2020 Democrats put climate justice front and center ahead of debates

Candidates head to Michigan, a state reeling from water contamination and air pollution.

Blighted home near the Marathon Refinery in Oakwood Heights, the southernmost neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan. (Photo credit: Julie Dermansky/Corbis via Getty Images)
Blighted home near the Marathon Refinery in Oakwood Heights, the southernmost neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan. (Photo credit: Julie Dermansky/Corbis via Getty Images)

Several 2020 presidential hopefuls are highlighting climate justice as a priority ahead of this week’s Democratic debates in Michigan, a state whose residents have faced persistent lead- and chemical-tainted water supplies along with dangerous air pollution and an impending, controversial pipeline project.

On Monday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, the only candidate to build his campaign around climate change, released the final part of his five-prong climate policy proposal. Focused entirely on environmental justice, Inslee’s latest plan would direct $1 trillion over a decade toward a Community Climate Justice program to help low-income and minority communities deal with the impacts of local pollution and climate change.

Inslee would also shift the focus of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, renaming it the Council on Environmental Justice. The office, which oversees federal agency environmental reviews, would include representatives from pollution-impacted communities along with environmental organizations and business groups. An environmental justice office would also be opened at the Justice Department.

Also on Monday, The New York Times reported that Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) will join Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) to introduce the Climate Equity Act, which would require the federal government to evaluate environmental regulations and legislation for their impact on low-income communities. While Harris’ campaign has yet to release a dedicated climate proposal, the bill provides insight into her environmental priorities.


The bill would create an independent Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability to represent vulnerable communities. A senior climate justice adviser also would be created at “all relevant agencies.”

The two proposals come after billionaire 2020 candidate Tom Steyer last week released his own “justice-centered” plan for addressing climate change. The wide-ranging plan includes a commitment to the Paris climate agreement — from which President Donald Trump has pledged to withdraw — a net-zero emissions goal of 2045, and a civilian climate jobs corps.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) in April also unveiled a proposal he described as an environmental justice agenda, which includes working with impacted communities to strengthen environmental rules targeted for elimination or significantly weakened by the Trump administration.

According to the government’s own National Climate Assessment released last November, indigenous tribes, farmworkers, and low-income communities of color are already bearing the brunt of climate change, and it’s set to get worse in places like Texas and Florida. Addressing this inequality is therefore critical to any climate action.

Numerous studies show that low-income communities and communities of color often disproportionately feel the impacts of environmental issues due in part to their proximity to polluting industries, Superfund sites, and low-lying coastal regions. One recent study, for instance, found that communities that were subjected to discriminatory lending and mortgage practices decades ago now have higher asthma rates.


Michigan is no exception. During the 2018 midterms, environmental issues were front and center among several candidates across the state. And a poll released last week by the League of Conservation Voters found that 77% of Michigan voters surveyed agreed that climate and environmental issues are important, and a third said candidates should support investment in the state’s water infrastructure system. Support for clean energy was also widespread, according to the survey, particularly among black and Latinx voters.

Michigan is still reeling from the Flint water crisis, and some high school students in Detroit — where this week’s debates will take place — have gone at least six months without being able to use school water fountains due to fears about lead contamination.

But it’s not just lead that has been contaminating drinking water. Residents across Michigan have over the past year become increasingly concerned about the impacts of PFAS chemicals — or, “forever chemicals” — in the water; these chemicals are found in everything from nonstick pans to firefighting foam and can increase the risk of health issues, including cancer. Political pressure is mounting for lawmakers to set a national drinking water standard for the class of chemicals — something which the Environmental Protection Agency has been resistant to doing.

Meanwhile, the controversial Line 5 pipeline tunnel set to replace pipes beneath the Straits of Mackinac — a channel linking Lakes Huron and Michigan — is also an issue of concern for residents. Both Inslee and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have this month called for the Enbridge-backed fossil fuel pipeline project to be scrapped, arguing it poses a risk to the Great Lakes and the climate.