Opinions are the writer’s own and not those of Blavity's.
Our new 117th Congress is the most racially, ethnically and gender diverse ever — as was the Congress before it. So it’s no coincidence that the 116th session of Congress produced the most bills and hearings to advance environmental justice in our nation’s history.
Our government has historically ignored and excluded communities of color, locking us out of the policy-making process. Increased representation in Congress means we're chipping away at long-standing norms and barriers to entry. It means people of color can self-identify with decision-makers. It means our communities — and the issues that deeply affect us — are being represented and heard in our governance. It means we are shaping solutions.
People of color are often characterized as mere victims of climate change, as we are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis — but Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) have been leading the fight for climate and environmental justice for decades. To name a few: Captain Charles Young, born into slavery and later an environmental leader and the first Black National Park Superintendent; Dolores Huerta, the mother of the farmworker justice movement who has dedicated her legacy to advocate for policies that reflect the intertwined nature of people and the environment; and Winona LaDuke, Indigenous human rights and environmental leader who co-founded Honor the Earth and Indigo Girls, and played an important role as a water defender in the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.
Over the past two decades, the movement for environmental justice has been led by BIPOC advocates, and increasingly by BIPOC members of Congress. To elevate the ways these lawmakers are transforming our governance to be more equitable and just, the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) released a report detailing the impact members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (collectively the Tri-Caucus) had on climate and environmental justice.
Environmental justice bills and hearings during the 116th Congress demonstrated the depth and interconnectivity of the environmental movement with civil rights and racial justice. Then-Senator, now Vice President, Kamala Harris and Congresswoman Jahana Hayes introduced the Clean School Bus Act, which tackles climate and soot pollution from the transportation sector (the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the nation) by providing $1 billion in grants over five years to replace polluting diesel school buses with zero-emission electric school buses, and provide charging facilities, maintenance and workforce training. Led by Black and South Asian women in Congress, this legislation would have a direct impact on lower-income students and their communities.
Other bills introduced focused on accountability, such as the Climate Equity Act, sponsored by then-Senator Harris, and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The Climate Equity Act establishes a Climate and Environmental Equity office within the Congressional Budget Office to evaluate the impact any piece of legislation might have on communities that are highly impacted by toxic pollution or climate change. This legislation, led — again — by powerful women of color, sought to build long-term accountability into a system that historically has harmed their own communities.
The 100% Clean Economy Act of 2019, led by an alliance of Tri-Caucus Members — including Congressman Donald McEachin and Congresswoman Deb Haaland, the presumptive Secretary of the Interior, among others — would put us on a path to 100% clean energy by no later than 2050. This legislation was prominently featured in the CLEAN Future Act, the comprehensive legislative framework released by leaders of the powerful Energy & Commerce Committee. Thanks to Reps. McEachin and Haaland's leadership, a provision of the bill requires the House to review their progress toward that goal by checking in with key stakeholders — including people living in environmental justice communities.
When we all have a seat at the table and a resounding voice in the process, we can work together for solutions that represent our unique experiences and needs.
Reflecting on the contributions of BIPOC Members in the 116th Congress makes me hopeful for what is to come. As the 117th Congress and our country focus on relief, restoration and healing, I’m confident that the most diverse Congress in history will prioritize our communities in desperate need of environmental justice and climate action.
To read the full "These Votes Have Impacts Report," click here.
Darien Davis is the Legislative Representative for climate and clean energy at the League of Conservation Voters (LCV).