Take a stroll through Baltimore’s most underserved neighborhoods, where broken concrete takes the place of trees and incinerators share the landscape. The air you breathe is polluted, and the water is suspect too. If you see any children, it’s likely some of them have asthma. Poor air quality from the nearby incinerators, traffic emissions and vacant housing contribute to the high rates of asthma-related hospitalizations, which are double in Baltimore compared to the rest of Maryland, and almost three times higher than the U.S. average. And while lead poisoning in children has gone down dramatically in recent decades, close to 1% of young children tested in Baltimore City in 2019 still showed elevated blood lead levels.
Baltimore is one of many examples in America where being a low-wealth person of color means you are more exposed to environmental hazards and climate-fueled disasters, thanks to decades of disinvestment in Black communities. These communities are also more vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate like flooding, extreme heat events and heat-related deaths. In fact, heat is the nation’s deadliest weather disaster, killing as many as 1,200 people a year in the United States. Baltimore is predicted to be one of the top 10 cities that will have the most days of excessive heat in the country by 2050, which will only intensify heat-related public health issues.
For the past few years, we have seen a shift in this country, an attempt to right the wrongs of the past. We saw a fine example of this on April 7 when the first Black woman was confirmed to the Supreme Court, and we see this every time a statue or sports team name rooted in racism is removed. The Biden administration is also working to correct past mistakes, as it relates to environmental justice, in the form of a new tool developed by the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).
CEQ’s Climate & Economic Justice Screening Tool is an online map designed to support federal funding for climate, clean energy, affordable/sustainable housing and clean water in marginalized and underserved communities. However, despite the fact that Black people are nearly three times as likely as white people to die from long-term exposure to pollution, and to live in areas most affected by extreme flooding and heat, the tool does not include race as an environmental risk factor in the mapping tool.
Why? One guess: Excluding race as a risk factor means investment in marginalized communities will be easier to defend from legal challenges.
The Climate & Economic Justice Screening tool may be a pragmatic entry point to correcting past egregious actions, but by ignoring race, it ignores the cumulative effects of various environmental, health, and socioeconomic burdens. For example, low-wealth Black communities are 75 percent more likely to live close to a plant or factory and experience significantly higher mortality rates. Omitting race from the equation would not accurately represent the communities most burdened by proximity to industrial facilities, which could result in less investment in those areas.
While the screening tool itself and the intentions behind it are a good start, a more comprehensive and honest approach is needed.
My center, in collaboration with the National Wildlife Federation, examined the gaps in environmental and climate justice screening tools and proposed a comprehensive set of indicators that may be used to identify communities experiencing environmental and climate injustices to aid in fair and equitable policy and decision making.
A comprehensive tool is one that not only includes environmental and demographic indicators such as race, but also measures of factors such as economic progress, health and resiliency. It is only with these kinds of indicators that we have a holistic, accurate understanding of who is impacted by environmental and climate injustices, and how we can advance environmental justice, climate equity and community resilience. To achieve such a tool, we recommend a multitude of actions including:
- Identifying, prioritizing and microtargeting areas in greatest need of intervention;
- Communicating and brainstorming indicators with community members to reflect their lived expertise, including differential vulnerability to climate impacts;
- Screening for cumulative impacts;
- Training legislators, urban planners and communities on how to use the tool;
- Measuring the success of equitable climate adaptation strategies and develop inclusive mitigation strategies.
Geospatial tools are not a silver bullet to solve the myriad complex, interrelated problems facing communities experiencing environmental and climate injustices, but they can enable more effective and equitable policy and investment. A group of environmental justice leaders from the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council recognize the problems associated with CEQ’s screening tool, and are seeking to build a comprehensive tool that reflects and is responsive to the needs of communities experiencing environmental and climate injustices including race and other indicators that we have discussed in our report. With the U.S. at increasing risk of climate-fueled disasters, we need to plan for future threats and incorporate a focus on equity, justice and resilience into our policies along with honesty about who bears the most disproportionate burden.
Sacoby Wilson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor with the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health and Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the University of Maryland, College Park School of Public Health, where he directs the Center for Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health.