Trump Policies Hand Poor, Non-White Areas the ‘Brunt’ of Climate Impacts
Critics are warning that the Trump administration’s proposed changes to the environmental review process for pipeline and highway megaprojects will hit poor and minority Americans hardest.
The sweeping changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), unveiled earlier this month, “would limit the scope of the environmental analysis required for such projects, including allowing greater industry involvement in environmental reviews and diminishing the role climate change plays in those assessments,” The Hill reports.
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The proposed changes include an end accounting for cumulative effects, constraining or eliminating public input on projects, and requiring those who apply for injunctions to pay a financial penalty, the publication states. Critics are concerned that “with polluting industries already more likely to set up shop in minority communities as well as those with poverty, those same areas will bear the brunt of the changes to NEPA dealing with pollution and climate change.”
The cost will be borne by “the most vulnerable communities,” whose residents will “pay with [their] lives and their health. They always have,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, Vice President of Environmental Justice, Climate, and Community Revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation.
Particularly troubling, said senior environmental justice lawyer Kym Hunter, are legislative revisions that would limit the inclusion of cumulative effects in the review process. Under these changes, new projects could be advanced without having to account at all for tangential carbon-producing projects (such as new highways, for example), or for the presence of other polluting industries “that have already set up shop” in the vicinity of poor or minority neighbourhoods.
Communities will also lose the right they currently have to comment on projects, and the right to access to information.
Even where comments are still permitted, Trump’s changes call for any public input to “be more technical,” requiring commenters to have a command of pertinent data and sources likely well beyond the reach of average citizens.
“The whole point of NEPA is to give the public a voice in the decision-making process, and this just cuts that down in so many ways,” Hunter said. “The primary communities to suffer are those that already have a limited voice.”
They have limited funds, too. Yet, under the proposed changes, “communities also face the possibility of having to pay a bond—a fee to the agency—when asking for an injunction to stop the project.” The proposal doesn’t include rate guidelines, The Hill says.
Noting that America’s most vulnerable communities already have severely limited resources, Santiago Ali condemned the creation of yet another barrier to those already isolated from the protections that due process should provide.
Meanwhile, a new study concludes that being poor in America, and especially being non-white, brings significantly increased exposure to environmental stresses and harms, including higher temperatures, reports NPR.
Researchers from the Science Museum of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Portland State University examined 108 urban areas nationwide, all “redlined” by the federal government in the 1930s—a racist practice by the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation that designated neighbourhoods with large numbers of Black and immigrant families as high-risk, effectively blocking them from home value appreciation or public investment. The study found that “redlined neighbourhoods are hotter than the highest-rated neighbourhoods by an average of almost 5.0°F.”
The redlining practice, “along with the other segregationist housing policies of the time, had lasting effects—from concentrating poverty to stifling home ownership rates,” NPR states. With the newly discovered micro-climate heating phenomenon, “you can still feel those effects—literally.”
The warming pattern appeared “consistently across the country,” said study co-author Vivek Shandas, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State. Poor, overheating, and facing persistent barriers caused by racism, these once-redlined communities “are much more likely to face grave consequences in terms of their human health, their financial health, or generally their ability to cope with these effects,” Shandas said.
That these typically inner-city spaces are so much hotter than whiter, more well-to-do sectors of a city likely owes, Shandas added, to a lack of green spaces and tree canopy. In urban areas, such factors can help counter the heat generated by concrete and pavement, but they are critically lacking in poor, inner-city areas in the U.S. A related study by the U.S. Forest Service found that “in 37 cities around the country, formerly redlined neighbourhoods have about half as many trees on average today as the highest-rated, predominantly white neighbourhoods on those maps.”
“Our cities, they’re not like jungles where they developed just by natural selection on their own,” said Sarah Lillie Anderson, senior manager of tree equity programs at the non-profit American Forests. “People designed these places, which means they were designed for particular people, and that means not everybody was held in mind when plans for cities and communities were made.”
Last week, the Trump administration delivered yet another blow to American homeowners—again, especially the poor, writes the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). On January 16, the federal government approved a new Department of Energy rule “that will make it much more difficult to set new energy efficiency standards for common appliances and equipment—from refrigerators, dishwashers, and home furnaces to commercial air conditioners and industrial motors.” ACEEE notes that the now-gutted standards “reduce harmful pollution, save the average U.S. household $500 each year, and according to the administration’s own fact sheet, will save U.S. consumers and businesses about $2 trillion by 2030.”
Describing the move as “the latest in a series of administration attacks on energy efficiency that include a recent rollback of efficiency standards for new light bulbs as well as cars and light trucks,” the ACEEE says the new rule “will significantly increase the energy savings threshold needed to trigger the process and allow manufacturers to largely design the testing that decides if the products meet standards.” The attacks “defy the common-sense, bipartisan support that energy efficiency has long enjoyed,” said ACEEE Executive Director Steven Nadel.
“They will cost consumers and businesses money, create market uncertainty for businesses due to likely legal challenges, add to harmful pollution, and undermine efforts to address the climate crisis,” Nadel added—all of which will hammer poor and non-white Americans first and hardest.