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Let’s Start Crafting Environmental Policy Through an Anti-Racist Lens

November 17, 2021

A protest sign reads "Fight today for a better tomorrow."

The following essay was originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer in collaboration with Drexel University’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation as part of Rebuilding Philly, a series of commentary articles written by Drexel faculty and professional staff related to the COVID-19 pandemic and racial and economic equity gaps in Philadelphia. It was written by Gwen Ottinger, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Politics in Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences, and Jennifer Britton, the director for communications and special projects for Drexel’s Office of University and Community Partnerships.

The effects of climate change will hit communities of color first and worst, due to long-standing patterns of segregation and redlining.

Creating an equitable, sustainable Philadelphia requires integrated solutions, but these cannot be limited to strategies that aim for a vaguely defined greater good. Initiatives that improve the environment “for all” are likely to perpetuate structural environmental racism. Conversely, initiatives that foreground the needs of the most vulnerable tend to work to everyone’s benefit. Explicitly anti-racist approaches are necessary.

Environmental racism is a well recognized phenomenon. By design, pollution concentrates near communities of color, who are also the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In Philadelphia, that includes intensifying summer heat and the kind of persistent flooding that the Eastwick neighborhood contends with. Government programs to address environmental injustice focus on one community at a time, as issues flare up. Their solutions don’t address underlying capitalist and racist logics that allow environmental hazards to pile up in already-vulnerable communities.

Policies to address other environmental problems, including climate change and pollution, are seldom designed with consideration for how they may differentially impact people of color — and thus often end up reinforcing structural racism. The federal Clean Air Act makes cities and regions accountable for average pollution levels, but not for levels in the specific communities where pollution is most concentrated. Pollution trading schemes, meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions overall, have been shown to increase the exposure of communities of color to pollution.

Pursuing equity and sustainability together requires a paradigm shift. Environmental policy cannot continue to treat environmental racism as a problem that exists as a discrete challenge, or that can be solved independently of other environmental issues. Rather, all environmental policy needs to take an explicitly anti-racist approach.

Anti-racist environmental policy would prioritize protecting the health and well-being of people of color and other groups most vulnerable to pollution and the effects of climate change. Organizations like the Climate Justice Alliance and Philly Thrive envision replacing extractive, polluting industry with a new economy that offers sustainable livelihoods for people of color. Policy makers should work with organizations like these to translate their vision into policy. It should reject polluters’ demands to be treated as “stakeholders,” and instead recognize them as entities invested in activities known to endanger human life, especially the lives of people of color.

An anti-racist paradigm for environmental policy would also honor the knowledge, insight, and creativity of people heavily burdened by pollution and climate change. Communities of color are experts on their own conditions. They can see the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that environmental problems intersect with health disparities, food insecurity, economic injustice, and police brutality.

Anti-racist environmental policy would establish community knowledge as on par with that of credentialed scientists, engineers, and health professionals. While undeniably important, the knowledge of credentialed experts is neither infallible nor all-encompassing, and it is inflected by cultural biases associated with class privilege. Integrated approaches to sustainability and equity require a diversity of insights, from the earliest phases of problem definition.

The defining challenges of the 21st century — equity and sustainability — cannot be solved separately. The City of Philadelphia will need to invent anti-racist environmental policies to secure the city’s future. Adopting two guiding principles — prioritizing the health and livelihoods of people of color, and valuing the expertise of communities impacted by pollution equally with those of scientists — will make the city a trend-setter in environmental protection.