The planet is warming and there are more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from human activity than ever. President Joe Biden’s proposed $500 billion in climate spending baked into the Build Back Better bill is currently stalled out. The midterm elections are looming.
One year into Biden’s presidency, his administration is facing more pressure than ever to deliver meaningful action on climate change.
“I think it’s anxiety,” said Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “There’s just anxiety that we’re not going to be able to do what we say, and that really worries people because real people’s lives are affected by that.”
Last year, Biden tasked Mallory’s team with a massive mission: to lead the way on overhauling the government to better serve and respond to low-income communities and communities of color, especially for climate-linked programs and funding.
Specifically, in an executive order signed his first week in office, Biden launched the Justice40 initiative, laying out a governmentwide goal of delivering 40% of the benefits of all federal climate, clean energy, and pollution cleanup programs to disadvantaged communities. The Council on Environmental Quality was left in charge, along with the Office of Management and Budget and the White House Office of Domestic Policy.
The combination of fast-approaching project deadlines and the resignations of two CEQ officials in recent weeks — Cecilia Martinez, senior director for environmental justice, and David Kieve, the public engagement director — has thrust this little-known office into the spotlight.
“Expectations were high — and they should be high because people’s lives are at risk,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, senior leader at the National Wildlife Federation and an Obama-era environmental justice official.
In her first interview since the staff departures, Mallory addressed the scrutiny, reflected on the past year, and laid out her office’s goals for 2022.
“I’m just trying to make sure that we are — we, the team — are head down and are really trying to do as much as we can to deliver on what we have committed to,” she said.
Mallory still called 2021 a year of “incredible transformation” for the government’s environmental justice work, pointing specifically to the creation of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory and Interagency councils.
And, of course, the Justice40 program launched.
“Equity,” Mallory said, is now central to any federal program that touches on climate change. The question now is how to fully implement that concept.
This is exactly what her office is trying to figure out. To that end, the White House last July released interim guidance on how federal agencies should think about the 40% goal and identify programs that would be impacted. Most, if not all, federal agencies delivered an update on this in December, according to Mallory.
“And so all of that sets us up for 2022,” Mallory said.
Perhaps the first step will be the release of the administration’s environmental justice scorecard, a tool for helping track the performance of the Justice40 initiative.
The Biden administration initially said the scorecard would be released this February. But that may not happen, Mallory acknowledged. “I think our main aim for that is definitely the first quarter,” she said. “I won’t swear to February.”
Mallory also declined to put a date on the release of final Justice40 guidance or the launch of a climate and environmental justice screening tool, which will include interactive maps to help officials define and identify disadvantaged communities. But she seemed optimistic both would get done this year, even if she couldn’t say how soon.
Although Mallory did not go into detail on why some staff recently left her office, she said new hiring would happen. The office “will certainly have at least one person coming in,” she said, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more.”
That’s on top of the hiring of at least one new official working explicitly on environmental justice in December, bringing the current numbers of staffers dedicated to this subject to six, not including the chair, according to Council on Environmental Quality.
Ali was cautiously optimistic to hear this, as someone who has been calling on the White House to keep expanding its staff working specifically on environmental justice. “There’s a need to make sure that those positions are filled as quickly as possible with qualified individuals, and to expand out additional folks who are needed,” he said.
Mallory, though, did not bat away complaints from activists who are frustrated by her office’s speed in their first year.
“We also would like to be going faster,” she said.