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Democratic Senators Announce the Creation of an Environmental Justice Caucus

Could it provide a path to bipartisan—and inclusive—climate change legislation?
A man walks across a green space in Marktown, a historic district of East Chicago. The area is surrounded by heavy industry, including a BP tar sands refinery.

A man walks across a green space in Marktown, a historic district of East Chicago. The area is surrounded by heavy industry, including a BP tar sands refinery.

Senators Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois), and Tom Carper (D-Delaware) announced the formation of an environmental justice caucus on Monday. They said the caucus would work to raise awareness on how environmental burdens (and benefits) have been distributed unevenly along racial and socioeconomic lines.

"We cannot achieve economic justice or social justice in this country without also addressing environmental justice," Booker said in the announcement. "The fact that communities of color, low income communities, and indigenous communities across the country disproportionately face environmental hazards and harmful pollutants on a daily basis has been ignored for far too long."

Here's what you need to know about the new caucus.

The State of Environmental Justice in the United States

People of color and communities of lower socioeconomic status disproportionately bear the environmental burden of hazardous industrial facilities, pollution, and toxin exposure, which has further exacerbated health inequities.

Communities of color are particularly vulnerable. For example, people of color are roughly twice as likely as white people to live a mile or less away from hazardous chemical facilities. Hazardous facilities located in minority communities also experience almost double the rate of incidents involving the release of toxic chemicals compared to those located in predominantly white neighborhoods, and the EPA's Superfund program (tasked with cleaning up contaminated areas) has prioritized sites in more privileged communities. Meanwhile, privileged white communities have greater access to green space.

Who Are the Senators Leading This Caucus?

All three senators play key roles when it comes to environmental protections: Carper is the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works; Duckworth is the ranking member of the Senate Environment Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water and Wildlife; and Booker is the ranking member of Senate Environment Subcommittee on Superfund, Waste Management, and Regulatory Oversight.

On their national environmental scorecards, the advocacy group League of Conservation Voters gave Carper a lifetime score of 83 percent, Duckworth received an 89 percent, and Booker achieved the highest score at 99 percent.

Carper has a track record of promoting environmental legislation, most recently sponsoring the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act of 2019.

Last week, Carper, Duckworth, and other senators sent a letter to Andrew Wheeler, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and R.D. James, assistant secretary of the army for civil works, urging them to halt their reversal of Obama-era environmental regulations such as the Clean Water Act.

Booker also has a consistent environmental legislative history, and has focused more on environmental justice. He put forth a bill known as the Environmental Justice Act of 2017, which called for federal agencies to better address cases of environmental justice and strengthen legal protections against environmental injustice for communities of color, low-income communities, and indigenous communities.

Booker is vying for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and, according to the New York Times, he has said that environmental justice will be one of the top three issues of his campaign.

Will This Caucus Be Effective?

According to a Brookings Institution report, caucuses can facilitate the communication of new ideas and allow different perspectives to flow more freely across partisan lines—especially in the currently polarized Congress. The report cites data collected by Jennifer Victor, a political scientists at George Mason University, which found that, while some caucuses are partisan, they have actually grown more bipartisan over time, and that bipartisan co-sponsorship of bills is more common when legislators belong to the same caucus.

Caucuses could provide a space for Congress to begin creating bipartisan legislation on climate change and environmental justice, topics that have been a source of tension this year. As Democrats have increasingly pushed for environmental legislation in Congress, Republicans have criticized such efforts, calling them elitist. After Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) introduced the Green New Deal earlier this year, she was quickly attacked by Republicans for what they claimed was an inaccessible, privileged plan.

In light of the ever-accelerating impacts of climate change and environmental pollution (which disproportionately impacts marginalized communities), environmental advocates have praised the efforts of Booker, Carper, and Duckworth and expressed hopes that this caucus will create legislation that is both bipartisan and inclusive.