The Pursuit of Climate and Social Justice Through Carbon Pricing

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What is environmental justice? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it’s “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

Unfortunately, the pursuit of environmental and social justice has been an uphill battle. Harmful environmental practices have taken place disproportionately in low-income communities of color for years — even decades — putting these communities on the front lines of pollution and climate change.

A prime example of this is gentrification of cities, which tailors to the tastes of the upper middle class and pushes low-income residents to the curb. Income inequality between the rich and poor looms as another related and potent issue. In the landmark report “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States,” it was found that race was the predicting factor for waste siting more frequently than income. To add another layer of complication, climate change threatens to exacerbate these issues of injustice.

This particularly concerning in the District of Columbia, one of the most clearly segregated cities in the United States, as highlighted by the Washington Post in 2015. Further, according to a report released by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, income inequality in the District ranks fourth among the fifty largest cities in the United States. To break it down further, the richest 5 percent of Washingtonians make roughly fifty nine times what the poorest 20 percent make. Perhaps more relevant to this discussion, the study also found that D.C.’s lowest-income residents are primarily people of color.

It may come as no surprise that environmental and economic policies have the potential to become regressive, impacting lower income communities disproportionately. Developing policies that take justice issues into consideration is more important than ever. With this in mind, it is critical that the environmental policies that we pursue within the District serve all residents, regardless of race and socioeconomic status.

Luckily, the Healthy Community and Climate Reinvestment Act of D.C. plans to do just that by placing a fee on carbon emissions and rebating 75 percent of the collected revenue back to residents. At its core, this legislation is an effort to curb carbon emissions that contribute to global climate change. However, the fee and rebate model being employed has the potential to correct some other critical injustices occurring in the District as well. In particular, low income residents would see a rebate of about four dollars to every one dollar that they pay through the carbon fee, taking a step toward leveling the playing field between the highest and lowest income residents in D.C.

At the end of the day, climate change is the single issue that unites us all. Put A Price On It D.C.’s progressive approach to address climate change has a unique social justice flavor that is critical in today’s fight for a healthy climate and community.