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Hurricane Irma and tropical storm at Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Advancing Environmental Justice Through Improved Responses to Extreme Weather Events

Guest Author
Lisa Baxter, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Climate change is contributing to an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, wildfires, heatwaves and flooding, which can have devastating consequences for communities, ecosystems and economies.  

These extreme events often disproportionately affect marginalized communities, intensifying environmental injustices. If left unaddressed, the long-term economic disenfranchisement of these historically underserved communities can lead to less resilience when faced with environmental and economic shocks. 

It is crucial to address these disparities by ensuring all communities have access to equitable disaster preparedness, response and recovery resources.  

Making Environmental Justice a Reality for All  

The federal government defines environmental justice as the just treatment and meaningful involvement of all people in federal activities that affect human health and the environment. The goals of environmental justice are that people: 

  • are fully protected from disproportionate and adverse human health and environmental affects; and 
  • have equitable access to a healthy, sustainable and resilient environment. 

Advancing environmental justice in the U.S. has been a federal government priority since 1994 when the first executive order to focus on the issue was signed. While the government has taken steps toward advancing environmental justice, the growing threat of extreme climate change-related events adds urgency to the work ahead.  

In responding to weather-related disasters, historically underserved communities often lack investment capital in public infrastructure — for example, the delivery of clean water— and for climate adaptation and disaster recovery strategies. Additionally, communities that rely on agriculture and forests for income, subsistence and employment face critical setbacks when extreme weather disrupts these systems. 

Driving Action Through Executive Orders 

President Biden has issued additional executive orders clarifying how the Biden-Harris administration intends to combat the problem, outlining broad actions and identify requirements to help government agencies develop their own implementation plans.  

These executive orders (EOs) include:  

  • EO 14096 – Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All 
    This order expands the government’s commitment to environmental justice by incorporating new elements and focusing on a broader range of environmental justice concerns. It seeks to address the historic and current environmental injustices faced by disadvantaged communities by enhancing agency coordination, increasing public participation and addressing cumulative impacts. It also calls for the creation of a new Office of Environmental Justice within the White House Council on Environmental Quality. 
  • EO 14008: Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad 
    Its goal is to “tackle the climate crisis at home and abroad while creating good-paying union jobs and equitable clean energy future, building modern and sustainable infrastructure and restoring scientific integrity and evidence-based policymaking across the federal government.”   

Promoting Equitable Responses to Extreme Weather Events  

The Rapid Response to Extreme Weather Events Across Food and Agricultural Systems (A1712) program was launched in spring 2022 as part of NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) program. This program seeks applications that focus on critical and urgent solutions in rapid response to extreme weather events and disaster impacts on our nation’s food and agricultural systems.  

The program is not a disaster relief or assistance program, but rather, it is a competitive grant program focused on response activities in outreach and research. It supports projects to understand   the environmental, economic and social impacts of natural disasters. 

It funds efforts that meet stakeholders where they are, and successful proposals actively include stakeholders in their activities. 

One project that aligns with the government’s environmental justice goals of promoting just treatment and meaningful involvement is being conducted by the University of California, Santa Barbara. The project includes producer perspectives in both the research and outreach phases.  

Titled “Rapid Response to Extreme Weather to Promote Human Health and Agroecosystem Resilience in the San Joaquin Valley, California,” the multidisciplinary project is in response to the early 2023 atmospheric river event and the resulting widespread standing water and ongoing floods.  

Farmworkers are a key audience for the project, as their health, well-being and safety is impacted by the increase of West Nile Virus risk due to the prevalence of standing water. 

Another project being led by the University of Florida is using photos to understand, connect and restore southwest Florida communities recovering from hurricanes Ian and Idalia. 

The work incorporates photovoice research, an ethnographic research tool that combines participant-taken photographs with narratives to collect perceptions, needs and barriers from community members to enhance the Cooperative Extension System’s capacity to identify needed resources and develop links to critical resources and services. These efforts will aid Extension in facilitating early recovery. 

A1712 program proposals are submitted through the AFRI Foundational and Applied Science Request for Applications and are accepted on a continuous basis. Proposals must be tied to a recent extreme weather event/disaster. Applicants must justify “why this funding and why now” to make the case for timeliness and relevance. 

Lisa Baxter is the Division Director for EPA’s Public Health and Environmental Systems Division and has spent the last six months working at NIFA as part of the President’s Management Council Interagency Rotation Program. 

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