In Conversation: Patrice Simms of People over Plastic and Earthjustice
In the last few years, the Biden administration has introduced a number of initiatives that would suggest it’s serious about environmental justice. For some observers, these initiatives were welcomed, if not long overdue.
For years, community members, environmental groups and advocates have pushed the federal government to fully recognize that it’s mostly Black, Brown, Indigenous, other communities of color and low-income people that are most harmed by chemical plants, refineries, incinerators, wastes sites, and other industrial polluting sources. What they want is less talk and more action, and specifically legislation with teeth that will better protect communities, prevent polluting industries (like those that produce petrochemicals) from expanding, and hold those companies responsible for creating toxic pollution accountable.
On its part, the Biden administration has introduced some initiatives intended to tackle some of these concerns. They include:
-An Executive Order on ‘Revitalizing Our Nation's Commitment to Environmental Justice for All’. This order makes environmental justice a central mission for federal agencies and it includes a new Office of Environmental Justice inside the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
-The Justice40 initiative which Biden introduced a few years ago in which he vows to help ensure that 40% of the overall benefits of clean energy and climate investments go to underserved, disadvantaged, and overburdened communities.
Yet, what’s confusing to many is the fact Biden unveiled these initiatives while also approving more drilling projects than his predecessor President Donald Trump. This includes the highly controversial Willow Project, a massive oil drilling project in Alaska which he approved despite promising as a candidate that he would end new oil drilling on public lands.
For those hoping for a more substantial commitment from the White House, what are they to make of Biden’s environmental justice initiatives? Is what we’re seeing more of a symbolic gesture or will these initiatives bring about meaningful change?
Not as simple as snapping your fingers
As Patrice Simms explains it, change doesn’t happen overnight. The co-founder and strategic advisor for People over Plastic, and Vice President of Litigation for Healthy Communities with Earthjustice is also a Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School. He says something like Biden’s executive order is more of a recommitment to environmental justice.
In his conversation with People over Plastic reporter Alexis Young, Simms discusses how the executive order is largely about changing the internal workings of the executive branch which the President controls.
We need something fundamentally different
Simms goes on to discuss why the fight against environmental racism can’t end with these initiatives. He says the public needs to continue to press the federal government to do more to protect the environment, and those communities that are most harmed by polluting industries and climate change. In essence, fighting against environmental racism is a long game:
Hear more from Patrice Simms in the People over Plastic Season One, Episode 2 podcast, "If you aren't at the table, you're on the menu." https://peopleoverplastic.co/podcasts/if-you-arent-at-the-table-youre-on-the-menu/