By Trevor Sherman, 2023 Governor's STEM Scholar
As someone born and raised in the Garden State, I love our sandy coastline, tree-filled mountains, winding hiking trails, and abundant wildlife. But our sea levels are rising more rapidly than other parts of the planet. New Jersey is warming faster than the rest of the Northeast region and the world.
March is STEM Month in New Jersey. A time to celebrate the state’s accomplishments across STEM fields, and harness our STEM resources to pave the way forward. It is at this time for New Jersey to embrace bold initiatives that combat climate change and promote environmental justice. Climate change is worsening the air and water pollution that is already devastating our most vulnerable communities. Environmental justice seeks to address this disproportionate impact on low-income communities and communities of color, and promote equitable access to clean resources.
The American Lung Association listed Camden and Newark, majority-Black communities, as two of the worst metro areas in the country for particle pollution and ozone smog. Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, where a quarter of the inhabitants live in poverty, was named one of the most polluted areas in the Northeast by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And the Princeton-based nonprofit research organization Climate Control named Newark the second worst heat island, defined by the EPA as, “zones of relative warmth created by urban air and surface temperature that are higher than those of nearby rural areas”.
But this is not new. Low-income communities and communities of color have endured these problems for years. Researchers at Princeton University found that since 2013, approximately 13.4% of Black children suffer from asthma, compared to 7.3% of white children, and more than half the people living next to hazardous waste facilities are people of color.
In 2020, New Jersey passed the Environmental Justice Law, which mandates that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) conduct an environmental justice analysis when reviewing permit applications for power plants, incinerators, sewage treatment plants, and recycling and waste facilities. The law is designed to lessen environmental impacts on disadvantaged communities by denying permit applications for facilities that could inflict harm.
This environmental justice analysis must be implemented into all environmental policies in the state, specifically to regulations.
While we celebrate this legislation and those studying environmental inequality within New Jersey, we must also recognize the need to proceed boldly in our pursuit of developing, implementing, and improving policies to address the drivers of climate change and ensure every New Jerseyan has equitable access to clean energy, air, and water.
The NJDEP, working with community organizations, should create a program to revise current environmental policies to ensure they promote environmental equity. By incorporating environmental justice into policymaking, the most effective emissions, energy, and waste disposal regulations can be developed to minimize impacts on overburdened communities. Federal funding for such an initiative can be acquired. This month, the Biden-Harris administration announced the availability of $550 million from the Inflation Reduction Act for the EPA’s new Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Grantmaking program.
The time to act is now. Environmental justice is vital to the advancement of racial and social justice. We must embrace initiatives that continue to move New Jersey towards a cleaner, more equitable world.
Trevor Sherman is a senior at Chatham High School, prospective mechanical engineering major and 2023 Governor’s STEM Scholar. Passionate about the environment, he aspires to be a leader in the fight against climate change by developing new clean energy and carbon capture technologies.