Presidential Forum 2019: Environmental Justice Synopsis

On Friday November 8, 2019 the first Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice was held in South Carolina. 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 has: 

  • 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. 

It is the things that ‘no one else wants’ being placed in communities of color, low-income communities and indigenous lands. These lands become the ‘sacrifice zones.’ This includes but is not limited to coal-fired power plants, certified animal feeding operations, waste treatment facilities, and unhealthy housing where we find lead and so many other impacts that are happening. Environmental justice is not simply the places that we preserve, conserve and go to recreate. It is where we live, play, pray and go to school. Environmental justice is climate justice, economic justice, reproductive justice. It is about continuing our struggle for justice for all poor and people of color.  

The candidates who attended were Tom Steyer, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, John Delaney, Joe Sestak and Marianne Williamson. Each spoke on the environmental injustices that continue to happen are happening to people of color and low-income communities. Each candidate gave a 3-minute public statement, followed by questioned asked by the discussion moderators. 

Here is a brief synopsis on each candidates' views: 

  • Tom Steyer

“Environmental racism is the new Jim Crow regarding food, housing, jobs, education. What is your plan to address environmental racism?”  

Steyer: “...my number-one priority, is to rebuild this country in a sustainable fashion and to make sure that we handle the climate crisis. But we’re going to do it with environmental justice in the lead. So that means, as we rebuild this country, whether that’s the $90 billion that we’re going to spend on residential water, whether that’s the $700 billion that we’re going to spend on the grid, whether it’s rebuilding the roads or the public transit systems, I am going to make sure that the planning process starts in the communities and they start with the leaders from communities to make sure that as we do this we redress the air and water problems specifically and that the jobs go to those communities first."

“We know that the funding to address the environmental injustices that have happened, both in the past and the present, is extremely limited. How would you redirect resources to help those communities?” 

Steyer: “I would declare a state of emergency on climate on the first day of my presidency... because it’s an emergency, to change the rules without needing Congress... On day one, we’re using the emergency powers of the presidency to get going on this problem, with environmental justice, the redress of environmental racism, at the core of what we do.” 

  • Senator Elizabeth Warren

“Tom Steyer said he would declare a state of climate emergency the first day he was president. Would you do the same?” 

Warren: “What I want to do is I want to make a position in the White House that is a permanent, ongoing position to address the injustices that we currently face on this issue. So, for me, what I have committed to do is both to create a position in the White House, and in the first hundred days not just to do it all by myself on this one, but to ask the groups that have been on the frontlines to be part of this, to come together and to start putting together an action plan.” 

“How would you better protect? You know, we have this shrinking of our federal lands. You know, they have opened it up to mining and drilling and all these other types of things. What would you do as president to better protect our federal lands?” 

Warren: “No new drilling, no new mining, on our federal lands, and no offshore drilling.” You just shut it down. And, you know, that’s a pretty big impact, because, as you know, about a quarter of our lands are federally protected lands.”  

“Climate Accountability Institute, which said the world’s wealthiest corporations are most responsible for the climate crisis which of course impacts most, people of color and poorest communities. More than 70% of global emissions come from just 100 companies. What do you think should be done to challenge this, change this? What would you do as president?” 

Warren: “What I want to do on the first day as president, the legislation I want to push through is anti-corruption legislation. I want to get in there and fight the oil companies, the big polluters, because here’s the deal. Anybody who comes up here and tells you about their climate plans, who doesn’t have an anti-corruption plan, who doesn’t have a plan to beat back the influence of money in Washington, is not serious.” 

  • Senator Cory Booker

“Environmental activists have been fighting it for years, what is your answer to the fact that there is no solution in dealing with nuclear waste?” 

Booker: “I look forward to phasing out nuclear waste and nuclear energy... The damage done to poor and vulnerable communities is significantly worse coming from climate change than it is the crisis of nuclear energy.” 

“Recently, you have stated that clean air and clean water shouldn’t be luxuries for the privileged. Yet, every day, communities of color, low-income communities and indigenous communities disproportionately face environmental hazards and harmful pollutants. So, I was wondering if you could elaborate on your statement.” 

Booker: “It shouldn’t... clean air, clean water should not be the purview of the wealthy or the privileged. It should be an American right for everybody. But nothing happens automatically. We’ve got to fight for it. And this is the thing that’s stopping this from being an issue, is if the only people that are fighting for it are the people that are directly affected by it, we’re never going to solve this problem. We’ve got to have a more courageous empathy, that I learned from my parents. A leader of their generation used to always say that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” 

  • John Delaney

“Can you talk about your opposition to the Green New Deal?” 

Delaney: “If the Green New Deal becomes part of a larger social compact, and any action on climate is conditioned upon making progress on these other important issues, by definition, we’re making it harder to have action on climate. The first is that it tied action on climate to all these other things, and that seemed to me it made it harder. The second thing is the goal was not realistic, and I didn’t think anyone was going to take it seriously. And the third part about it, was there was no specific plans.” 

"What kind of actions would you take to implement policies that would combat, protect, serve and repair those communities affected the most, ultimately making them more resilient to natural and man-made disasters?"

Delaney: “I believe, not only here in our country, but as a global community, we need to allocate resources to building sustainable infrastructure so that these communities can withstand the impact, to investing and upgrading their physical structures, so that they actually live in homes that aren’t decimated every time a storm comes through, and that it gets to how we actually allocate capital, not only here and around the world. And we must basically invest in these communities, which are in fact the most vulnerable. And the only way to address that is to actually invest in the infrastructure that will protect them, and in giving them the opportunity to effectively rebuild their communities so that they can withstand what is likely to be a much more difficult next several decades.” 

  • Joe Sestak

“How would your administration assure that the Environmental Protection Agency, whose mission is supposed to protect the human health of the environment, does not continue to dismantle the environmental laws and policies that have been put in place just to do that, thereby becoming the Environmental Destruction Agency?” 

Sestak: “When you have the EPA have an office called the Office of Environmental Justice, and it doesn’t enforce environmental injustices, something’s wrong. EPA has regulatory abilities. And the fact that it is not doing it, that is the one horse we have to ride, because it is the one horse, despite all the great words of wanting this or doing this, but that’s the power that we have, is to have an office that has, like the civil rights office in the Justice Department, that does go in and inspect voting rights and other things. We must pivot and make that one, sir, that one, be the office, the horse that we ride most, as we stand up with frontline communities.” 

  • Marianne Williamson

“We (U.S.A) have 500,000 people in our country who are homeless. Many of those are people of color, and we know that they are being impacted from climate change. They’re being impacted in the sense that they are breathing more toxic air pollution than others. They often can’t find clean water to drink. What would you do to address some of the homelessness that is tied to these environmental impacts?” 

Williamson: “It’s interesting when we talk about it as a homelessness problem, or even as a housing problem, because what’s really happening is that it’s a poverty problem. It is an economic injustice problem. So, it’s one of the reasons I’m running. It’s very interesting, isn’t it? That the same political establishment which we’re asking to solve the homelessness problem, to solve the housing problem, caused the homelessness problem and caused the housing problem because of the fact that they have become handmaidens to the corporate aristocracy, whereby for the last 40 years we have been engaged in a systematic transfer of wealth.” 

“Many youths come from environmental justice communities, attend HBCUs and minority-serving institutions. What is your plan to better support the colleges to prepare the next generation of environmental justice champions?” 

Williamson: “One of the plans of race-based policies is billions of dollars given to historically black colleges, which of course is important. But I feel that when you only have race-based policies, it’s still white America saying, “I messed with you, and I’ll tell you how I’m going to fix you.” It’s the same paternalism. Whereas with reparations, with my plan for reparations, black America will decide. If I owe you money, I don’t get to tell you how to spend it. And the stipulation on the part of the U.S. government is that the money, the $500 billion, that I have proposed to be dispersed over a period of 20 years, would be used for the purposes of economic and educational renewal.” 

“What do you think is the most critical issue to take on when it comes to environmental justice and environmental racism?” 

Williamson: “Well, the money in politics, it’s the cancer underlying all the other cancers. One of the first things I would do is submit legislation. We can establish public funding for federal campaigns. This is the head of the snake that we absolutely must bite off.” 

For more information click the link for the full broadcast