A Biden administration initiative that assured at least 40% of federal investments in climate and clean energy would reach “disadvantaged” communities may prove costly to environmental justice goals because of a metric related to race, a new study reveals.

A policy analysis published in Science this week and conducted by a dozen of the country’s leading environmental health experts found that while the tool and spending initiative will help lower emissions in disadvantaged communities, it will not reduce relative disparities amongst racial groups. In some instances, it may increase the gap.

This means that while air and water will get cleaner across the country, Black people will still be exposed to relatively more pollution than the general population. Air pollution contributes to anywhere from 85,000 to 200,000 premature U.S. deaths, with Black people disproportionately impacted.

In an unprecedented move early into his term, President Joe Biden announced the Justice40 Initiative as a way to reverse decades of racist policies that left communities of color unevenly exposed to environmental injustices and the impacts of severe weather.

Two years into the administration, Biden’s spending is guided by the tool, which outlines disadvantaged communities based on metrics that measure things like pollution exposure, unemployment rates, and concentrations of poor health outcomes.

To much dismay, however, the tool’s early version omitted race to avoid legal challenges from a conservative Supreme Court, despite race being the strongest predictor of environmental harms. Black people experience the most pollution across all sources in the United States.

After thousands of public comments calling for the inclusion of race, the administration eventually included a metric that accounted for a community’s percentage of people of color. Once the metric was added, however, the share of people of color in disadvantaged communities decreased, according to an analysis by the Harlem-based organization WE ACT for Environmental Justice. As it stands now, more than 40% of people living in “disadvantaged” communities are white. In all, the communities where half of Black Americans live are not included in the spending priorities.

Ultimately, said Regan Patterson, a co-author of the study, the tool in its current iteration “is a disservice to the goal of addressing environmental injustices through this Biden-Harris administration and its environmental progress.”

One of the four main goals of the administration is environmental justice, which is a movement to address the disproportionate exposure of environmental harm to certain communities. But if people of color are still unevenly exposed to pollution, that undermines the vision of environmental justice, even if pollution is lowered across the board.

The study shows that race should drive policy, said Patterson, an assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-founder of Black in Environment, a collective of Black environmental advocates. Since many of the country’s policies were, for centuries, discriminatory by race, the policies to reverse their harmful impact must also be race-based, she said.

“The study shows that race in equals race out,” she said. “Racist policy going in means we need race-based policy coming out in order to actually effectively address racial-ethnic disparities.”

The paper’s modeling is based on three future scenarios: Business as usual, which estimated pollution exposure as if Biden’s initiative was never implemented; and two scenarios based on an emission reduction rate that was double and quadruple the current rate of today’s emission reductions.

The model found that under the scenarios based on a doubling and quadrupling of today’s rate of pollution reductions, which is necessary to limit the harmful impacts of climate change, Biden’s spending plan would eliminate pollution exposure gaps between disadvantaged communities and all low-income communities compared to the nation’s average. Yet, the plan would lead to an “increase [in] the relative exposure disparity for the most exposed racial-ethnic group,” which is currently Black people.

The model also suggests that while Black people will remain disproportionately exposed to pollution, Asian communities may eventually become the country’s most-exposed group. The analysis exemplifies data that shows, no matter the income level, race is the greatest meter of pollution exposure. Today, middle-class Black people are exposed to more pollution than white people living in poverty.

Patterson argues that the paper offers the administration an opportunity to modify its policies before it’s too late: “If they’re able to refine those definitions of disadvantaged, then I think we’re showing that there is the actual potential to see reductions where you want to see them.”

She also suggests shying away from the historical “top-down” practice of federal spending, rather focusing on bringing community organizations to the table.

She noted that the federal Environmental Protection Agency has recently created 17 technical assistance centers made up of universities and environmental justice organizations, which will be tasked with helping to outline climate-related spending priorities in their regions. (Patterson’s study was partly funded by the EPA, but the EPA did not review the analysis before it was published.)

“If you’re going to say you really want to do this [environmental justice] work, which is rooted in an environmental racism lens, then you have to do something to address race,” Patterson said. “Black communities, environmental justice groups, they know what environmental racism looks like and how to achieve these goals.”


Adam Mahoney is the climate and environment reporter at Worldacad. Twitter @AdamLMahoney