April 27, 2023 - 1:00pm

Recently, President Biden signed an executive order to “to revitalize our nation’s commitment to environmental justice for all”. While this might sound like a fairly unremarkable piece of environmentalist rhetoric, the directive is designed to make yet another major issue all about racism.

“Environmental justice” doesn’t mean trying to save the environment. Rather, it’s about ensuring that no group of people bears a “disproportionate share” of environmental harms. For as the White House’s “fact sheet” explains, “racism is a fundamental driver of environmental injustice”.

So what exactly does the executive order do? To begin with, it establishes the first ever “Environmental Justice scorecard” to monitor what federal agencies (including NASA and the Department of Education) are doing to “advance environmental justice in communities across America”. In addition, it introduces the “Justice40 initiative”, which aims to ensure that 40% of the benefits from certain federal programs flow to “disadvantaged communities”. Why 40%? Don’t ask me.

Now, there are racial disparities in exposure to pollutants, and some of them may be due to racist policies in the past. But that doesn’t justify the Biden administration’s approach — which treats citizens not as individuals but as members of distinct groups or “communities”.

Reducing people’s exposure to pollutants is certainly a desirable goal, and is also one for which the federal government is well-suited (pollutants have a habit of ignoring state boundaries.) The correct approach is surely to maximise social welfare by considering factors like the harm done by the pollutants and the cost of removing them; the race of those affected should be irrelevant.

If some groups are more affected by pollutants than others, they will tend to benefit more from the welfare-maximising policy. However, this is a side-effect of the policy, not its main purpose. The Government has no business equalising groups’ exposure to pollutants if doing so comes at the expense of overall welfare. Removing all pollutants is clearly not optimal, as it would require us to abandon industrial society.

Aside from these theoretical arguments, there are also the facts on the ground.

Racial disparities in exposure to pollutants track urban living more than financial resources. Native Americans earn about half as much as Asian Americans, on average. Yet because they tend to live in rural areas, their exposure to pollutants is lower. In fact, they’re less exposed than even white Americans.

While disparities still exist, all racial groups have seen dramatic declines in exposure over the last two decades. What’s more, the disparities themselves have narrowed over time. According to a recent study, the black-white gap in exposure to particulates fell by two-thirds between 2000 and 2015 — thanks largely to new emissions standards introduced in 1997. As the authors note, the new standards had this effect even though it was “not their primary intent”.

President Biden’s executive order is just the latest example of progressives trying to make “equity” (that is, equality of outcomes across racial groups) the central aim of government policy. In the present case, it seems particularly misguided, given that recent trends are favourable across the board. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it — especially not like this.

Noah Carl is an independent researcher and writer.