Beto O’Rourke: “Any plan to address climate change must address environmental justice”

By Brentin Mock | November 1, 2019

Beto O'Rourke with reporter outside Erie PABeto O'Rourke is interviewed by the author, Brentin Mock. Screenshot from The Weather Channel

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by CityLab. It appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

When former Congressman Beto O’Rourke recently traveled to the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, he participated in a roundtable of people whose lives had been upended by Hurricane Katrina and who were still recovering from the flooding havoc. What he said he heard consistently from them was that the federal government had wasted billions of dollars in the recovery phase on failed projects that could have been avoided had more people directly impacted by Katrina been consulted. Most of those people, especially those living in the Ninth Ward, had been displaced to places as far away as O’Rourke’s home state of Texas.

“Still today in 2019, we have problems because that money was not thoughtfully, was not intelligently spent using the experience and the perspective of the people who actually live in this community,” O’Rourke said one of the participants told him.

He took this as a mistake that he would not be replicating should he become president in 2021.

His climate plan calls for a $1.5 trillion investment in infrastructure, research, and technologies to address climate change, including $650 million dedicated to people whose lives are already being disrupted by climate catastrophes—people “to whom we look for our inspiration and leadership,” reads his campaign platform.

“When we’re talking about investing in communities that are on the front lines, those communities will decide where those investments go,” said O’Rourke during an interview with CityLab for the upcoming Climate Desk and Weather Channel special “2020: Race to Save the Planet” (airing November 7), in which nine presidential candidates discuss their plans for confronting the climate change crisis. “Who knows better how to address these issues than those who are living through those issues right now?”

I interviewed O’Rourke on Presque Isle in Erie, Pennsylvania, on the Water Works Ferry Dock overlooking Lake Erie. This location was chosen as an example of how climate change is affecting non-coastal areas today—Erie has been experiencing more severe storms, heavier lake-effect snow and rainfall events, growing dead zones in the lake, worsening algae blooms that threaten beaches and drinking water, and increasing numbers of invasive species.

While all of that is important, it was clear as we spoke that O’Rourke was just as concerned, if not more, about communities that have been rendered “most vulnerable” to climate disaster by historical race and class discrimination. These people are also central to his policy vision more generally—which includes his support for the national reparations bill introduced earlier this year by Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. Given how Hurricane Harvey and other recent storms have ravaged black and Latino Texas communities—and revelations that top oil companies knew they were fueling climate change problems, but did nothing—environmental justice, for Texas’s native son O’Rourke, is unavoidable. Which is probably why O’Rourke constantly invoked “frontline communities” throughout our 20-minute conversation.

“One of the best predictors right now of your proximity to a polluter or to the consequences of climate change is your race in America, is your income in America. Those are the communities that are literally on the front lines,” said O’Rourke. “Any comprehensive plan to address climate change must address the environmental justice component of this, and our plan will do that.”

This is the kind of outlook that climate policy planners have evaded for decades. O’Rourke wants to bring them to the forefront. But he is not the only presidential candidate talking about this kind of justice. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro all have climate plans that are rooted in or make explicit commitments to environmental justice goals. Sanders secured the endorsement of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Congress’s shepherd for the Green New Deal legislation, which also banks on environmental justice and racial equity components.

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O’Rourke stands out among this crop as a straight white male who represents one of the most racially diverse states in the nation. It’s a state that is perpetually devastated by severe climate change impacts—flooding, sea-level rise, drought, and extreme heat. It’s a state defined in large part by its fossil fuel largesse, namely its oil companies, which serve as both the largest source of energy and greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Meanwhile, it is also the state that produced the bedrock research for environmental justice: Some of the first studies on how race predicts proximity to pollution were conducted in Houston by Robert Bullard and his then-wife Linda McKeever.

Additionally, Texas has a long history of fighting against voting rightsfor African Americans and Latinos, while fighting for gun rights for whites. Just a month ago, O’Rourke’s home city of El Paso was shaken up by a vicious gun attack, where a white nationalist took the lives of dozens of people and injured dozens more in an attack on Mexican Americans. O’Rourke had already been advocating for racial justice on the campaign trail before this mass shooting—one of the deadliest in U.S. history—but the attack emboldened him to go even harder on confronting racism. Speaking with CityLab, O’Rourke talked about the mass incarceration system that has devastated millions of black families, and about the gross inequities in public education that have failed so many black children. He spoke of these issues not in isolation, but as an interlinked assault on black lives.

“It’s in our economy, where there’s ten times the wealth in white America than there is in black America, and it is in our environment and our lived experience, and in the impacts of climate change today,” said O’Rourke. “Until we call this out for what it is, and see it clearly and speak honestly about it, we’ll never be able to take the decisive action that will repair the damage done and ensure that we discontinue visiting this kind of injustice on future generations.”

For O’Rourke, that decisive action means investing billions in affordable housing, reliable and clean-energy-fueled transportation, and universal, high-quality health care, prioritized especially for those communities on the front lines of climate disaster.

“They’re adjacent to the polluters, and their rates of asthma are through the roof right now,” said O’Rourke. “So we’re ensuring that we don’t lock in polluters where they are, and that those who have borne the brunt [of climate change] are first in line to get the assistance they need to either leave those communities, or more importantly to have the polluters leave those communities, to make sure that the health and safety and well-being of their children can be guaranteed.”

When O’Rourke talks about ensuring that “we don’t lock in polluters where they are,” he’s referencing cap-and-trade, a market-based mechanism for pricing carbon pollution that is one of the leading proposals among policymakers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many environmental justice leaders oppose it (as does President Trump, though for different reasons). Depending on the way the cap-and-trade system is set up, it could allow polluters to simply buy their way out of any carbon emission reduction standards, or invest in offsets in another location to allow them to keep polluting where they are. Environmental justice activists have long argued that this lets the systemic pollution of local frontline communities go on unperturbed in the quest to reduce global emissions. Recent studies out of California, one of the few states in the U.S. with a cap-and-trade system, support some of their claims.

Environmental justice organizations used to take a hard prohibitive stance against cap-and-trade, but the Equitable and Just National Climate Agenda, a declaration of social justice-minded climate change policy goals created by a conglomerate of more than 200 leading grassroots and mainstream environmental organizations, suggests there’s been a softening on this. Reads the platform:

We understand that there are EJ concerns about carbon trading and other market-based policies. These concerns include the fact that these policies do not guarantee emissions reduction in EJ communities and can even allow increased emissions in communities that are already disproportionately burdened with pollution and substandard infrastructure. In order to ensure climate solutions are equitable, support for climate research that assesses how policies affect overburdened and vulnerable communities is essential.

O’Rourke’s plan calls for a $250 billion investment in climate research, with 80 percent of that going towards studies on how to “rapidly achieve net-zero emissions while growing our economy.” But it also calls for giving farmers and ranchers “unprecedented access to the technologies and markets” to allow them “to profit from the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions they secure”— which sounds a lot like carbon pricing and trading.

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That might make sense for the rural places of America, given that Big Ag operations in states like Texas are responsible for roughly 10 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Yet there are still large Latino and low-income farmworker communities, as well as nearby Native American tribal lands, that could suffer if carbon trading locks polluters in place. O’Rourke unveiled his climate plan from California’s Central Valley, to bring attention to farmworkers living there who he says are already “bearing the cost and consequence of climate change right now,” from drought, wildfires, and air and water pollution.

“Though the Central Valley produces so much of the food that this country depends on, those who have those jobs in the agricultural industry very often have a hard time drinking the water that comes out of the tap or breathing the air that we should be able to take for granted in this country,” said O’Rourke.

As for urban America, O’Rourke is focused on the flooding that has besieged his home state. There have been five record rainfall events in Texas the last five years, including one in September, from Tropical Depression Imelda, which dropped nearly 44 inches of rain on southeast Texas. O’Rourke proposes increasing the budget for pre-disaster mitigation grants by ten, noting studies showing that governments save $6 for every dollar used from these grants.

“We now know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Houston is gonna continue to have very large rain events, so let’s invest in the infrastructure that will mitigate the damage that they do,” said O’Rourke. “We know that if you live along the coast anywhere in this country that you’re subject to rising sea levels. We can predict that; we understand it’s coming. Let’s make sure we invest in the infrastructure that protects your home, your business, your family, your way of life. It is an expensive proposition, but it’s far less expensive than paying to rebuild after the fact.”

We can also predict now which communities will be the hardest hit by extreme weather events and which ones will have the most difficult time rebuilding. O’Rourke understands that race is the primary determinant for these critical problems, due to America’s long, enduring history of racial segregation and discrimination.

“To get to the root of this, I think it’s really important that everyone in America understand our true national story, going all the way back to the 20th of August, 1619, when the first person was brought to this country against their will and forced to begin building the wealth and the greatness and success of this country from which their descendants today are excluded from fully participating in and enjoying,” said O’Rourke. “That includes their proximity to polluters or their presence on the front lines of climate change, so signing a reparations bill into law as offered by Sheila Jackson Lee that forces that national conversation so we all know the true story of this country is an important step of making this right, and that’s something I’ll do as president.”

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