Putting people first this Earth Month
As I reflect on this Earth Month and all the work in front of me for this year, I’m optimistic about the future. My policy work often gets bogged down in technical definitions and archaic procedures that attempt to remove the human element from this work. There is the technical definition of environmental justice we use in policy making, but for me the environmental injustice I have seen always and continues to appear in a specific way. Growing up I was never aware of what we didn’t have. Like so many households my parents did a good job of hiding their struggles from us. Energy insecurity took the form of habits like not running A/C on hot summer days or using heat only when necessary in cold winter months. If you were cold, layering up was normal. The world has a way of making you painfully aware of what you don’t have as compared to others, and for me that was always going over to other kids’ homes.
It’s nearly 20 years later and I continue to hear about families foregoing essentials to pay their electricity bill. Energy insecurity is frustrating to me and it does not occur in isolation. Communities experiencing this may also encounter food, housing, and transportation insecurity. As we leave winter and approach the summer days families are continuing to make tradeoffs, and are in need of support. This underlying truth has not changed since I have been on this earth. I believe the tools and knowledge exist to change this. I see states like Colorado and Michigan developing environmental justice screening tools, and New York is taking comment on the development of criteria to identify disadvantaged communities. Low-income, and communities of color bear a disproportionate share of negative environmental and health consequences. The cumulative exposure to toxins and pollutants, coupled with a number of socioeconomic and health factors place these communities at higher risk.
One way we can mitigate harms perpetuated against communities is to ensure that policy accurately identifies those communities and the unique circumstances they experience. It is important that we mitigate previous mistakes by taking note of what is missing or required to bring those communities on an equal playing field. Like Michigan and Colorado, the White House is also releasing the Justice40 Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool to target communities.
I think one way that we can honor earth month is by remembering the sacrifice that so many households make to keep the lights on and food on the table, and centering energy assistance. Rising energy costs puts low-income and communities of color at greater risk. States and the programs they oversee, like the Low-income Home Energy Assistance program, must be used to support families and protect them from the negative impacts of energy insecurity.