A highway with a sunset in the background.

Vulnerabilities to Climate Change in Frontline Communities: Opportunities and Shortcomings

Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and frontline communities in the United States continue to experience a disproportionate share of the effects of climate change. The increasing frequency and intensity of climate events exacerbate pre-existing economic, health, and infrastructure conditions in these communities. Given the exposure of these communities to risks of all kinds, these impacts are likely to increase in the future without the design and implementation of effective policy solutions. 

In 2023, Just Solutions published “The Perfect Storm of Extraction, Poverty, and Climate Change,” which takes a case study approach to examine these pre-existing conditions in six frontline communities across the country. The report argues that the economic, health, and infrastructure conditions experienced by these communities are the direct consequence of enacted policies that have deprived these communities of resources and assets, environmentally degraded or undervalued their lands, or facilitated systemic racism. 

This follow-up report considers the degree to which the historic federal investments enabled by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022 and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) of 2021 might improve the underlying conditions highlighted in “The Perfect Storm.” We conclude that, with careful implementation that centers the needs and voices of the most impacted communities, key provisions in the IRA and the IIJA could further contribute to addressing greenhouse gas reduction goals and could cumulatively help improve the conditions that exist in frontline communities. However, numerous challenges remain. These challenges include shortcomings in the statutes that fall short of meeting the needs of BIPOC and frontline communities, implementation processes affecting how and where funds are disbursed and who receives them, and the need for future policy advocacy, design, and implementation of economic and social solutions to advance a Just Transition. 

The Opportunities and Shortcomings of Federal Investments

The IRA and the IIJA have been lauded for the historic investments they make in addressing climate change and improving U.S. infrastructure. Although historic in their reach and scope, the laws are insufficient to meet the climate justice and clean energy needs of the moment. They both should be regarded as a down payment, as the investments made in infrastructure and climate fall far short of the need. 

Implementation of the IRA and the IIJA must center the needs and voices of the most impacted communities. Policies and practices that effectively increase the ability and capacity of frontline communities to access these historic levels of funding could significantly improve conditions in frontline communities. As funds are released and programs are implemented, insisting upon transparency and community engagement at all levels and stages of implementation and tracking where and how investments are made will be necessary to ensure that the IRA and the IIJA advance a Just Transition.

IRA and IIJA Provisions for Addressing “Pre-Existing Conditions”

The indicators selected within the three domains examined in “The Perfect Storm” – Economic Conditions, Health Conditions, and Infrastructure Conditions – were considered in relation to their relevance for increasing the capacity of communities to cope with, prepare for, and respond to climate change. Just Solutions has examined provisions from the IRA and the IIJA (Appendix in the report) that hold the potential to improve the pre-existing conditions in frontline communities across the country. Whether or not this potential is realized will depend on a number of factors, including:

  • The degree to which the Justice40 Initiative (J40) is successfully implemented. 
  • The degree to which states effectively administer funds disbursed through IRA and IIJA in ways that facilitate a Just Transition. 
  • The degree to which frontline communities in need of and/or seeking funds are able to realize the benefits of IRA and IIJA. 

In the tables featured in this follow-up report, we highlight a few of the provisions (listed below) contained in the IRA and the IIJA that could improve economic, health, and infrastructure outcomes in frontline communities.

  • Implementing a High-efficiency Electric Home Rebate Program
  • Increasing Funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
  • Improving Affordability and Reduce Premium Costs of Health Insurance for Consumers
  • Administering a Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF)
  • Reauthorizing and Expanding Sewer Overflow and Storm Water Reuse Municipal Grants

These provisions are described within the full report, including anticipated benefits and recommendations for future improvements. 

The IRA and the IIJA are first steps in efforts to ensure a Just Transition. Despite historic levels of investment, the need continues to far exceed the resources available for frontline communities to cope with, prepare for, and respond to climate change. In order to advance the work toward improving economic and health outcomes in these communities, provisions in earlier versions of the IRA and IIJA that were ultimately omitted could be reintroduced and enacted. These include: 

  • Funding for child care to ensure that most families pay no more than 7% of their household budgets on child care
  • Universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds
  • Universal paid family and medical leave policies that would provide up to four weeks of paid leave
  • An enhanced and fully refundable Child Tax Credit
  • Expansion of home care for older adults and those living with disabilities
  • Increases to Pell Grant funding to reduce the cost of postsecondary education
  • Investments in maternal health care
  • Expanded funding for rental assistance and investments in public housing repair and maintenance
  • Investments in public housing development

Policy solutions such as these are needed to increase the capacity of frontline communities and must be considered part of what it means to ensure a Just Transition. In addition to ensuring that frontline communities benefit from the greenhouse gas reduction, energy efficiency, and infrastructure investments contained in the legislation, investments that improve the pre-existing economic and health conditions in frontline communities must not be overlooked. Without such investments and policy solutions, we will not meet the challenge of the climate crisis, protect all of our communities from climate disasters, and position the U.S. as a leader in the clean energy future.