The Environmental Justice Mapping and Data Collection Act of 2021, authored by Representative Cori Bush (D-MO), is a step toward equipping communities and policymakers with the data they need to advance equitable policies in the fight against climate change and address historical environmental harms. The idea of the bill is the creation of an interagency environmental justice mapping committee, led by the Environmental Protection Agency, tasked with identifying criteria, finding data gaps, creating a data repository, and working with communities to create an interactive mapping tool based on cumulative impacts to locate environmental justice communities. This tool will then be utilized in the effort to direct at least 40% of funding for a clean and climate-safe future into communities facing environmental injustices.
Understanding the Bill
One aspect of the bill includes the formalization and development of a comprehensive cumulative impacts mapping tool to identify environmental justice communities. In the process of developing this tool, they will identify and implement a methodology to determine the cumulative impacts of categorical factors including demographics and social stressors, public health, and pollution burdens. This will result in an “environmental justice score.”
These efforts will be led by an environmental justice mapping committee that will also investigate how indicators of vulnerability to impacts of climate change may be used and consider implementing regional factors. In the process design, the committee will also build out an interactive tool capable of providing maps of cumulative environmental justice scores based on selected indicators in a region of size no larger than a census tract. They also plan to design a method to self-identify as an environmental justice community via qualitative data.
To ensure that the mapping tool’s data is up to date and relevant, the committee will direct relevant agencies to perform an audit of data, identifying any data sets that are relevant to environmental justice concerns, and requests and recommendations to agencies on what other data should be gathered that is relevant. This audit is designed to be performed no less than once every three years. Data in the audit will include public health metrics, toxic chemicals, economic demographics, and air and water quality metrics. The audit will also be designed to examine the granularity and accessibility of the data, and ultimately placed in a publicly accessible environmental justice data repository.
Led by the EPA, the environmental justice mapping committee will have representation from many agencies in its “whole of government” approach, including: HHS, DOI, HUD, DOE, USDA, and DOT. In design, this committee will also consult with an advisory council of relevant stakeholders, at least half of which will be representatives and members of communities harmed by environmental injustices, chaired by an environmental justice advocate. The committee, with consultation from the advisory council, will develop a plan for comprehensive public engagement with and incorporation of feedback from environmental justice communities including public meetings held by the committee, which may be supplemented with outreach by the advisory council.
While the bill was introduced in the House in March 2021, if it becomes law, the tools and data collected will mark an important step in taking environmental justice communities from an abstraction to understanding the quantifiable impacts of past and current environmental transgressions. This bill also has the potential to put in place the data collection, storage, and usage infrastructure at a federal level needed to address vulnerabilities exacerbated by future climate change.
How A Civic Voice Archive Could Serve These Needs
In imagining how the Civic Voice Platform could play a role in the formulation and implementation of the Environmental Justice Mapping and Data Collection Act, we can think of its use in three key ways: as a tool for communities to qualify data, as a tool to integrate public deliberations into the Congressional record, and as a tool to inform the bill’s funding allocation as well as community project funding.
Mentioned above, part of H.R. 516 includes a section on public engagement, consultation and solicitation of public comment -- “not less frequently than once each fiscal quarter, the Committee shall consult with the advisory council and solicit meaningful public comment, particularly from relevant stakeholders, on the activities of the Committee.” While assuming that there will be more specificity built into the bill if it passes through legislation, the Civic Voice Archive could be a useful tool for communities, the committee, and the advisory council to utilize as they collect perspectives about data collection, needed resources, funding allocation, and service delivery. While this bill builds important structures and tools for collecting quantified data that is necessary for determining vulnerability indicators, the lived experience and contextual memory can help distill the data in a salient way.
All of the data points collected, from income to social stressors to environmental quality metrics that will create an “environmental justice score,” will need real human engagement in order to provide the depth and insight to paint a more contextual picture, distinguish patterns, and potentially draw a throughline between events, communities, or governance practices. The Civic Voice Archive, when paired with locally salient, consistent, and effective public engagement, can provide the space for the committee, the advisory council, and local advocates to make sense of the narratives, and store them on a platform that is publicly accessible like the environmental justice data repository itself.
Currently within the bill, it is not clear how the committee plans to link the data collected and the public engagement back to further policymaking, both at the local and national level. Public comment sessions and hearings are critical for this bill’s success. However there are no mechanisms for the established committee or policymakers to integrate the impressions and perspectives back into further funding allocation or next steps of policy legislation.
Within a Civic Voice Archive, local perspectives and data can be connected to federal legislative lawmaking in a streamlined way, providing the final link back into an institutional learning system after collecting the data, analyzing, and storing the data. It would be a waste not to integrate relevant and current data into the federal catalogue system, especially as we encounter more unprecedented territory as the impacts of climate change affect our built and natural environments. One approach to manage this feedback cycle could be engaging federal and state chief data officers in this data stewardship.
The main concept of this tool is that it is designed to be “essential in the effort to direct at least 40% of funding for a clean and climate-safe future into communities facing environmental injustices.” The quantified 40% responds to Joe Biden’s commitment to order 40% of the benefits from federal climate action  to go to disadvantaged communities. There is a level of concern about ensuring equity in the dispersal of these funds, with some organizations worried that funding will go to communities that have a higher relative capacity to work with federal agencies and where investment is easier (“shovel-ready projects”), not necessarily the communities that are in most need. In H.R. 516, the committee will be authorized to be appropriated at $20,000,000 for each of fiscal years 2021 and 2022; and $18,000,000 for each of fiscal years 2023 through 2025. The appropriations for the bill are written in, but not necessarily the decision-making process that will be in place for determining the districts where the funds will be invested.
A Civic Voice Archive could catalyze the process of building institutional learning processes to ultimately support in informing the bill’s funding allocation. The “benefits” of federal climate action must be measured and reflected in the lived experience of the communities themselves, and will require a contextual understanding of the history and needs of said communities. A certain project might seem like a win for the community as a whole, but also might drive up the cost of living in that community, so understanding how the community engages with the project and what safeguards might need to be in place for the community to reap the benefits is essential. A CVA can help to support this learning, and continued public engagement and use of the CVA to make the policymaking process adaptive and provide evidence-backed policy solutions, ultimately influencing funding.
This feature could also align with the return of legal earmarks (i.e. “member-directed spending” or “community project guidelines”) for the first time since 2012. The House Appropriations Committee introduced new guidelines for the newly termed “community-project funding”, formerly known as earmarks. The new guidelines include increased transparency and accountability measures so that members cannot abuse the system, and are designed so that “Members can put their deep, first-hand understanding of the needs of their communities to work to help the people we represent.” This development could work in tandem with the CVA in ensuring that the services needed by local communities could be addressed by federal policymakers, and ultimately, federal spending. Having an open and accessible data repository paired with the CVA, hosting the scientific research and the qualitative testimonies, could support the goals of transparency.
The CVA opens up a dialogue for experience, power, funding, and policy solutions. It does not have to be a two step process: disadvantaged communities demonstrating need, and policymakers responding. Especially as communities develop their own local climate adaptation solutions, the CVA can be an effective tool in taking understanding of these solutions to scale, and incorporating local solutions into federal service delivery. This requires a multi-step process of understanding the data, hearing the public testimony, providing transparent funding mechanisms, incorporating learning into further policymaking, and then the reassessment of the situation. For further reading on the significance of this process, see our writing on data, trust, and justice within the legitimizing process.
“Federal climate action” is still an unknown; it is unclear what this refers to with Biden’s policy framework and where this funding will originate from. We do know that a National Climate Task Force has been tasked to determine a federal strategy by May 2021, and this includes input from a new Environmental Justice Interagency Council.