Elizabeth Warren’s Environmental Justice Plan is Popular

By Julian Brave NoiseCat (@jnoisecat) and Sean McElwee (@SeanMcElwee)

Today, Elizabeth Warren released her plan to center justice in the fight against climate change. The platform, one of the longest and most thorough drafted in a policy-heavy campaign, builds on decades of organizing by Indigenous nations and communities of color. In the plan, the Senator commits to uphold the Principles of Environmental Justice drafted at the 1991 National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit—a touchstone document in the long fight against environmental racism. The plan would deepen and expand commitments made by the Clinton and Obama administrations to address environmental injustice in the day-to-day work of federal agencies. As part of Warren’s broad anti-corruption themed campaign, the plan takes aim at the fossil fuel corporations that have put elected officials on the dole and polluted the climate and our politics by sewing doubt about the scientific truth of global warming. The plan also shows the Senator’s commitment to advancing justice for working families and communities of color—a key pillar of a Green New Deal.

The Warren plan signals a broader shift within the Democratic Party towards a new consensus wherein justice is considered a core tenet of climate and environmental policy. Centrist politicians, think tanks and green groups have, for far too long, pushed an ideology of carbon supremacy—the notion that pollution and emissions should be isolated from broader questions of jobs, infrastructure, civil rights, Indigenous rights and justice. In February, the Washington Post editorial board said that serious policymakers should not “muddle” decarbonization with social programs that “divert money and attention from the primary mission.” And in a widely circulated 11,000-word “Open Letter to Green New Dealers,” Jerry Taylor, the President of the Reaganite Niskanen Center, was incredulous. “The climate is too important to be held hostage to political commitments,” he wrote. To test these rote hypotheses, Data for Progress polled key pieces of the Warren campaign’s environmental justice plan. As it turns out, voters support justice-oriented climate action.

We find that a green jobs guarantee framed around inequality and climate change is above water, crucially with independents. This shows that the approach of climate, jobs and justice is an effective way to message climate policy, in line with other research. 

 
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We find that voters are also overwhelmingly supportive of ending subsidies to fossil fuel companies, as well as liability for companies that lie about climate change.

 
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In addition, voters support requiring assessments of the climate and public health impacts of new infrastructure projects including a majority of Independents.

 
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A central component of the Green New Deal and recent policies like the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act in New York has been investments in low-income communities disproportionately affected by climate change. The chart below comes from our swing district survey, showing that even in the most difficult environments, voters are supportive of a plan to invest 40 percent of green energy spending into communities that are most impacted by climate change. 

 
 

Perhaps surprisingly, even when we explicitly cue a tax hike, voters support raising taxes to invest in low income communities (44 percent in support, 36 percent against). Independents also support tax hikes for investment, on net.

 
 

Voters also support preventing new fossil fuel infrastructure from causing a pollution risk. In a survey experiment, we find that even if voters are told their electricity bills would increase $50 a month, they still support preventing fossil fuel infrastructure from being built in a way that could cause water pollution. 

 
 

Another policy in Warren’s platform, clean water infrastructure is so popular that it had positive support in every state in the country even when voters were presented with Republican counter-arguments.

Simply put, environmental justice, long ignored, is popular. And as experts have noted, justice-oriented claims will likely be essential to create a broad and diverse coalition behind ambitious and equitable climate policy like a Green New Deal. In her influential postmortem of the Obama-era cap-and-trade fight, Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol wrote:

“The only way to counter… right-wing elite and popular forces is to build a broad popular movement to tackle climate change. Ways must be found to use policy ideas as tools to knit-together inside-outside links among many organizations, including some that can draw masses of ordinary citizens into the transition to a green economy.”

As the Democratic base becomes steadily younger and more diverse, communities of color, who have borne the brunt of the fossil fuel economy, will be central to building a successful inside-outside strategy for a Green New Deal. While beltway insiders continue to push the line that social policy overburdens climate and energy policy, the data does not support this claim. Political elites are simply trading in prejudice to prop-up a wrongheaded approach that stands at odds with the interests of people of color and actions to mitigate warming. Senator Warren is on the right side of the issue.


Julian Brave NoiseCat (@jnoisecat) is Director of Green New Deal Strategy at Data for Progress.

Sean McElwee (@SeanMcElwee) is a co-founder of Data for Progress.

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