Since the beginning of his presidency, Joe Biden has been steadfast in his efforts to tackle climate and environmental inequalities faced by vulnerable and historically marginalized communities. In his first week, he took a significant step forward in his commitment by signing Executive Order 14008. This order set the groundwork for reshaping agency operations and programs to integrate and uphold environmental justice and equity principles and created the Justice40 Initiative which seeks to direct 40% of the benefits of certain climate investments to disadvantaged communities.

Environmental justice was then further elevated as a central tenant of the United States through passage of federal climate policies such as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, as well as the Inflation Reduction Act. These laws aim to ensure a fair and equitable transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy as part of the country's efforts to combat climate change and meet its emissions reduction targets for 2030.

In 2023, the U.S. made significant progress addressing environment and climate injustices by building internal leadership structures to help reform federal processes and operations, expanding the number of federal Justice40 Initiative programs, launching its Environmental Justice Scorecard to assess progress, and making billions of dollars in funding available for clean energy and climate projects.

Here are five federal actions from 2023 that will further the Biden administration's goals to promote environmental justice as part of its climate policies.

1) Embedding Environmental Justice Language in Federal Agencies

Executive Order 14096 provides the first government-wide definition of environmental justice and requires federal agencies to create strategies that address historic inequities by embedding these concepts into their mission, practices and operations.

How the United States Defines Environmental Justice

From Executive Order 14096:

“Environmental justice" means the just treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of income, race, color, national origin, Tribal affiliation, or disability, in agency decision-making and other Federal activities that affect human health and the environment so that people: (i) are fully protected from disproportionate and adverse human health and environmental effects (including risks) and hazards, including those related to climate change, the cumulative impacts of environmental and other burdens, and the legacy of racism or other structural or systemic barriers; and (ii) have equitable access to a healthy, sustainable, and resilient environment in which to live, play, work, learn, grow, worship, and engage in cultural and subsistence practices.

This makes long awaited updates to the cornerstone of the federal environmental justice policy established by President Bill Clinton in 1994. Hailed as a watershed moment at the time, his executive order is often criticized by community groups and scholars for not being enforced or implemented.

Through the establishment of a White House Office of Environmental Justice in the Council on Environmental Quality, there will be more accountability and transparency in community engagement, public awareness and improving access to information specific to environment and climate issues.

Additionally, the order launched the baseline federal Environmental Justice Scorecard, which assesses federal agencies' efforts to advance environmental justice, covering their progress on the President's Justice40 Initiative, enforcement of environment and civil rights laws and how the federal government is embedding environmental justice.

2) Strengthening Equity Through Agency Accountability and Engagement

On his first day in office, Biden mandated federal agencies create Equity Action Plans to address the human costs of systemic racism and persistent poverty. Now, via Executive Order 14091, he’s building on that by directing agencies to produce an annual public Equity Action Plan that evaluates and provides solutions to address the “barriers that underserved communities may face in accessing and benefitting from the agency’s policies, programs, and activities.”  

The executive order also:

  • Solidifies Biden’s goal of increasing federal contracted dollars to small, disadvantaged businesses by 50 percent by 2025 and requires agencies to increase grant opportunities from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Action, including other local programs and investments.
  • Establishes Agency Equity Teams for 23 federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA and departments of Transportation, Agriculture, Defense and Education. Each agency taps designated senior leaders to be responsible for implementing equity actions and initiatives, strengthening accountability and formalizing collaboration among federal staff.
  • Aligns equity efforts across the federal government through the creation of the White House Steering Committee on Equity, a group that will coordinate with both the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council and the White House Gender Policy Council. These new partnerships enforce shared responsibility and communication in advancing equity outcomes.

As a demonstration of the Biden administration’s priority to set staff up for success, the executive order also addresses funding needs by requiring the Office of Management and Budget to include annual agency Equity Action Plans in the President’s budget request to Congress. The senior leaders of each Agency Equity Team must also work with their respective budget team and OMB to ensure that their team “has sufficient resources, including staffing and data collection capacity, to advance the agency’s equity goals.”

3)  Strengthening Community Resiliency

Biden made history in September by organizing a groundbreaking summit on climate resilience. The administration convened community resilience practitioners from more than 25 states, Tribal Nations and territories to shed light on how their communities can successfully adapt to current climate impacts and mitigate risks associated with future climate disasters.  

One of the most significant events during the summit was the unveiling of the National Climate Resilience Framework, which provides a first-ever roadmap for federal agencies to operationalize equity into disaster and climate resilience strategies. Environmental disasters and climate change disproportionately affect marginalized and vulnerable communities, and failing to consider equity in resilience strategies can perpetuate existing inequalities and exacerbate the impact of disasters on those who are already marginalized. 

Large trash piles of household items along a tree-lined street.
Piles of household items damaged from flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey that hit Houston, Texas in 2017. The Biden administration announced a new framework to help cities better mitigate risks against future climate disasters and how to ensure equity is built into climate resilient strategies. Photo by MDay Photography/Shutterstock.

This marks a major milestone in the ongoing efforts to build climate-resilient communities across the country. During her opening remarks at the summit, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway of Madison, Wisc., who serves as the president of Climate Mayors, expressed hope that the release of the framework would spark a nationwide conversation on the importance of climate resilience.

The Biden administration has also prioritized climate resilience through legislative action, including the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act allocating $50 billion toward climate resilience efforts, with a focus on implementing these investments in a people-centric, just and equitable manner. The National Climate Resilience Framework will provide a clear direction to guide and align climate resilience investments and activities.  

4) Funding Local Groups to Tackle Environmental Injustices

The EPA's Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights established the Environmental and Climate Justice Community Change Grants to provide funding directly to disadvantaged communities to develop their own strategies for pollution reduction and clean energy investment. The package of new grants includes $2.8 billion for direct investment to local nonprofit community-based organizations and $200 million for technical assistance, evaluation and monitoring from the Inflation Reduction Act. The grant program supports clean energy deployment, boosts climate resilience and enhances communities' capacity to address environmental and climate justice challenges.

According to the EPA, this is the “single largest investment in environmental justice going directly to communities in history.” The grant program utilizes a community-level or place-based project design and implementation approach to ensure that projects meet the needs identified by communities.

These grants are a Justice40 program that also addresses procedural injustices by requiring community-based organizations to act as grant applicants or co-applicants, empowering them to make project decisions.

By prioritizing community-based organizations, the EPA is ensuring that the grant recipients are well-equipped to address the needs of their communities, and that they can advocate for policies that protect public health and the environment.

5) Elevating Youth Voices

In mid-June, the EPA announced the formal establishment of the agency’s first-ever National Environmental Youth Advisory Council (NEYAC). Over the summer, the EPA received more than 1,000 applications for 16 vacancies. In mid-November, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan announced the appointment of 16 youth leaders, aged 16 to 29, to serve on the first EPA council fully comprised of young people. The members of NEYAC hail from all 10 EPA regions, across rural, urban and Tribal communities, and embody an array of viewpoints, lived experiences, and political affiliations.

Members of the EPA's National Environmental Youth Council sit around a table with EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan.
Members of the EPA's National Environmental Youth Advisory Council meet with EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. Photo by Chloe A. Malouf / U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The NEYAC will provide independent advice and recommendations directly to Regan on how to increase EPA’s efforts to address environmental issues as they relate to youth, sharing their perspectives on how climate change impacts and harms affect their respective communities across the nation. At least 50% of members are from, live in and/or work in disadvantaged communities as defined by the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool as part of Justice40, an intentional inclusion to further center environmental justice communities.

The NEYAC members also have intersectional backgrounds in food, water, air, conservation, climate change and environmental justice, which they will utilize to advocate for solutions to key issues that their communities are facing. Having youth representation and voices with a direct line to a federal agency leader gives younger generations a seat at the table and the potential for immense influence and action.

A Need for More Environmental Justice Action

The Biden administration is breaking new ground by directing an unprecedented amount of funding toward rectifying the historical injustices faced by underserved and marginalized communities that have been hit hardest by the impact of climate hazards. The massive federal investments in the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law have the potential to bring about significant benefits for these communities, such as creating millions of jobs, boosting local economies, improving public health and addressing inequalities.

While the administration has taken significant steps toward prioritizing people, equity and justice by transforming agency operational systems and programs, consistent monitoring and assessment is needed to determine whether these actions can deliver on agency environmental justice goals. If so, for long-term impact, agencies must adopt these principles as the new norm for operations lasting beyond changes in the White House administration.

It's also important to note that the deployment of these historic federal climate investments is still in its early stages. Continued advocacy and action are needed to ensure that these investments are effectively deployed, utilized and result in meaningful impact at the community level.

According to a survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change, almost 40% of registered voters believe that climate justice should be a top priority for the president and Congress. As public support for climate justice grows, there is a pressing need for meaningful action.

Concerns have been raised questioning how certain federal actions may not fully align with the goals of addressing the needs of environmental justice communities. Consequently, advocates and organizations are closely monitoring federal policies and actions to ensure that they genuinely promote environmental justice. It is imperative that disadvantaged communities are assured that federal investments will be distributed to them through transparent and well-established processes, policies and mechanisms.

The concerns raised by these communities underscore the urgent need for continuous public scrutiny and meaningful engagement from those who are affected and are the intended beneficiaries. Moreover, it is crucial that there is coordination across government jurisdiction to ensure federal actions are effective in addressing the historical injustices faced by underserved and marginalized communities. With such measures in place, we can hope for a future where the voices of the most vulnerable are heard, and their needs are met with the urgency and compassion they deserve.