President-Elect Biden has repeatedly expressed his commitment to furthering more equitable political representation, vowing to pick the most diverse cabinet in history. His newly announced climate change team puts action behind that promise. The team of seven so far includes four women and four people of color. Deb Haaland is Biden’s choice to lead the Department of the Interior, and, if confirmed, she would be the first Native American to hold a cabinet secretary position. There is perhaps no better team to imbue with diversity because as the threat of climate change grows, its racially disproportionate impact becomes more dangerous and apparent.
A 2012 study found that people of color had higher levels of exposure to pollution than those of white people. In 2018, the EPA released a report confirming the existence of environmental racism in America today: people of color are more likely to be exposed to pollution. And the air is not the only part of the environment in which injustices pervade. In 1987, the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice published a report called Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, which showed that race was the most determining factor in selecting toxic waste sites in the United States. These data show that past and current environmental policies are not producing equitable access to clean resources. These policies must be assessed and changed to actively protect people of color.
Environmental racism has always been unacceptable, but today it is more crucial than ever that our leaders work to put an end to it. As the United States struggles with the coronavirus pandemic, individuals with higher exposure to air pollution are at higher risk for contracting severe cases of COVID-19. Because air pollution disproportionately affects people of color, these Americans are particularly vulnerable to the illness. Additionally, the National Academy of Medicine found that people of color in America receive “lower quality health care” than white people. So, not only are minority persons more likely to contract severe COVID-19 cases, but they are less likely to be treated effectively if and when they do.
Biden’s vow to encourage diversity and his recent cabinet picks have drawn criticism as being a new manifestation of old political tactics to maintain peace among political factions. These criticisms bring up an interesting ethical question: is diversity good? Extensive research on political representation supports the argument that diversity in political environments is good. Political scientists often convey the importance of people of color being equitably represented in government. If a segment of a population is underrepresented or not represented at all, there is a danger that the interests and concerns of many will go unheard, which often leads to exploitation, division, and civil unrest. So, a diverse cabinet does stand to benefit the country by ensuring that the interests of historically excluded groups are considered. A racially diverse climate change team has a greater chance of putting an end to environmentally racist policies than a less diverse group because Black and Native American voices will be heard when policy decisions are being made.
Ensuring a diverse group of individuals make up our government also contributes to changing societal norms. Headlines such as “the first woman appointed to” or “the first Black American elected as” may feel commonplace today, but Professor Kelly Dittmar of the Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics emphasized that these firsts “disrupt expectations” about who can and should hold certain roles in society. Traditional expectations about certain positions of power can be silent but impassable barriers to entry for women, people of color, and LGBT individuals. When those barriers are broken, the pool of candidates for government offices becomes more representative of the country as a whole.
Biden’s commitment to diversity within his cabinet and on the climate change team, in particular, is a move that stands to produce more equitable policies, particularly those addressing the environment. It is vital that people of color take a large role in environmental policy. Without those perspectives, any administration runs the risk of perpetuating discriminatory environmental policies, even if it makes progress on combatting climate change. While skepticism of political motives is warranted, the increased diversity in the incoming administration stands to increase the level of representation in our democracy and strengthens the chance for a more equitable future environment.