James B. Meigs is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and the former editor of Popular Mechanics. City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly spoke to Meigs about his new Manhattan Institute report, “The Big Squeeze: How Biden’s Environmental Justice Agenda Hurts the Economy and the Environment.”
What are the origins of the environmental justice movement? And what were its original goals?
The environmental justice (or “EJ”) movement first got national attention in 1982, when residents of Warren County, North Carolina, a majority-black community, protested plans to locate a toxic-waste landfill there. Soon, several studies showed that communities with toxic-waste facilities were likely to have higher percentages of minority residents. The concept of “environmental racism” was born. Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton both moved to make EJ a governmental priority. Early on, the basic demand of the EJ movement was reasonable: all groups should be entitled to equal protection under environmental laws.
How has the Biden administration’s effort adapted the EJ framework into its environmental agenda?
At the start of his term, Biden issued Executive Order 14008, which set aggressive targets for clean energy but also included the demand that 40 percent of the “overall benefits” of environmental programs should flow to disadvantaged communities. The White House says this “Justice40 Initiative” must be a major focus of every government agency. The underlying concept holds that poor and minority communities are exposed to higher levels of pollution and are entitled not just to lower emissions but to various economic benefits to make up for historic underinvestment in those communities. In effect, the Justice40 project redefines the purpose of environmental programs to include not just less pollution but also various social goals such as “empowering communities” and reducing poverty.
What are the key problems with that effort?
Biden’s EJ agenda is a confusing jumble of requirements that burden government agencies with new layers of bureaucracy and contradictory demands. Some of the key requirements of the program, including the meaning of the word “benefit,” are left undefined. At a time when the White House says we are in a “climate emergency,” the EJ requirements will make it harder to get clean energy infrastructure projects approved. It will also raise the costs of those projects by adding demands such as favoring more expensive union labor. In practice, this means it will cost more and take longer to reach the administration’s ambitious climate targets. The EJ rules will also make it easier for activist groups to tie up private industry in litigation, which will undermine economic opportunity in poor communities.
Could you describe the distinction between the “practical” and “extreme” wings of today’s EJ movement?
The EJ movement contains a mix of ideologies and policy goals. On the practical side, advocates seek basic fairness in the application of environmental laws and reasonable goals, such as replacing lead pipes or reducing airborne pollution in cities. On the extreme side, activists see environmental justice as part of a larger progressive movement that pursues radical social change. For example, the influential Climate Justice Alliance describes its mission as working for “regenerative economic solutions and ecological justice—under a framework that challenges capitalism and both white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy.” The White House invited leaders of the Climate Justice Alliance and similar groups to advise it on how to shape its EJ policies.
Do you see parallels between the administration’s EJ agenda, which tries to expand social-welfare programs under the rubric of environmental concerns, and efforts by medical organizations and federal agencies to promote concepts like the “social determinants of health?”
The progressive movement is good at taking goals most Americans agree with—less pollution, or better health outcomes for minorities—and then using them as a kind of smokescreen under which to enact a more radical agenda. In both cases, activists want to take programs aimed at specific, concrete problems and then redirect those programs toward an amorphous set of social goals. For example, the White House’s EJ advisors demand that federal programs prioritize installing solar panels on the roofs of public-housing buildings. That wouldn’t help reduce CO2 emissions; these panels will be less efficient than rural solar farms. But it would mean more inner-city jobs and empowerment for activist groups. These activists imagine a future of “decentralized grid ownership,” in which poor communities control power generation communally. So, while most voters see Biden’s climate policies as being aimed at reducing emissions, EJ extremists see them as a vehicle for building the kind of post-capitalist future they desire. So far, the White House hasn’t followed every extreme EJ policy recommendation, but the activists are planting seeds. They might not fulfill their whole vision, but they can certainly tie up green programs with costs, delays, and contradictory goals.