One year after the signing of the Inflation Reduction Act — the largest bill in U.S. history aimed at mitigating climate change — examples of the bill’s key policies harming Black communities continue to surface. Worldacad has reported on several, including:

Experts like Rhiana Gunn-Wright, climate policy director at the Roosevelt Institute, contend that policy leaders have largely ignored these harms in the name of the greater good. 

However, in a recent essay in Hammer & Hope, a Black politics and culture magazine, she pinpoints the underlying truth behind this harm: The greater good in the U.S. has always come at the expense of Black people.

“The pattern that we’re seeing of Black people harmed by the decisions, investments, and build-out of clean energy is heartbreaking, but it’s nothing we should be surprised by. There is historical precedent,” said Gunn-Wright, who helped craft the country’s most progressive federal climate policy proposal — the Green New Deal — with Democratic U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. It has yet to pass.

The harm imposed on Black people, Gunn-Wright says, is born out of “racist compromises” facilitated by the bill’s implementation that “threaten to keep Black people at the bottom of a new green economy.”

To get the bill passed, Democrats made several concessions, many of which were pushed for by Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Those compromises included opening the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas drilling leases and approving a 300-mile gas pipeline through poor, rural Appalachian communities. While these concessions don’t cause immediate harm to Black neighborhoods, they guarantee that oil and gas will continue to be refined and processed in Black communities across the country.

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The new green economy is slowly taking shape. The country is beginning to see drastic decreases in pollution, the creation of hundreds of thousands of new jobs, and the much-needed construction of bridges, roads, and solar and wind energy facilities. But as Gunn-Wright says, “When we trade away Black people, we trade away everything that makes a green transition compelling and urgent.”

A transition that doesn’t prioritize Black life, she says, cannot sustain itself long term.

At the mark of the first anniversary of the historic bill’s passing, Worldacad sat down with Gunn-Wright to learn more about the ways federal climate policy is shortchanging Black communities and how the U.S. can implement climate policy that prioritizes Black life.

This conversation was lightly edited for clarity.

Worldacad: A lot of the media coverage of the IRA has been very positive. Why do you think it is so important to acknowledge the negatives as well in a space that has been slow to recognize them?

Rhiana Gunn-Wright: I’ve been thinking about many of these things for a while, for a lot of the past year, but I hung back because I didn’t know if what I was seeing or perceiving was just me. And I think the other thing was, if I’m being completely honest, I was scared.

After the IRA passed, discussions about the role of race in the IRA rollout and within the climate movement felt much more closed off than they had been in 2020, for example. I saw people of color bringing up critiques of the IRA [being] sort of shrugged off, not listened to.

So do you think that the general climate movement sees the environmental injustices facilitated by the IRA and chooses not to address them, or is it that people aren’t even seeing the issues in the first place?

It’s a mix of both. For many people who have been working on climate for years, it was very exciting to see a lot of the good stuff in the IRA, and they just wanted to focus on what they felt was good about the bill, especially with an election coming up.

There’s also a big slate of people who really don’t think [about] or are aware of these issues because there are a lot of people in the climate movement and clean energy space who don’t think about climate justice or racial justice. The climate movement, long-term climate organizations, and the clean energy industry — all of those are areas that are still predominantly white.

Can you outline some of the racist or anti-Black compromises that were made to pass the IRA and how we’re seeing them play out today?

Some of them are in the bill, and some of them are tangential. In the bill, you have the following:

  • The bundling of offshore lease sales for wind with lease sales for oil and gas, particularly in the Gulf. (Offshore leases allow parcels of the ocean to be leased from the government to private companies to extract oil and gas or erect windmills.) That has highly racist implications because of where the Gulf is and the fact that it is ground zero for environmental injustice in the U.S. You have Cancer Alley (in Louisiana), you have all the petrochemical facilities, and these frontline communities fought to get those lease sales off the books, and the concessions forced those back in.
  • The Mountain Valley Pipeline disproportionately affects low-income and rural communities, including Black and brown communities. They built a compressor station for the pipeline (to maintain the flow and pressure of natural gas) in North Carolina in the region’s one predominantly Black area.
  • Also in that list of concessions was permitting reform that reduces avenues to litigation and public participation. These changes are and would be deeply harmful to the ability of frontline communities to push back against polluting infrastructure. That is a racist compromise.

Then there are parts tangential to the IRA that really seem to have been designed with middle-class white people in mind. A lot of the shift to green energy is dependent on individual tax credits that are basically not refundable, so that shuts out disproportionately low-income folks, disproportionately Black folks.

This creates a split between renters and landlords, so renters are shut out of the transition. There aren’t any protections against landlords who take advantage of those credits to improve their properties, raise rents, and kick people out.

There is also no protection for low-income property owners. If a low-income homeowner is able to take advantage of energy credits, particularly in gentrifying areas, those investments can raise the value of that property, which can raise property taxes, inadvertently pricing people out.

A lot of these capital improvements and energy improvements are rooted in a system that is unjust, so we’re just continuing to port that over, even when the aim is to create a more just world.

White people can electrify their homes, white middle-class folks can electrify their homes and get off the grid, and then you leave low-income, disproportionately Black folks as the last on the more traditional fossil fuel-based grid, and then they’re shouldering the cost burden.

Then there is the other component: You’re seeing the use of eminent domain to build a battery factory or a facility building electric vehicles still producing industrial pollution in Black and brown communities.

After acknowledging this harm, how do we accelerate the green energy transition while also prioritizing Black life in this country?

Part of it comes down to expanding our understanding of what creating new clean industries entails. A lot of folks who work on federal policy still look at it from a 10,000-foot view. We have a lot of money coming, going out of the door, but we don’t have a lot of the necessary scaffolding policy and enforcement to ensure that what the IRA is facilitating is not harmful to Black communities and Black lives.

There’s a reason that procedural justice is a big part of climate justice. When I think about eminent domain being used to build and buy off Black homeowners around a battery plant, that’s such a big indication of what we think of as mattering and what we think clean energy is — it is too small. We should be thinking about land use and community benefit agreements and making sure that if you’re offering people money to buy their property — which will continue happening a lot in the green transition — that there is fairness.

The IRA won’t be the only climate bill; we must ensure that Black people are at the table because so much of what’s happening in the IRA could have been addressed by having different people at the table. There’s a belief that we can fix everything in implementation, but the best way to ensure Black people are included and protected is by ensuring Black people are included in the decision-making.

Right now, there is a sense that once the federal IRA money moves to states, it should be treated as hands-off, but we know that every state does not protect or value Black people equally, and no state does it as well as it should. So there needs to be continued oversight, enforcement, and real partnership between the federal and state governments, community organizations, and residents.

We also need to expand Justice40 to include all of the parts of the IRA. (Justice40 is a Biden administration initiative that assured at least 40% of federal investments in climate and clean energy would reach “disadvantaged” communities.)

There is still a tendency to silo environmental justice from the green transition. I also think the Environmental Justice For All Act is the best bill for creating those administrative structures to ensure equity in the transition. We need to consider racial justice with every decision.

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