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There May Finally Be Hope for Environmental and Climate Justice. Can We Capitalize on It?

This work is vast. But success would build a more inclusive, just and sustainable economy and society — shaped by our shared opportunities rather than our risks, by prosperity rather than poverty, of positivity over negativity.

The scales of climate and environmental justice have long been weighed down by the enormity of our challenges.

It has taken too long to marshal resources toward renewable and regenerative technology and practices, putting countless communities at risk for the worst impacts of climate change and air pollution. There are mounting trust issues between larger economies that have caused the most climate pollution and the developing economies that will bear the brunt of its most severe effects. And a steady stream of data shows that global temperatures are continuing to rise, with causes that overwhelmingly have their greatest impact on the most vulnerable — including the growing ranks of people who have been displaced by the effects of the climate crisis.

Yet if you look closely, the scale of justice is beginning to balance slightly. For the first time in a long time, you can feel the impact of hope.

You can feel hope in the Inflation Reduction Act — the US’s largest-ever climate legislation — and other policies at the state and federal level. Together, they have the potential not only to dramatically reduce environmental impacts and air pollution in the US and build strong domestic industries with good jobs for everyone in the country, but to inspire equally ambitious action across the globe and continue to drive down clean-energy costs so all people across the globe can benefit.

You can feel hope in the growing efforts, both in the public and private sectors, to include indigenous and underserved communities in economic decision-making and corporate community-building.

And you can feel hope in the promise of community-investment institutions that are well-poised in this moment of both public- and private-sector activity to empower underestimated communities with substantial resources amid the clean-energy transition.

But hope is not victory. The scope of our challenges remains enormous; and hope can only win out if we take the right actions to capitalize on it. But at this moment, it is presenting an opportunity to build a just and sustainable economy — an opportunity to even those scales.

In March, I moderated a panel at the Ceres Global conference in New York City — a convening of industry leaders and policymakers to explore issues of climate, sustainability and environmental justice in pursuit of building a just and inclusive clean-energy future. It is clear that businesses, investors, and financial institutions must play a critical role in building that future, with public policy designed to guide them.

Especially at a time of vulnerability in important segments of the banking system, we must work to ensure community development financial institutions — with their proven track record of empowering the populations they serve with economic opportunity — are well-resourced for this work.

Companies must embrace the opportunity to truly engage with the communities in which they do business — including communities of color and indigenous communities — to ensure company and community needs are aligned, including the preservation of public health and local biodiversity. This engagement must include renewed efforts to recruit talent from diverse sources — including women’s colleges and Historically Black Colleges and Universities — not just to help all members of all communities to prosper, but to ensure companies are well-positioned to face challenges that a diverse employee base is best suited to address.

And investors must reevaluate and double down on their approach to identifying material financial concerns in their portfolios that for too long have gone overlooked — including implications for public health and economic growth in the communities where companies do business. Whether that means engaging with companies to improve their practices or divesting outright may depend on the company and the investor. But companies must take these challenges as the serious economic issues that they are; and investors are best positioned to ensure they do so.

This work is vast. It won’t be easy; and it will require vigilance to measure actions and outcomes. But success would build a more inclusive, just and sustainable economy and society to the benefit of workers, communities, companies, investors and all stakeholders — a future shaped by our shared opportunities rather than our risks, by prosperity rather than poverty, of positivity over negativity. If done right, we wouldn’t just balance the scale of justice, but tip it decidedly in the direction of hope.