Union of Concerned Scientists
By Pamela Worth
The Union of Concerned Scientists is proud to partner with organizations working on environmental justice—the premise that all people deserve equal input into (and equitable outcomes from) policies, regulations, requirements, and activities that affect their health and safety.
The evidence is clear that the health burdens of coal-fired power plants, freight terminals, and unhealthy food are disproportionately borne by poorer communities and communities of color; our own research at UCS has demonstrated that these same communities are at heightened risk from climate change. While some people attribute these inequities solely to poverty or other social factors, the scientific evidence shows that people of color face greater environmental threats than white people, even when factoring in income or wealth.
This reality is the result of centuries of discriminatory policies, beginning with slavery and forced resettlement, and including unfair housing, education, and law enforcement practices—and science has not been an innocent bystander to these injustices. Science was misused to bolster white supremacy through craniometrics, which measured human skull sizes to “prove” intelligence disparities among races; to support the forced sterilization of indigenous, African American, and Latina women in the name of eugenics; and to allow the infamous Tuskegee Study observing—but not treating—African American men suffering from syphilis. UCS was established by scientists to rectify what its founders viewed as the misuse of science to develop destructive technology; today we believe that science should be used to rectify structural racism. While neither science nor UCS alone can solve this problem, we are committed to offering our scientific expertise in partnership with those who confront environmental racism and injustice.
The environmental justice groups we work with seek to address the disproportionate effects of pollution, climate change, and environmental hazards, such as toxic chemical spills, on people of color, low-income communities, and other marginalized groups. In 2016, we were proud to produce reports in partnership with two such organizations: Houston-based Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, also known as t.e.j.a.s., and The Greenlining Institute, a policy, research, and advocacy nonprofit headquartered in Berkeley, California.
In Houston, Research That Empowers
Many environmental groups and scientists take a keen interest in Houston, Texas. “The city has a lot of problems,” says Charise Johnson, a research associate with the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS. She cites the prevalence of polluting facilities such as chemical plants and oil refineries—and the undue influence the chemical and fossil fuel industries have over local politics.
The nonprofit t.e.j.a.s. was founded to give Houston residents power through knowledge of the environmental and public health risks they face from big industry, along with the organizing skills to bring about change; UCS has worked in different capacities with its staff in recent years. When our two organizations agreed to collaborate more closely on a project addressing air pollution and health risks in Houston neighborhoods, Johnson says, she came to the process with preconceived notions of what would be most helpful.
“Going into the process, my idea was to conduct research on local emergency planning committees. We could have made recommendations for the EPA, and it would have been timely because of a policy ruling this year on the topic,” she says.
But when Johnson met with the staff at t.e.j.a.s., they expressed different needs. “They told me, ‘We live here and we’re telling you, that doesn’t help.’”
What t.e.j.a.s. most wanted from UCS was to apply staff analysts’ expertise to review existing data from the EPA and other sources to determine which chemicals were most prevalent in which Houston neighborhoods—and the resulting health risks to people living in communities with pollution-emitting facilities.
Yvette Arellano, a research fellow with t.e.j.a.s., says, “We wanted to give our community information about exposure [to toxic chemicals]. It felt like there was a misunderstanding: a lot of folks were saying, ‘I’m not dying and I don’t have cancer so I’m not affected.’”
This misunderstanding is partially due to unequal exchanges between research scientists and Houston residents, in which scientists rely on residents for data for a project, then leave without translating their results for the people who are actually at risk.
“So many times,” says Arellano, “research papers come out, and they’re great for academics and politicians—but they’re not made for communities. The information is valuable. But when you produce a product that can’t be understood, then it’s like you didn’t produce one at all.”
To avoid this scenario, UCS and t.e.j.a.s. committed to an equal collaboration, designing research questions, poring through the analysis, brainstorming what publications could be created, and planning an outreach strategy together.
The resulting fact sheet and report have been widely distributed by t.e.j.a.s. and have served as a starting point for change, with recommended policy solutions to address the problems. “It was the first time a piece of information was broken down to be digestible by the community,” Arellano says. “It was also the first time the affected communities—which are majority Spanish-speaking—had received this information in two languages.”
The continued collaboration also yielded an interactive map of chemical facilities and air pollution risks to Houston neighborhoods—and a 24-page report, titled Double Jeopardy in Houston, which provides damning evidence of higher risks of cancer and respiratory illnesses to Latino, African American, and lower-income Houston residents. The report also examines the risk of chemical spills from facilities located in predominantly Latino neighborhoods that are poorly equipped to handle emergency evacuations, and offers strong policy solutions to address these problems.
Johnson says the products of the UCS-t.e.j.a.s. partnership are helping to draw more attention to environmental injustice in Houston. Her team has met with congressional staff to share their findings, and Houston-based elected officials are responding as well, agreeing to meet with t.e.j.a.s.—in some cases for the first time.
In the actual neighborhoods affected, community members are rallying around the findings. Community meetings, according to Arellano, are drawing higher-than-ever turnout.
“At one presentation, people were shocked by the symptoms we listed. They were saying, ‘This whole time I thought it was sinus trouble,’ or, ‘My eyes and throat are always irritated in this way.’ It was an eye-opener. One person said, ‘This information makes me angry—but it makes me want to do something about it.’”
At UCS, staff scientists and analysts who worked on the t.e.j.a.s. project have gained a better understanding of the social dimensions of their work. “With that knowledge, we can develop research questions that will affect real-world issues,” says Johnson.
In California, Making Clean Technology Inclusive
Nearly 40 percent of all cargo containers entering and leaving the United States pass through California. Much of this freight is transported in large trucks through low-income communities composed predominantly of African American and Latino residents. While innovations in clean freight—electric trucks and shipping vehicles that reduce exposure to harmful emissions—are slowly catching on, there is a real danger that the communities most affected by pollution and global warming emissions will be left behind.
“Taking the dot-com boom as just one example,” says UCS Vehicles Analyst Jimmy O’Dea, “there’s been very limited access to low-income communities, and for people of color, to transition to jobs in tech economies. As we make progress in clean freight, everyone needs to benefit.”
Joel Espino, legal counsel for environmental equity at The Greenlining Institute, agrees. “It’s part of our mission to make sure low-income communities of color are prioritized when deploying clean technologies like electric trucks and buses, since these are the communities impacted the most by climate change and vehicle pollution,” he says.
UCS and The Greenlining Institute were ideal partners for producing an inclusive analysis of the health and potential economic benefits of electrifying California’s freight, titled Delivering Opportunity. “UCS brings expertise on emissions and vehicles, and Greenlining thinks about issues from a racial and economic equity lens. Air pollution is where we overlap. We have a mutual interest in solving the problems associated with this issue,” O’Dea says.
The collaborative report also features a detailed guide to creating inclusive and well-paying jobs in the assembly and maintenance of electric fleets and their associated infrastructure. In this way, the report demonstrates that sensible investments in electric vehicles, and easily implemented job training programs in the industry, are a win-win for all Californians: improving air quality and putting people to work.
O’Dea has since found it easier to make a case for emissions reductions in the freight sector. “Being in the room with The Greenlining Institute, and listening to their conversations with folks on the jobs side of the issue, has benefited how I think about what we’re advocating,” he says. Conversely, UCS’s technical chops have helped The Greenlining Institute frame the problem of freight emissions.
“We’d be the first to say that you don’t necessarily need technical analysis to know that living next to a freeway is bad,” says O’Dea. “But putting numbers to what communities are already experiencing helps when you’re trying to convince policymakers to invest in clean technologies.”
A Continuing Priority
Close and equal collaboration with environmental justice partners is and will continue to be a priority for UCS, as we share the same ultimate goal of creating a healthier and safer world. And the benefits of such partnerships extend both ways.
“In California, for UCS and The Greenlining Institute, our trustworthiness and our reputation in the state benefit from working with each other. Our networks have opened up greatly,” says O’Dea.
Given that the effects of climate change are felt most profoundly in communities of color and low-income communities—those who are affected “first and worst”—UCS is ready to support groups serving those communities in any way that our scientific expertise can be helpful to them.
“Environmental justice is something we should all care about,” Johnson says, “but people don’t want to be saved. They want to save themselves. They want everyone to know that we’re in this together.”