​​Scoring Environmental Inequality: How California is paving the way for the U.S.

Last month, California released a new draft of the California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool (CalEnviroScreen), a web-based tool for identifying communities that are disproportionately burdened and endangered by pollution. Using environmental, health, and socioeconomic data from state and federal sources, CalEnviroScreen scores the pollution burden of every census tract in the state and presents these evaluations in an interactive color-coded map that allows users to explore and compare different communities. 

Reproduction of the CalEnviroScreen map, showing the disparity between San Francisco and Oakland

In identifying communities suffering from the cumulative impacts of multiple pollutants and people who are vulnerable to the effects of pollution, CalEnviroScreen aims to address racial and economic inequalities throughout the state. Academics, activists, and nonprofit organizations alike have acknowledged how low-income communities and people of color are disproportionately impacted by and vulnerable to the negative effects of pollution. Studies show that although white Americans’ consumption disproportionately causes air pollution, Black and Hispanic Americans are disproportionately impacted by it. Across the country, people of color and people in poverty are disproportionately exposed to facilities that emit hazardous particulate matter. Activists and nonprofit organizations have also brought attention to the toll that diseases like asthma have on communities with larger African American populations or higher poverty rates, and they have advocated for government policies to combat environmental injustices that contribute to these health disparities. 

To try to combat these inequalities, the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) uses CalEnviroScreen to inform resource allocation and policy decisions, such as the administration of environmental justice grants and enforcement of environmental laws. Ultimately, this tool serves to uphold CalEPA’s goal to ensure the fair development of laws and regulations that affect every community’s natural surroundings regardless of race, color, national origin, or income. Other state agencies also use CalEnviroScreen for a variety of programs, including those related to transportation and emissions, sustainable agriculture, and land preservation projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

CalEnviroScreen not only informs policy that affects nearly 40 million residents in California, but it could also impact the development of a similar tool at a national level. Like CalEPA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s goal is to “provide an environment where all people enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards.” President Biden specifically included the development of a data-driven Climate and Environmental Justice Screening Tool as part of his campaign platform, and earlier this year, the White House began efforts to develop such a tool for identifying disadvantaged communities and informing equitable decision making across the federal government based on the EPA’s existing Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool (EJSCREEN). The EPA began developing EJSCREEN in 2010 to highlight places to potentially focus environmental justice efforts, but unlike CalEnviroScreen, EJSCREEN and its underlying data are currently not used as a guidance for government agencies. Climate activists and the Center for American Progress have advocated for CalEnviroScreen to be used as a model for a national tool to address environmental justice concerns across the country.

With the federal government expressing interest in developing a similar environmental justice tool at the national level, and with climate change exacerbating existing racial and economic inequities, more debate and discussion on the issue can be expected. Questions about the fairness, representativeness, and effectiveness of these scoring systems remain open as these models are developed and adopted. Journalists can research the development of CalEnviroScreen since its first iteration in 2013, and they can monitor as CalEPA and other California agencies begin adopting the most recent version, draft 4.0. While CalEnviroScreen is perhaps the most notable model of a state-level environmental justice mapping and screening tool, journalists can also research similar efforts in other states (e.g. the Washington Environmental Health Disparities Map). At a federal level, journalists can learn more about EJSCREEN, which began in 2010,  and follow along with the national development of a Climate and Environmental Justice Screening Tool that began in January of this year. Those interested in these algorithms can also research the various studies (dating back to as early as the 1980s) that investigate connections between environmental injustices and racial and economic inequities. Looking to the future, journalists can research the effects that academics, activists, and other professionals expect climate change to have on environmental issues like air pollution and beyond. 

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