it evident that no matter what changes take place in the U.S., our efforts to combat climate change will not matter if the other countries of the world do not band with us in the fight. Sestak views the battle against climate change with an all or nothing approach. His second point was inspired by a principle that he learned while serving in the military, “inspect what you expect.” Sestak believes it is vital for the nation’s government to make sure damages are not being done due to environmental injustice. He explained that the US must collaborate, cooperate, and integrate by using the Geographic Assessment Environmental Justice Model so that communities can assist in the law-making process. When asked about the role that the U.S. Military should have in the fight against environmental injustice, Sestak stated that the U.S. Navy alone has higher renewable standards on their bases than anywhere else in the nation. However, he admitted that even so, the U.S. Military can still do better. It is clear that Sestak plans to carry this attitude of constantly striving to do better for the environment, into his potential presidency. 

  6. 6. Marianne Williamson

    “Everything we’ve talked about today I agree with 99.99 percent, but none of this is really going to change if we only address symptoms, we have to address cause.”

    Marianne Williamson first introduced herself on the stage by speaking on her experience participating in the Democratic Debate. She explained that in the debate she mentioned Denmark, SC. Williamson was upset by Denmark residents telling her about contaminants in their water. She stated that their state government was not only avoiding fixing the problem, but they seemed to be part of the cover-up. Williamson claimed that she is running for president to not only help address these issues, but to “help America look in the mirror.” According to Williamson, racism and corruption in the US government are at the core of environmental injustice. She stressed that before the damages can be fixed, the capitalism that has corrupted the U.S. economic system must be addressed. Williamson made it clear that she believes that simply electing a democratic candidate with the best policies will not be enough. She wants to initiate a greater awakening in the U.S. that begins with the people. Williamson’s final point was that the U.S. has had a shift from democracy to corporate-aristocracy that will not be fixed with incremental solutions. She is calling for a spiritual and moral revolution in the country that will restore equality, liberty, and justice to the people of America. 

With the 2020 presidential election now less than a year away, it is crucial that young voters prepare themselves to make a decision that feels right for both themselves and this country. For many of us at the College of Charleston, this upcoming election will be the first presidential election that we have the opportunity to participate in. It is important that we stay informed so that we can use this privilege to make the changes that we wish to see in our country and in the world. This article is only hitting the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the beliefs and policies of these six candidates and the remaining candidates who did not attend this forum. I highly encourage anyone planning to vote in next year’s presidential election to do their own research and use unbiased resources to make their political decisions. Ultimately, the future belongs to the young people of today and it is our job to help shape the world we wish to live in. Get educated, get involved, and most importantly, vote!