Beverly Wright has been at the forefront of the environmental justice movement for more than 30 years, both as head of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans — where she has undertaken groundbreaking research into the disproportionate environmental threats facing Black neighborhoods — and as an advocate, having worked in the 1990s on the first federal executive order dealing with environmental justice.
Now, as a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, Wright is bringing her expertise to bear on the Biden administration’s push to tackle climate change. In a Yale Environment 360 interview, she assesses the administration’s efforts, discusses where she thinks its climate policies are falling short, and explains how to ensure that the communities most burdened by pollution and most at risk from natural disasters get the help they need.
Wright, a sociologist, says she is skeptical of policies to support carbon capture and sequestration, which limits carbon emissions from fossil fuel facilities, but does little to curb toxic pollutants afflicting communities nearby. And she is wary of federal grant programs intended to mitigate the risks of climate change that are often too byzantine for underserved communities to navigate.
Wright grew up near “Cancer Alley” — a stretch along the Mississippi River in Louisiana where dozens of petrochemical plants loom over Black communities — and lost her home during Hurricane Katrina. She says that any environmental remedies must not perpetuate existing racial inequities. “Race is at the center of it in terms of fairness,” she says. “We have to find a way to make certain that we make up for the harm that’s been done and put things in place so that harm does not continue.”
Yale Environment 360: Last month, two of the three officials on the White House Council on Environmental Equality (CEQ) who were focused on environmental justice stepped down. You then co-wrote a letter to the White House expressing your concerns about how the administration plans to tackle environmental justice. What are some of your concerns?
Our biggest concern is that the CEQ office is not staffed at the level that it should be. My mother used to say a man’s money goes where his heart is, so if that’s the case, the amount of money going to CEQ to support environmental justice [EJ] does not show where their heart is. I believe the heart is there, but the money has to follow.
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