August 06, 2020

Harris, Ocasio-Cortez Introduce Landmark Legislation to Empower Frontline Communities

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) and U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY-14) on Thursday introduced the Climate Equity Act, legislation to ensure that the United States government centers communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis in policy related to climate and the environment. For the last year, Harris and Ocasio-Cortez have worked with frontline community leaders to receive feedback on this legislation to ensure the strongest policy possible.

“COVID-19 has laid bare the realities of systemic racial, health, economic, and environmental injustices that persist in our country,” said Sen. Harris. “The environment we live in cannot be disentangled from the rest of our lives, and it is more important than ever that we work toward a more just and equitable future. That is why, as we combat the climate crisis and build a clean economy; we must put justice and equity first. I’m proud to partner with Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez on this comprehensive proposal to empower communities that have been neglected by policymakers for far too long.”

“The Democratic Party is now finally starting to embrace what many activists have long advocated: climate policy must be driven by and centered around frontline communities,” said Rep. Ocasio-Cortez. “Major environmental policies must be written by the black, brown, and low-income people who have been and will be disproportionately impacted by it, just like the Green New Deal envisioned. For too long, policies that affect communities of color have been determined by a few white men in a room in Washington. The budding grassroots movement and electoral results we're seeing around the country make clear that Americans want to upend old, exclusionary order. I'm proud to partner with Senator Harris on a bill that will pave the way for a new, inclusionary way of doing things in D.C.”

The Climate Equity Act creates an administrative structure within the federal government to ensure that as we boldly address the climate crisis, our policies are founded in equity and justice for frontline communities. By ensuring that frontline community leaders and allies are playing a fundamental role in shaping and guiding federal policy, the Climate Equity Act helps hold the government accountable for creating a more just and equitable future as we tackle the climate crisis and build a clean economy.   

‘Frontline communities’ are those that have experienced systemic socioeconomic disparities, environmental racism, and other forms of injustice, including low-income communities, indigenous peoples, and communities of color. As the climate crisis continues, these communities and others, including deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, vulnerable elderly populations, unhoused populations, and people with disabilities — and the women, youth, and future generations belonging to these communities — will be impacted first and hardest by the climate crisis.

The Climate Equity Act holds the government accountable to frontline communities when it considers a policy, regulation, or investment with a climate or environmental nexus — which could broadly include direct policies to address the environment and climate change, but also transportation, housing, infrastructure, jobs, workforce development, and more.

Specifically, the legislation will:

Hold Congress Accountable

  • Require relevant legislation receive an equity score that is both quantitative and qualitative to estimate the impact on frontline communities.
  • The equity score will be modeled after the economic scores provided by the Congressional Budget Office, will be developed in consultation with experts and leaders from frontline communities, and will be updated periodically with the best available science.

Hold the Executive Branch Accountable

  • Require that relevant rules and regulations that have significant impact on frontline communities undergo an additional level of review. This review will aim to mitigate negative impacts, maximize benefits, and bring representatives from frontline communities into the regulatory review process.
  • Require relevant federal grant-making and investment programs undergo review to ensure that frontline communities benefit by targeting investments and addressing existing barriers.

Ensure Frontline Communities Lead 

  • Establish an independent Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability with a Board of Advisors made up of members and allies of frontline communities to represent the views of frontline communities in rulemaking at the beginning of the rulemaking process. 
  • Establish a new position of Director for Climate and Environmental Justice at all relevant agencies to ensure compliance and coordination.
  • Require that representatives of frontline communities are at the table during the drafting and review of relevant rules and regulations, providing insights and comments on how to minimize negative impacts and maximize benefits to frontline communities and ensure those insights and comments are addressed.

 Because the Climate Equity Act aims to establish accountability for justice and equity impacts of federal climate and environmental actions, advocates and allies from the most impacted communities provided feedback in formulating this legislation to ensure that together we build the strongest policy possible.

 For far too long environmental justice communities have lacked the laws needed to protect ourselves from legacy pollution and new harmful projects. The Climate Equity Act can be a useful tool for early assessment of proposed laws and policies and their impact on the quality of life of frontline communities,” said Peggy Shepard, Co-Founder and Executive Director, WE ACT for Environmental Justice. “We appreciate that the core of the bill centers the expertise and voices of people through the establishment of the Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability with a Board of Advisors made up of members and allies of frontline communities. We also appreciate the engagement that we have had with Senator Kamala Harris's office around drafting and providing input to the Climate Equity Act since early last year. Both Senator Harris and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have shown a commitment to advancing policies that address environmental and climate justice.”     

“Ensuring our nation's climate legislative and policy agenda is built on a foundation of justice and equity is critical to achieving our democratic ideals,”said Cecilia Martinez, Executive Director, Center for Earth, Energy, and Democracy (CEED). “This legislation will support our efforts toward this end. For too long, the most vulnerable in our nation have suffered the worst consequences of climate change, and the pollution of an energy sector impairing their health. The Climate Equity Act is essential and needed for us to move forward as a nation.”

“When our elders and the founders of the environmental justice/climate justice movement convened in Jemez, New Mexico in 1996, they knew that until our communities were centered they would never be adequately protected from the climate crisis and the myriad injustices that contribute to it - this understanding led to the 1996 Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing,”said Elizabeth Yeampierre, Co-Chair, Climate Justice Alliance Steering Committee and Executive Director, UPROSE. “Centering, our communities, our leaders, including our young people, is a requisite and primary step for climate justice. The Climate Equity Act, if properly implemented, could be a key tool for ensuring that our communities are always at the table and multiple government agencies work in synergy to ensure intersectional and inclusive solutions.”

“Young people, poor people, and Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities have always borne the brunt of toxic pollution and climate collapse. These communities closest to the pain of the interlocking crises must also be closest to developing the solutions,” said Lauren Maunus, Sunrise Movement Legislative Manager. “Sunrise is grateful for Senator Harris and Representative Ocasio-Cortez's commitment to working hand-in-hand with impacted communities over the past year to draft the Climate Equity Act. This bill is foundational to the Green New Deal and the project of creating a more just and equitable country in the face of the climate crisis.”

 “Every day, black and brown communities suffer disproportionally from a higher than average exposure to pollution and climate change,” said Heather Toney, Moms Clean Air Force National Field Director. “The Climate Equity Act will ensure that these communities have a seat at the policy making table and will lessen the impacts of structural racism to protect the health of the most vulnerable among us. Moms Clean Air Force applauds Senator Kamala D. Harris and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for investing in communities of color and ensuring there is justice in every breath.”

“For far too long, communities of color as well as low-income communities have not had a say in any number of crucial decisions,” said Hilary O. Shelton, the Director of the NAACP Washington Bureau and the Association’s Senior VP for Policy and Advocacy. “The result has too often been that we are left out of the decision making process. This is particularly concerning as these are decisions that may affect any number of vital issues such as our lives, our livelihoods, and the health and wellbeing of our families. Rather than having a seat at the policy making table, we have found ourselves on the menu. We commend Senator Harris and Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez for introducing the forward-thinking Climate Equity Act. When fully implemented, we are convinced this important policy will create real improvements by keeping the people most impacted at the heart of the decision making process.”   

“Black and brown communities continuously face unequal protection from pollution and often disproportionate harms from climate change. With Senator Harris’ and Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s Climate Equity Act, we are on a path toward a new and better process for establishing federal climate policies that empower the most climate-impacted communities,” said K. Sabeel Rahman, president of Demos. “This legislation advances community control by requiring equity assessments of proposed rules, legislation, and investments for addressing climate change, and by providing a foothold for communities overburdened by pollution and climate risks to inject their demands for equity and power into the policymaking process.”

“We applaud this bill for bringing the voices of those who suffer the worst impacts of climate change and pollution to the decision-making table and for holding polluters accountable for the devastation they have for far too long caused these communities,” said Maria Handley, Director of Campaigns for Energy and Climate at The Wilderness Society. “This important piece of legislation will ensure people of color, Indigenous populations, low-income and frontline communities are finally included and represented throughout the federal rule-making processes that regulates what happens in their own backyards.”

“Systemic racism and environmental injustice in this country has meant that power plants, incinerators, factories and other toxic facilities are often built next to Black and brown communities, leaving these communities to bear the brunt of air pollution and toxic exposure,” said Elizabeth Gore, Senior Vice President, Political Affairs, Environmental Defense Fund. “EDF is proud to support the Climate Equity Act, a powerful piece of legislation introduced today by Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY-14) that seeks to dismantle these long standing environmental injustices by establishing a robust and much-needed framework for incorporating environmental justice and equity in government decision making, including increased transparency and meaningful stakeholder participation.” 

“We commend Senator Harris and Representative Ocasio-Cortez not only for introducing a bill that puts frontline communities and environmental justice leaders at the center of climate policy development, but also for ensuring that the Climate Equity Act itself was crafted through an inclusive process with environmental justice organizations and coalitions,” said Sara Chieffo, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs, League of Conservation Voters. “Climate change solutions and addressing racial, economic and social injustice are inextricably linked and this important legislation creates critical tools to hold Congress and the Executive Branch accountable in centering justice for frontline communities as we address these interconnected crises.”

For further background, click here.

For a section-by-section summary, click here.

For the full text of the legislation, click here.