Green Peacemaker

The first African American chief administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, gave her first public address in late January at the Advancing Climate Justice conference, an assembly of environmental-justice organizations from around the nation. Jackson had just been confirmed by the Senate in a hearing stalled in no small part by Sen. James Inhofe's insistence that she consider the opinions of those who deny that climate change has anthropogenic causes.

But among the crowd gathered at Fordham University in New York for the January climate conference, there was no denial of global warming. The attendees -- mostly African-, Latino-, Asian-, and Native Americans with doctorates or degrees in law or medicine -- were part of a 30-year-old movement to educate, organize, and fight for the rights of low-income populations and minorities whose health has suffered due to environmental neglect in their communities. Global warming, they worried, would add yet another burden.

Taking the stage before the activists, Jackson was greeted by an extended standing ovation -- longer than that given for earlier speakers Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York and activist and author Dr. Robert Bullard, the "father of environmental justice." The cheers and beaming faces made clear audience members saw Jackson as one of their own. Peggy Shepard, executive director of the New York–based WE ACT for Environmental Justice nonprofit, said, "Jackson wants to lift up environmental justice and children's health, which are also two of our top priorities."

"I want to thank you for the trust you have placed in me," Jackson told the audience. "I understand that trust is something, especially for the government, and especially for the EPA, that is hard-earned, so I hope ... you won't be operating simply from a position of trust but also one of respect." Jackson, in other words, was challenging the movement to hold her accountable.

It was already apparent where the two would clash, though. Jackson obviously agrees with the statement from the Environmental Justice Leadership Forum on Climate Change declaring that "climate change is the most significant social and political challenge of the 21st century." Yet Jackson and environmental-justice activists disagree on how to meet that challenge. The solution accepted by most members of Congress and President Barack Obama has been a cap-and-trade scheme, where the government allocates or auctions permits to industries based on a national overall cap on greenhouse gas emissions. With Obama's encouragement, the House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce Committee began holding hearings on cap-and-trade measures in April. And Jackson has made clear she supports the choice to pursue this policy. Under cap-and-trade, if emitters use fewer than their allocated number of allowances in a given year, they can trade or sell their unused permits in a market-exchange system. If an emitter needs more allowances, then it must buy more or invest in offsets (funding for other carbon-reduction programs).

This plan, however, is unacceptable to the environmental-justice movement, as indicated by the loud "boos" at the conference every time it was mentioned. "Policies like cap-and-trade would allow some of the dirtiest plants to continue to pollute in poorer communities," reads a WE ACT press release from the conference. "Accordingly, we believe the use of market forces to solve the most critical social problem facing the planet is not good public policy especially in these perilous economic times." The environmental-justice movement fears that industries, particularly those operating near communities of color and low income neighborhoods, will get free allowances and that businesses will opt to invest in offsets rather than clean up their acts. Those industries that can afford to pollute simply will, while other businesses will sell permits to big polluters. In all scenarios, communities that are already disproportionately dumped on would remain vulnerable to pollution hazards.

Beyond these concerns, activists in communities of color have a deep distrust of market trading, which evokes images of white men taking risks with other people's securities. At the heart of their concerns is a moral appeal that argues businesses should not have the right to gamble with vulnerable people's health by packaging pollution as a commodity traded for profit.

Jackson, who speaks in a sleepy yet jazzy, room-temperature voice, said much to stir the activists' pride and inspire hope but gave no indication that the EPA would entertain alternatives to cap-and-trade. The audience did not push her on this point, but how could they? Before them stood the most powerful figure in U.S. environmental policy, someone who at least gets environmental-justice issues. If anyone could assure them cap-and-trade wasn't the bogeyman, it was Jackson.

"What I can tell you is that you are being heard," Jackson told the audience. "I'm pledging that you will have our ear for your particular concerns."

But, she added, she would also be listening to "the voices of others who may not agree with you."

***

Chemicals, you could say, run in Jackson's blood. She grew up in New Orleans, where poor and working-class African Americans are constantly exposed to pollution from the Industrial Canal and Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. It's also a place where poverty is rampant and, as Hurricane Katrina made too clear, is at risk every time an extreme storm hits. Louisiana has one of the densest concentrations of petrochemical plants in the nation and is consistently among the top three states for hazardous-waste generation. This toxic legacy has contributed to heightened health risks -- birth defects, respiratory illnesses, cancers -- among the many Native and African Americans who have lived in Louisiana for generations. While it would seem obvious that these widespread health maladies are caused by pollution, the industries have effectively denied that their emissions, waste leaks, and chemical "upsets" significantly affect people's health. The area along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans -- a stretch known infamously as "Cancer Alley" -- was one of the launch pads of the environmental-justice movement.

"There's been a long history of exploitation of these communities where these areas have been treated almost as a colonial province by these industries," says David Rosner, director of the Center for the History & Ethics of Public Health at Columbia University. "There have been some important struggles to overturn that, but these people have been overwhelmed by the companies."

In the late 1980s, a black woman named Florence Robinson worked to translate esoteric risk assessments and epidemiology reports, so that residents of the predominantly black community of Alsen, Louisiana, could better understand their destitute health conditions. Most of the residents had "less than a grade school education," Robinson said in an interview with academic Barbara L. Allen for her book about Louisiana's chemical corridor, Uneasy Alchemy. In the interview, Robinson, formerly a biology professor at Southern University, a historically black college in Baton Rouge, said, "You're not going to turn people like this into scientists overnight. What they have is something priceless, and scientists would do a lot to pay attention to it, as they have got incredible common sense."

That philosophy must run in Jackson's blood, too, given her reputation in college for putting complex science into more accessible terms. After graduating first in her class at an all-girls' college-prep school in 1979, Jackson pursued a degree in chemical engineering at local Tulane University. As her former Tulane colleague Alon McCormick told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, "Usually a class of engineers is a bunch of nerds, but when Lisa was around, you were sure that things were going to be put in context."

Jackson went on to graduate school in chemical engineering at Princeton and later joined the EPA's regional New York and New Jersey division, helping direct waste cleanup and rule-enforcement operations. In 2002, she became the assistant commissioner of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection, where she was again tasked with enforcement, a job that entails uncomfortable, sometimes confrontational, dealings with industry and business executives. She was so successful in getting businesses to clean up their operations and abandoned sites that in February 2006 she was picked to head the department. In this role, Jackson helped craft one of the strongest global warming policies in the nation, committing New Jersey to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 2006 levels by midcentury. To that end, Jackson enrolled New Jersey in the Regional Greenhouse Gases Initiative (RGGI), a mandatory cap-and-trade system involving nine other states in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, and even served as one of its directors.

This may have been a path-breaking effort to reduce emissions, but it did nothing to endear Jackson to the environmental-justice groups in her region. In July 2006, the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance submitted a public comment on the proposed RGGI carbon-trading rules -- a nine-point statement criticizing the plan. "We've been opposing carbon trading," says Dr. Nicky Sheats, a member of NJEJA and director of the Center for the Urban Environment. "Nationally we hope to move the conversation toward a carbon charge." But if cap-and-trade is the accepted way forward, Sheats adds, "we want EJ initiatives put into carbon trading" -- meaning no free allowances or carte blanche offsets and a guarantee that the proceeds from allowance auctions would go to low-income households.

Critics questioned Jackson's judgment on other environmental matters as well. Some accused her of moving too slowly when high mercury levels were found in a building that housed a day-care center and also of moving too quickly to appease private developers. One case involved a patch of land in Hudson County, New Jersey, that had long been eyed by condo developers. High concentrations of chromium were present, which led the previous Department of Environmental Protection to cease development there. Lobbyists shelled out hundreds of thousands and eventually got their way when Jackson lifted the moratorium -- a move that pleased developers, angered environmentalists, and caused at least one of her staff scientists to quit.

Jackson defends her decisions as based on a fundamental belief that business interests should be protected, though her record is not one of complete acquiescence. Before dissolving the development prohibitions in Hudson County, she lowered chromium-safety levels -- which had been set in the past as high as 6,100 parts per million -- to 20 parts per million. "This was at the height of development and communities were saying we are going to miss our opportunities to grow and have a restored tax base," she says. "It's about giving people clarity. It's about saying, ‘You may not like this answer because it may cause you to pay upfront costs,' but they can say, ‘At least now we know what those costs are.' It's the doing nothing that is justice deferred."

***

Jackson's selection as EPA chief almost didn't happen. When Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans in 2005, her 80-year-old mother lost her house and all its contents. Afterward, Jackson, bitter over the massive death count among African Americans and the lack of support for survivors, lashed out at government forces and considered leaving the public sector altogether. "People of color didn't have much to say over the land-use decisions that led to Katrina, but they are the ones suffering from those land-use decisions," Jackson told me in an interview shortly after Obama announced her as his EPA pick. "They paid the prices with their lives, their fortunes, and their homes, which for many may have been the only savings they had in the world."

But as the storms settled, so eventually did Jackson's feelings toward government. In November 2008, she accepted a new position as chief of staff for Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey. She had only been on the job two weeks when Obama called her up. The president told her that the EPA job "was to build on the commonality and backgrounds and purposes that a lot of us share in this special mission" of combating climate change. For Jackson, that meant being sure "that all communities feel at the end of the day that they have been protected … so that everyone, especially industry, especially business, has a clear roadmap for where we're trying to go." She accepted the position.

While Jackson's "all communities" approach appears aligned with the guiding principles of environmental justice, her emphasis on industry and business indicates that she's also attuned to the principles of environmentalist reformers. As Christopher McGrory Klyza and David Sousa explain in their book, American Environmental Policy, 1990–2006, "The reformers offer a classic ‘both and' agenda, seeking to achieve real improvements in environmental protection while accommodating the legitimate concerns of business leaders and others about the economic and social costs of the implementation of the golden-era laws." The laws passed in the "golden era" of the early 1970s -- the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act -- were meant to, in some ways, punish businesses for polluting, not accommodate them. Yet cap-and-trade is essentially a policy of accommodation, as it acknowledges businesses' primary role in the nation's economy.

President Obama has pushed Congress to enact cap-and-trade legislation, and business isn't complaining. The climate bill proposed by Reps. Henry Waxman and Ed Markey in March, which would impose a cap-and-trade system, was heavily influenced by the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, whose Blueprint for Legislative Action report was endorsed by corporate giants such as Alcoa, BP, Duke Energy, DuPont, and General Motors. In her April 22 testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Jackson said the "market-based system aims to protect our children and grandchildren from severe environmental and economic harm … while further invigorating advanced American energy industries."

Winning over industry on cap-and-trade is one thing; winning over Congress is another, particularly the dozens of Democrats from states that rely heavily on coal and Republicans who labeled the bill as "cap and tax." It will be harder still for Jackson to satisfy her environmental-justice base, especially when supporters of the bill, like BP and DuPont, have been some of the heaviest polluters in the activists' communities.

The EPA inserted itself firmly in the climate debate on April 17 when it released an endangerment-finding proposal on greenhouse gases. With the proposal, the EPA has guided legislators on both the environmental and economic implications of the bill, including advising on how allowances can be allocated and how revenue drawn can be distributed if the bill is made law. Significantly, the report did consider the disproportionate impact of climate change on vulnerable communities in its findings.

A few weeks earlier, I'd met with Jackson in her office, where we talked about who would ultimately profit from cap-and-trade. In the interview, she seemed to run the gamut from environmental-justice advocate to administration mouthpiece to business-friendly environmental reformist. Jackson wasn't beholden to any one camp; she was all of the above, as indicated by her self-inclusion in all parts of the equation. "If the only thing out there was a cap-and-trade program, then we're not comfortable we're going to be taken care of," Jackson said. "So part of the answer is that EPA needs to do its regulatory job, and there we have clear regulatory authority to address those pollutants, to address interstate transport issues and hotspots."

She continued, "We owe the country the regulations that make sense and don't allow people to trade large amounts of substances. Maybe there's some small amount of trading, but [we need] to give assurances to the EJ community that this isn't going to be just their problem."

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