Policy Summary 

Environmental Justice covers a broad set of policies including environmental regulatory standards, sustainable infrastructure investments, zoning, and land use development policies and investments, and building use rules and codes.  These policies address the economic, environmental, and health issues that safeguard safe and clean communities and workplaces. In recent years, a great amount of public attention has been focused on climate change. The scope of climate change policy has tremendous implications for the range of environmental justice concerns. This review looks broadly at climate change policies and their potential for impact.  

Case for Equity

The distribution of air, water, and other environmental benefits is uneven in America and across the globe (Mackie and Hascic 2018). Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color bear a disproportionate burden with respect to health outcomes and property values as a result of proximity to, and effects from, environmental and climate hazards (Downey and Hawkins 2008). Correcting these issues would improve the health, wealth, and overall community welfare of millions of Americans. The London School of Economics estimates that 3.6 million people suffer premature deaths annually from fossil fuels air pollution, with those deaths disproportionately impacting developing nations and communities of color here in the US (Leliveld et al 2019).

Return on Investment

The return on investment for this policy is rated as HIGH given its fiscal, social, health, and broader economic impacts.  

Assessing the impacts of investments in climate change requires analyses that account for the intergenerational impacts of policies as the costs and benefits are distributed over time. Moreover, analyses must account for the unequal distribution of benefits and costs within and across geographic space (rural and urban as well as municipal, state, and national borders). Analyses are tremendously complex in accounting for physical, human, and economic impacts, and although there is a wide range of estimates available, the consensus is that the benefits derived from abating the effects of climate change outweigh the costs associated with the range of potential interventions.

Research estimates that there are annual GDP losses from climate change at a minimum of $1 trillion annually (Kahn 2019). A 2017 report from the London Commission on the Economy and Climate estimates that in the US alone, we could derive a direct economic gain of US $26 trillion through 2030 from adopting policy actions and investments (Blythe et al 2017).  Moreover, the EPA estimates the number of benefits from mitigation that could be achieved by 2050 including: 13,000 fewer deaths through air quality improvements; $18 billion in lost labor hours; up to $700 million in health-related water quality impacts; and upwards of 6.7 billion in infrastructure savings (bridges, road, urban drainage, and coastal property damage). Their analysis accounts for both the potential benefits and economic costs (EPA 2015).

Research Base

The research base is rated as being HIGH for this policy area. The literature has tremendous breadth, is of high quality, and is international in scope.  

In the climate change literature, there exists a tremendous amount of uncertainty regarding how best to calculate the financial and social costs/benefits of various climate policy actions. There is an ongoing debate concerning the most appropriate methodology and competing sets of assumptions used across these studies (Jamet and Morlot 2009). But there is no serious debate regarding whether it is a net positive, and clear unanimity about the overall health and environmental benefits. Moreover, in the broader literature covering health and disaster recovery, there is no doubt about whether eliminating/mitigating pollutants, environmental hazards, and natural disasters can lead to substantial declines in the loss of life and financial costs.  

Research has linked these hazards to health effects including respiratory ailments, cardiovascular diseases, as well as negative pregnancy and birth defects. (Servaido et al). Research consistently shows the efficacy of strategies aimed at addressing these hazards yielding a corpus of studies forming a best practices literature for mitigation (for a discussion of strategies, see the CDC and the EPA). Moreover, research suggests that reforming emergency disaster policies can also address wealth inequities created by natural disasters. In the wake of natural disaster recovery, Black and Latino families experience wealth losses over time, while white families accrue wealth gains (Howell and Elliott 2019). 

Ease of State Implementation

This policy is rated as having a MODERATE level of feasibility. The ability to implement policy reforms at the state and local level bode well; however, the complexity of administering the reforms across multiple government systems and the private sector poses significant barriers to implementation.  

Exploratory Steps for State and Local Leaders

The starting point for assessing the need for policy action related to climate change and environmental justice is an examination of the relevant data and underlying factors related to the health and welfare of constituent communities. That inquiry will by necessity be historical in nature and will be holistic in that it will include health and mortality information, economic data, and financial data on how families and individuals are impacted. In 2017, the State of Oregon created a useful guide that can serve as a model for other communities seeking to undertake a comprehensive assessment.  

Develop a Plan for Enhancing Inclusion and Engagement 

Historically, one of the primary barriers to addressing environmental justice issues is the lack of input and engagement with affected communities. States have found tremendous success in creating equitable, fair, and safe environmental policies by increasing community input and by creating a culture of inclusion in government entities. As part of a comprehensive environmental justice plan, the State of Connecticut published a guide for improving input and inclusiveness in environmental decision-making processes. Likewise, the EPA has highlighted notable digital strategies for improving engagement.  

Examine Policies and Regulatory Process for Opportunities

The policy apparatus available will differ for each locality. Leaders should gain an understanding of the relevant federal, state, and local policies that govern government agencies, private sector firms, and the actions of individual residents. Combined with community engagement, this should provide a potential roadmap for addressing policy deficiencies. The California Environmental Justice Network has devised a useful framework for communities seeking to improve community-led decision-making.


New York Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act

Action Space: State Level 

Cost: No direct allocations made in the bill 

Mechanism: Link to Enabling Legislation 

As part of a comprehensive piece of 2019 legislation, the State of New York enacted forward-thinking renewable energy requirements and emissions standards (the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act). In addition to mandating the use of equity screening for state policies, the law includes mandates for 35% of state investments in climate solutions to go to disadvantaged communities.

  • In addition to ambitious climate targets, key elements of the Act include:
  • The creation of a Climate Justice Working Group and Environmental Justice Advisory Group representing marginalized communities to provide strategic advice on equity issues.
  • Provisions that protect marginalized communities by mandating that carbon offsets come from within 25 miles of the purchaser and mandating that disadvantaged communities receive at least 35% of the benefits of clean energy and energy efficiency programs.


California Environmental Screening Tool  

Action Space: State Level 

Cost: Estimated at 5% of the state’s Air Resource Board Trust 

Mechanism: Link to Enabling Legislation  

In the digital space, the State of California has adopted an innovative initiative called CalEnviroScreen. The program is a mapping tool that helps identify potentially vulnerable communities and those that are most affected by pollution. Since it has been updated to include climate change impact, this platform operates in conjunction with the state’s requirement to address air quality in exposed communities. The State of Washington has also launched a similar mapping project that will inform its environmental policies. 

  • CalEnviroScreen utilizes 20 different data points to capture the pollution burden on affected communities and other relevant factors (e.g., educational attainment and asthma emergency room visits). 
  • Leaders have now adapted the tool so that CES captures data at the census tract level to better reflect demographic realities.

Virginia Clean Economy Act

Action Space: State Level 

Cost: No allocations made; however, revenue will be generated from the sale of emissions allowances from a companion bill—The Virginia Flood Preparedness Fund  

Mechanism: Link to Enabling Legislation  

In Virginia, the State joined the 11 state Regional Green House Gas Initiative as part of the State’s Clean Economy Act. States receive revenue payments made by industries as part of a carbon market aimed at reducing carbon emissions. Virginia will pay out half of its proceeds to energy efficiency upgrades for low-income Virginians, and a set aside for disadvantaged communities affected by coastal flooding.     

  • Focus on Economic Opportunity: the bill’s authors were intentional about focusing on job creation. The alternative energy provisions are projected to translate into 13,000 jobs per year in the clean energy sector.  
  • Protecting Low-income Consumers: To counteract the potentially devastating effects of rate increases, the policy caps how much ratepayers can be charged on their electric bills as a function of industry adaptation.  
  • Creating a Regulatory Guardrail: The policy also closes loopholes that allow for continued pollution in disadvantaged communities through companies that sell electricity out of state.  

Howell, J. Elliott, J. 2019. Damages Done: The Longitudinal Impacts of Natural Hazards on Wealth Inequality in the United States. Social Problems, Volume 66, Issue 3. , August 2019,   

Jamet, S.,  Corfee-Morlot, J. 2009. Assessing the Impacts of Climate Change: A Literature Review. OECD 

Kahn, M., Kamiar M., Ryan N., Pesaran, M.; Raissi, M.; and Yang, J. 2019. “Long-Term Macroeconomic Effects of Climate Change: A Cross-Country Analysis.” Working Paper 26167, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA. 

Blyth, W., Turner, K.; Oluwafisayo, A., Gross, R. 2017. Landscape review of international assessments of the economic impacts of climate change. November  

Environmental Protection Agency. 2015. Climate Change in the United States: Benefits of Global Action. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-06/documents/cirareport.pdf  

Mackie, A. Haščič, I. 2018. The Distributional Aspects Of Environmental Quality And Environmental Policies: Opportunities For Individuals And Households. OECD 

Downey L, Hawkins B. 2008. Race, Income, And Environmental Inequality in The United States. Sociological Perspectives. 51(4):759-781.   

Lelieveld, J.;. Klingmüller, K. Pozzer, A., Burnett, R., Haines, A., Ramanathan, V. 2019. Effects of Fossil Fuel and Total Anthropogenic Emission Removal On Public Health And Climate. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (116).  

Servadio J., Lawal A., Davis T. 2019. Demographic Inequities in Health Outcomes and Air Pollution Exposure in the Atlanta Area and its Relationship to Urban Infrastructure. Journal of Urban Health. 96(2)   

Entrepreneurs of Color Fund

Expanding Voting Rights