Image Credit: Matthew Alexander on Unsplash

In 2020, amid nationwide protests against police violence and white supremacy, evidence linking higher COVID-19 mortality rates for Black communities and other communities of color to air pollution and many other social determinants of health gave new meaning and urgency to the cause of environmental justice. With the stakes raised, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden began to embrace a new and stronger role for the federal government in advancing racial equity and environmental justice.

Within days of taking office, the Biden administration ordered a “whole-of-government equity agenda that matches the scale of the opportunities and challenges that we face” through Executive Order 13985. Soon after, Executive Order 14008 launched the major policy vehicle for this commitment: the Justice40 initiative.

Although ultimately framed as part of federal climate strategy, Justice40 broadly aims to ensure that in multiple climate-related policy areas—including climate mitigation, clean energy, clean transportation, sustainable housing, and environmental protection—federal investments should deliver at least 40 percent of overall benefits to disadvantaged communities. “Disadvantaged” refers to the communities most harmed by the fossil fuel economy and most at risk from the climate emergency. The core concepts in this designation are environmental burden (existing pollution disparities and their sources) and climate vulnerability (the socioeconomic and discriminatory conditions that greatly increase climate risks in some communities as compared to others).

The administration describes its 40-percent goal as unprecedented in federal policy, and this is true: No previous administration has set a similar, cross-agency budget target for federal investments in a specific set of communities. Environmental justice leaders have likewise welcomed Justice40 as a potential turning point in federal policy on race and the environment.

However, halfway through year two of the policy, the initial fanfare around Justice40 has given way to a more complicated and troubling reality. The administration’s efforts to implement Justice40 have faltered in ways both mundane, such as missing administrative deadlines on key components of the program, and systemic, such as managing fiscal constraints and even harmful new energy investments, both largely imposed by Congress.

Confusion and healthy mistrust are understandable at this point, but continuing to advocate for the investments promised by Justice40 is a critical and necessary fight. Simply put, environmental justice requires significant federal resources, and community control and ownership of these resources.

Justice40 is the first and only federal policy with the potential to deliver these resources. And this pivotal, “post-startup” phase of its development comes with both promise and peril.


What Sets Justice40 Apart?

Justice40 stands apart in the history of federal social policy for two primary reasons: the potential scale of the spending in question, and how the spending is targeted for specific communities experiencing complex burdens and vulnerabilities, primarily due to racism.

The first reason is straightforward: Justice40’s claim to 40 percent of federal climate-related investments could significantly shift federal resources for the benefit of disadvantaged communities, and this would mostly be in addition to the existing, non-climate related social safety net. How many resources? A leading model that seeks to identify what the climate transition requires in terms of public and private investment estimates a total bill of $13 trillion over the next decade. Of course, congressional appropriations, not “need,” determine how many federal dollars are at stake. But even if the federal government were to fall far short and allocate only $1 trillion over the next decade, that is still $400 billion in public investment for disadvantaged communities.

Justice40 is unique in advancing a place-based focus for federal social spending. Currently, most federal spending on social needs takes the form of individual or household benefits for things like health care, nutrition, and income assistance. In contrast, Justice40 clearly emphasizes community investments.

There is a powerful timeliness to this shift from individual to community investments; tackling the climate crisis is largely about transforming our energy infrastructure, and infrastructure is meant for collective, not just individual, benefit. Justice40 is poised to ensure that disadvantaged communities are included in building and benefiting from the types of investment that governments will need to prioritize over the next decade.

While most federal programs primarily or exclusively rely on income-based metrics to determine eligibility, Justice40 includes the use of community mapping tools that incorporate environmental burdens and many other factors of social and economic harm. This is especially important in the age of climate change because climate vulnerability is not solely based on income. Resilience against severe weather disasters, for example, depends on many additional factors, such as local grid resilience, flood mitigation infrastructure, transportation access, and state disaster recovery plans.

Finally, Justice40’s approach understands that climate harm is collective and cumulative, caused by multiple sources and compounding over time. Future repair, therefore, requires comprehensive solutions that not only invest in disadvantaged communities’ clean energy future but protect these communities from existing harms—or even additional harms that might be caused by investments in fossil fuel “alternatives” that continue to pollute or otherwise adversely affect communities.


Vision Meets Reality

In the early days of Justice40, policy advocates had little to go on beyond a shared anti-racist vision and a historical understanding of environmental injustice. Executive Order 14008 launched the policy described above in a matter of a few sentences. How Justice40 would be able to harness the investments needed to advance racial equity on the scale of the “opportunities and challenges that we face,” as stated in Executive Order 13985, remained uncertain.

Its implications for federal investment became clearer in May 2021, with the release of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council’s (WHEJAC’s) formidable final recommendations report. WHEJAC’s comprehensive recommendations set the stage for the administration’s first and, to date, only program-wide policy statement on the subject: the “Interim Implementation Guidance for the Justice40 Initiative,” released in July 2021. This memo clearly followed the lead of WHEJAC in some respects, but it still leaves more questions than answers.

For example, it introduced the idea of “covered programs” (programs designated as part of Justice40). I latched onto the concept because it elevates critical concepts such as community mapping for targeting investments and robust stakeholder engagement. I also thought it was important to formally expand the list of covered programs because this would increase the policy “footprint” of Justice40 across agencies, thereby driving more resources to disadvantaged communities.

But the Interim Guidance offered no criteria for designating covered programs, begging the question of who defines the limits—or the reach—of Justice40. For example, as someone who has advocated for equity reforms in the Democrats’ $300 billion clean energy tax credits proposal, I wondered why energy tax credits—which are riddled with racial disparities—should not be treated as a covered program under Justice40. If specific criteria justified shielding tax policy from Justice40, I would be able to argue against them. But there were no criteria to question.

The Interim Guidance also created a “pilot” initiative of 20 covered programs. However, these programs’ total combined spending (including not only spending authorized in the infrastructure bill passed last fall, but also spending proposed in the Build Back Better Act, which of course has been blocked in the US Senate) was only about $80 billion. This is a small fraction of infrastructure funding. Would Justice40 just become yet another niche federal pilot program?

Advocates such as the United Frontline Table have increasingly raised questions and proposed reforms for advancing Justice40 while awaiting the White House’s “Final Guidance” on Justice40 implementation, which was due several months ago and currently has no public deadline for release.


Four Key Questions

Below, I pose four critical questions. How the Biden administration answers these questions will say a lot about whether Justice40 sets a new marker for environmental justice in the United States—or if the promise of Justice40 is squandered.

Question 1: In terms of federal budgeting and investments, will the footprint of Justice40 grow?

Solution: At a minimum, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) should undertake a thorough agency audit to identify and formally designate a complete list of programs covered by Justice40. Further, Justice40 should be clearly demarcated, programmatically and as a total dollar amount, within the framework of future presidential budgets.

Question 2: Will the resources needed and deserved by disadvantaged communities reach them?

Solution: Applicable competitive grant programs—there are many—should be the core federal machinery for Justice40 implementation. An ombudsman for climate-related competitive grant funding could be appointed to ensure procedural fairness and equity for disadvantaged communities. In-house technical assistance or funding for outside technical assistance should be readily available as needed by disadvantaged communities. Critical competitive policy areas where disadvantaged communities should be supported and elevated include clean energy, grid resilience, disaster resilience, and equitable transit.

Justice40 should adopt rubrics for rating proposals, with heavy weight given to the following factors: 1) burden and vulnerability levels of the applying locality/community; 2) types and levels of potential benefits for residents of the locality/community; 3) high levels of collaboration between government, community organizations, and residents.

More broadly, the administration should set a goal of directing at least half of climate-related competitive grant funding to localities with the greatest need and transformative potential in each given programmatic area. 

Question 3: How does Justice40 apply to formula funding?

Solution: Formula funding (block grants) in Justice40’s seven core policy areas should be treated as part of Justice40. Although controlled by states, these are still federal dollars. In consultation with community leaders within each state, agencies should develop detailed guidance for states as to their obligations under Justice40. In addition, State Implementation Plans—such as carbon reduction plans—should be subject to Justice40 where applicable. How states plan to identify disadvantaged communities for investments of formula funding is a critical question for agencies to address.

Question 4: How will progress on Justice40 be measured?

Solution: The first step is to formally designate that progress on Justice40 should be measured by dollars spent, not benefits accrued, as the former is more easily measured and verified. However, benefits should also be evaluated to help identify the most impactful types of investments for disadvantaged communities. In turn, the administration should develop a consistent and transparent auditing framework to track Justice40’s progress. A very basic question that could bedevil such auditing has received no attention from the administration: At what level of government is Justice40 being measured? This could be at the program level (40 percent of each applicable program), or at the agency level (40 percent of total applicable funding in each agency budget), or at the whole-of-government level, as implied in the authorizing executive orders (40 percent of all applicable funding across all applicable agencies).


Conclusion: There Is No Time to Mobilize Like the Present

Advancing Justice40 vitally depends on outside engagement and pressure from community leaders, activists, residents (and local officials) from disadvantaged communities to press their needs and demands on White House officials. Yet organized grassroots engagement on Justice40 has been slow to materialize, likely contributing to the slow progress of the program overall and continuing policy gaps, including those identified above.

For community leaders, one tactic is to work with local representatives to put together a municipal resolution on Justice40 directed at the Biden administration. Such a resolution could focus on demands for equity and justice in competitive grant funding, a federal funding mechanism that invites direct engagement between communities and agencies but often excludes the most disadvantaged communities for lack of technical support, political access, or other factors. A municipal Justice40 resolution could also be used to identify the challenges being faced and the investments Justice40 could deliver in response. There could also be a trans-local strategy to advance multiple Justice40 resolutions from cities across the country, as Maria Lopez-Nuñez of the Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark, NJ, has advocated.

The communities most harmed by the fossil fuel economy have the greatest claim on policies that aim to address those harms and build a more climate-resilient economy. By any reasonable account, 40 percent is a modest goal. Real and enduring progress in advancing racial justice will require much more. But Justice40 is a critical racial justice lever in the climate fight. A foothold has been secured: the executive order exists.

But without mobilization by climate justice advocates, the risk that Justice40 becomes another executive order that does a few good things but is quickly forgotten is high. The time for climate justice advocates to campaign and ensure that strong parameters are set in policy to compel a real, lasting federal commitment to environmental justice across all climate resiliency policy areas is now.