Strengthening Justice40

April 25, 2024 | 7:01 am
Three hands holding 1 finger, 2 fingers, 3 fingers.RapidEye/Getty Images
Chitra Kumar
Managing Director, Climate and Energy Program

Read part 1 of this blog post series on the White House’s initiative.

In a previous blog post about the federal Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) recent report about how the White House can better implement its Justice40 initiative, I noted that the GAO should have said the program needs much more transparency at multiple levels. That is the first of three fixes that I and my former colleague and senior official at the EPA Matthew Tejada agree should have been recommended.

As former EPA officials in the agency’s Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights, we had a front row seat to how Justice40, a landmark initiative born via President Biden’s executive order 14008, was rolled out.

There are two more fixes we think the GAO should have recommended to the White House to strengthen implementation of Justice40.

What the GAO should have said

Fix #2: Appoint OMB as the lead White House entity for Justice40 oversight.

GAO’s recommendations treated each component of the EOP as equal. Both Matthew Tejada and I wish they had gone further to point out that no initiative as potentially ambitious and transformative as Justice40 can be successful without clear decision-making authority from the White House and an effective structure to engage executive branch agencies that have likewise committed the necessary staff and budget.

In the case of Justice40, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the Climate Policy Office (CPO) each have co-equal roles, given their various policy mandates. This has resulted in significant delays across key decisionmakers, as pointed out by GAO.

“The Equitable and Just National Climate Forum (EJNCF) [of which NRDC and UCS are a part] got it right on the money in recommending OMB has a critical role because they control guidance processes that could get Justice40 to stay past administration changes, especially now that they received $25 million through the Inflation Reduction Act,” Matthew said to me.

OMB can ensure durability of these goals across administrations if they commit to addressing the GAO critique of enhancing and improving coordination with EJ leaders appointed to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Committee (WHEJAC), led by CEQ.

Clarifying leadership could also greatly help to cure another common critique in GAO’s report—lack of coordination with and activation of the newly-constituted Interagency Council on EJ (EJ IAC). Clear leadership, authority, and focus from one office in the White House would empower the political and career leads from each agency to quickly and effectively bring ideas from their agencies to shape the initiative through the EJ IAC.

GAO also noted the lack of process for systematically accepting agency feedback (p. 40). For example, because Justice40 implementation guidance was so long in coming and had to move through so many decision-making centers in the White House, the initiative has been slow to adapt to changing circumstances, such as the expansion of Justice40-covered programs after passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. Similar delays and confusion have been met with providing guidance for using the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool to define disadvantaged communities when the IRA gave that authority individually to the leads of different agencies. The result is that agency officials had to wait for new guidance documents that they didn’t always have a hand in shaping.

Moving forward, the hope would be for the EJ IAC to not just be part of a more responsive and clear chain of communication but also relied upon for crafting the policies that they will then in turn be charged with implementing across the different programs at their agencies.

OMB has the horsepower to look across the executive branch and dive into programs, methodologies, and reporting. CEQ has the clear authority to lead the WHEJAC and EJ IAC. Establishing clear authority across these critical areas and aligning the efforts of the different offices, rather than mixing their actions and authorities together, would be a dramatic improvement.

Fix #3: Only use the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool for its designed intent.

The final fix for Justice40 I recommend is to make clear what the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST) should be used for and, just as importantly, not used for.

CEJST represents a huge step forward in the use of equity-centric tools across the United States. Despite the word “screening” in its name, CEJST was not built to be just another “screening” tool. Executive Order 14008 laid out a specific policy question for CEJST—if at least 40% of the benefits were to go to certain places based on the intersection of climate, economic, and environmental injustices, where are those places? CEJST was custom built to provide that answer.

What has happened since CEJST was released? There was the predictable confusion amongst many people; citizens, government officials, industry representatives—all asking which tool to use. CEJST started showing up in inappropriate policy arenas, such as identifying potentially disproportionately-impacted communities during permitting processes under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Air Act. CEJST was not built for a host of analytical screening purposes and should not be used as such. There are other tools—EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool (EJScreen) and NEPAssist, and Department of Health and Human Service’s EJ Index—that were.

CEJST was built to specifically identify which parts of the country should receive at least 40% of the benefits of those 400-plus government programs. As Matthew says, “CEJST was tuned to include somewhere less than 40% of the country, or else what’s the point? It wasn’t built to capture all of the communities that deserve government benefits. It wasn’t designed to show which communities might need and deserve certain attention or specific resources more than other communities based upon compounding, or cumulative, challenges. It wasn’t designed to be used in permitting, rulemaking, compliance, emergency response and recovery, clean-ups…the list goes on. And it certainly wasn’t designed to provide an answer for which disadvantaged communities should receive 100% of a program’s benefits, which is exactly what numerous Inflation Reduction Act programs have been statutorily mandated to achieve.”

Then there’s the issue of spatial resolution

For you data geeks out there, like me, pay attention to this: the Census Bureau has a tool for using populations and land masses, starting from the smallest geographies, actual blocks, then block groups, then tracts, and so forth. Most analysts prefer using the smallest geographical unit possible because they can get much more granular in their understanding of community-scale needs and disparities. Because of CEJST’s reliance on census tract geographies rather than census block groups, many disadvantaged communities that happen to be near other more affluent areas are averaged out and don’t make the cut for Justice40’s threshold. This happens when disadvantaged census block groups in heavily populated areas are surrounded by more affluent neighbors, or rural disadvantaged communities get averaged in with affluent resort areas that are not particularly close but included in the vast bounds of rural census tracts.

Sometimes even at the block group level, getting to community needs is difficult but less perilous than operating at the tract scale.  

CEJST estimates that approximately 33% of the country’s population lives in areas labeled as disadvantaged; that means 40% of benefits is a meaningful number as compared to the target populations and geographies. It is not the be-all and end-all to identifying every disadvantaged community in the United States.

In that way, CEJST is a simple but effective tool which will go a long way toward advancing progress if used appropriately, even with the clearly articulated and well-put criticism of its exclusion of race and ethnicity. There are important opportunities to improve it in future iterations.

Matthew says, “if CEJST is used as a simple but powerful lever, it can move our government—not just the Justice40 programs and not only 40% of the benefits of those programs—because it forces civil servants at all levels of government to contend with issues of equity, history, disinvestment, and their own singular decision-making in incredibly powerful and tangible ways. Once you start that process, it ripples out across the rest of government action and thinking.”

Coupled with fixing the reporting, transparency, and accountability issues we’ve noted are still problematic within Justice40, using CEJST will enable those ripples to swell into waves. With an all-of-government approach, we can learn how to think about equity issues, use data tools, and then make different policy decisions about how government works to achieve a better and more equitable result.

CEJST and Justice40 don’t have to dictate all of those results and specify every community destination. Trying to do so only limits the scope of what it can achieve, and it will also guarantee that many deserving communities will be left out of the change we collectively seek.

There is no doubt that Justice40 and CEJST are driving significant change across federal government. As long-serving EPA leaders, we saw the difference. It was clear, necessary, and almost instantaneous. The EJ truism holds here as in so many other places—we’ve come a long way but have a long, long way yet to go. There’s so much left to be done to solidify the wins of Justice40 in the face of skepticism and growing political hostility towards both equity and climate issues.

In this post and the previous I have provided a few ideas to help institutionalize practices that would allow agencies to showcase and scale the changes. What would be not just unfortunate but also tragic is if we fail to learn from the early struggles of Justice40’s historic policy and fail to support the efforts emerging from the Inflation Reduction Act’s absolutely unprecedented funding amounts. If done right, Justice40 can continue to achieve the lasting, meaningful, systemic, and structural changes that so many have spent their lives fighting to achieve.

What else should the GAO have said in its report about Justice40? Read my previous blog post to learn more.