A New Administrative Architecture for Justice40

April 18, 2022

More than a quarter century ago, Executive Order 12898, issued by President Clinton, marked an important development in federal policy by establishing environmental justice as a government-wide policy goal and requiring federal agencies to develop strategies for reducing environmental harms in communities of color. Today, however, persistent racial disparities in pollution exposure and related health impacts remain the norm; even President Trump’s EPA unequivocally confirmed this in a 2018 study of particulate matter exposure, a potent source of respiratory harms. Then, in 2020, a confluence of events—George Floyd’s murder, COVID-19’s disproportionate impacts in communities of color—elevated race like never before in a presidential campaign year. A striking political result of these events and realities was then-candidate Joe Biden’s marked embrace of race-forward climate policy, including what came to be known as the Justice40 initiative.

Justice40 is an investment policy requiring that 40 percent of the “overall benefits” of federal investments in seven major climate-focused policy areas—including climate change, clean energy, clean transportation, and sustainable housing—should flow to disadvantaged communities. Justice40 could not only yield unprecedented levels of investment in targeted communities; if designed and implemented well, the program also has the potential to transform how the federal government can work to repair some of the worst harms of systemic racism. But that will take more than just a target rate of investment; it requires changes to how we budget, how we target programs and funding, and even how we measure and define benefit—all aspects of policy and governance that have, more often than not, been used to oppress the same communities Justice40 now seeks to serve. 

However, Justice40 currently operates in the same administrative contexts that have reinforced and reproduced the racist power disparities that foster environmental injustice. For example, while Justice40 is part of the administration’s broader “all-of-government” approach to achieving racial equity, the federal budget process allocates money to individual programs, which can often be at cross-purposes or poorly coordinated when it comes to addressing cumulative impacts in complexly harmed communities. Furthermore, most federal funding is still targeted toward either state governments or individual households rather than as place-based funding that Justice40 requires to direct investments toward the identified communities. Neither legislators nor agencies seem to have ideas for how to change that. And perhaps most importantly, processes for interagency coordination and stakeholder engagement are still too limited to enable community members to have meaningful input into—much less control over—how to direct the investments Justice40 would create.  

To truly repair and transform the legacies of environmental racism, we need new models of governance that not only facilitate expansive coordination at different levels of administrative action but also prioritize procedural justice—guaranteeing fairness and equity in processes of decision-making that will affect disadvantaged communities. As we discuss in our new report, Justice40 and the Federal Budget: Challenges of Scale and Implementation, these interventions can take many forms. But maximizing impact for the most vulnerable communities requires an administrative architecture that still needs building, and should include the following considerations and steps: 

  • Since Justice40 is fundamentally a corrective budget concept, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) should have a critical role in its implementation. Creating a new office and appointed position of senior advisor for climate justice investment that work in parallel with the current Office of Domestic Climate Policy could provide the new authority and capacity needed.
  • In consultation with agencies and stakeholders, OMB should be responsible for expanding Justice40’s reach by designating additional covered agencies (such as the US Department of the Treasury) and additional covered programs for inclusion in Justice40.   
  • Specific rules, policy, and guidance are also needed for critical aspects of Justice40 implementation. For example, there is a need for a consistent policy to guide how agencies use equity mapping tools (and particularly the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool authorized by E.O. 14008) to target investments for the most vulnerable communities. 
  • Agencies in charge of formula funding programs also need to exercise oversight regarding how Justice40 is being applied by states or other jurisdictions receiving formula funds for federal goals. 
  • Centralized plans for robust, consistent implementation of procedural justice for frontline stakeholders are also needed.

This kind of across-the-board commitment is the only way to realize the all-of-government advancement that Justice40—and justice, more broadly—requires. While the initiative clearly faces an uphill battle in meeting several challenges of implementation and scale, wasting this generational opportunity to reinvest in the communities most harmed by the fossil fuel economy is simply not an option.