University Fellow Eric Tate talks about his ongoing work to help prioritize communities that can benefit the most from federal investments.
Eric Tate, a university fellow at Resources for the Future and professor at Princeton University, studies social vulnerability to disasters, especially floods. He looks at how a population’s geographic place and socioeconomic status affect how vulnerable they are to disasters and their likelihood of recovering from catastrophic events.
Right now, Tate is working with a group at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to analyze how mapping environmental information and demographic data can help the federal government prioritize support for communities that can benefit most. In particular, the group is looking at a screening tool that launched last year as a beta version by the White House, called the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool. The aim of the tool is to help meet the goals of the Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative, a whole-of-government strategy to ensure that 40 percent of certain federal investments benefit disadvantaged communities.
Resources: What are screening tools, and what goes into building them?
Eric Tate: Some of the problems we’re currently dealing with—whether they’re about climate adaptation, disproportionate pollution exposure, or other issues—have to do with environmental hazards, environmental justice, and social vulnerability. These topics are the focus of my research. So many different problems can lead to adverse outcomes, and so many different solutions are possible.
Ideally, we want to tailor each solution to each problem—but first, we need to understand where the problem is and how bad it is. The focus of these screening tools is to give a first-cut understanding of how severe the issues are and where they’re spatially concentrated. Just by looking at a screening tool, you may not know exactly what to do to fix things, but you probably could understand, for example, some places to focus efforts toward investigating issues and finding solutions.
What goes into these screening tools, ideally, are data that the modeler of the tool believes is going to best reflect the process they’re trying to understand. For example, take social vulnerability to hazards: Many disaster case studies have sought to understand which populations are most adversely affected in which situations. When you’re building a screening tool, you can rely on that kind of understanding to select the variables that are most relevant. Likewise, for environmental justice screening tools, you can include information about the sources of disproportionate environmental exposures and who is most affected.
To build one of these screening tools, you should understand what’s driving the inequity, decide on the purpose of the tool, and then select and combine data accordingly.
How are screening tools being used to achieve Justice40?
Executive Order 14008, called Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, came out in January 2021. It calls for the development of an environmental justice screening tool. The idea is to identify a subset of places in the country where the federal government will try to realize 40 percent of the benefits that derive from investments in mitigating pollution and improving energy, water, and transportation systems. Without the screening tool, we won’t have a systematic idea of where those places are. Identifying the places where we should make federal investments is the main point of the screening tool for Justice40.
What are you doing with the committee you’re co-chairing at the National Academies? Can you describe the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool that’s been created by the Council on Economic Quality, and how it works? How does it compare to other screening tools?
The Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST) from the Council on Environmental Quality was released as a beta version in May 2022. Then, the council released version 1.0 in November last year. This latest iteration is the operational version that agencies are being asked to use. They’re open to refining it, so one of the things our committee will do is give them some guidance.
For our official charge, the first thing they want us to do is review the other tools that already exist. We’ll ultimately focus on the CEJST, but first, we’ll look at other tools out there that serve a similar purpose: how they’re built, how they work, their quality, their spatial resolution. A tool is more than just its input data. You could have the same data as I do and come up with a totally different model.
For the CEJST, the federal government wants a spatial definition of what a disadvantaged community is, because they’re going to focus Justice40 investments in those disadvantaged communities. The job of our committee is to figure out how the CEJST compares to other environmental justice screening tools, what data should be incorporated, and how to combine all the information to get the information that federal agencies will need. We’ll provide recommendations to the White House Council on Environmental Quality for how the CEJST can work well.
The idea is to identify a subset of places in the country where the federal government will try to realize 40 percent of the benefits that derive from investments in mitigating pollution and improving energy, water, and transportation systems.
The CEJST is built at the national level at the census-tract scale of geography; by delineating these tracts, the US Census Bureau subdivides areas for statistical purposes. It focuses on eight different dimensions of climate, energy, and pollution hazards, which are separated into categories that are themes of exposure or environmental burden. Across these eight categories, about 29 specific indicators describe the hazards and burdens, which are themes, too, like the economic risk of wildfire or flooding, or the expected number of fatalities and injuries. This is some of the “internal wiring,” or internal structure, of the CEJST.
So, if any of these census tracts has a high value for any of these indicators of environmental exposure, which the CEJST typically defines as above the 90th percentile, along with high rates of low-income households, then they get a check mark. They’ve qualified to be tagged in the CEJST as a disadvantaged community. That’s what the model outputs, so federal agencies can use the CEJST as a principal screening tool.
And the different federal agencies often have their own different screening tools. The Council on Environmental Quality coordinates across agencies, so the CEJST is broad and serves as a first cut for all the agencies. But the mission of the US Environmental Protection Agency is to protect human health and the environment—so, their screening might focus on specific environmental toxins and hazards in populations. The US Department of Transportation might consider barriers to transportation access. The US Department of Energy will focus on other things that the other agencies aren’t looking at. Each agency will include indicators of environmental burden that are associated with their mission. So, screening tools specific to each agency may be a little different, while the CEJST is meant to reflect a broader, greater breadth of environmental exposures.
What are two or three challenges that you’re most looking forward to tackling with the CEJST?
Some organizations have critiqued the CEJST because, for instance, the tool doesn’t consider race—even though race is the most explanatory variable for disproportionate environmental exposures in this country.
Others have said that exceeding just one of the indicators means that a census tract gets tagged as a disadvantaged community. But what if a community exceeds the threshold for more than one of these indicators and, in some cases, many more than just one? The CEJST doesn’t differentiate among those cases in designating a community as disadvantaged.
Mostly, I think the challenges for the committee are related to the fundamental statement of task. How can we best assess the state of knowledge, and how much does the CEJST align with other screening tools? What are the best practices for building these tools?
A whole field exists for constructing indicators. We’re actually used to seeing these types of indicators or indices. We may not think about them as indices, but we see them online, in terms of the top 10 colleges, the 15 best places to live, or the top 10 soccer teams in the world—these are all indices. They take indicators that measure what’s good in soccer; for instance, What’s your win-loss record? How well have you done in high-profile games? What’s the margin of victory? They put these variables together somehow, and they get one number, which ranks the teams. That’s what’s happening with the CEJST and other screening tools, as well.
The challenges involve marrying these ideas of indicator construction with our understanding of environmental justice and injustice, climate injustice, transportation, and all these things.
One could argue for the benefits of standardized screening tools—but on the other hand, a screening tool that’s tailored specifically to a certain region or sector (like energy or transportation) could be even better. Do you think a single tool makes sense for every federal agency? Or would using specialized tools be better?
It depends on what the objective is. Instead of adopting a single-tool strategy, the Biden administration is saying that the CEJST should be used by the federal government to define disadvantaged communities for Justice40. But federal agencies are free to and already are developing agency-specific tools that are aligned with their mission; they can use agency-specific tools to figure out what solutions are most germane for their agency.
The objective of locating disadvantaged communities is a different objective than locating the greatest risks, which may be different from locating the populations that are most disenfranchised (something I do in a lot of social-vulnerability indices for my hazards research), which may be different from locating the greatest needs, which may be different from identifying where we should invest. With this proliferation of screening tools, some people are getting lost and thinking, “Not another tool!”
But I think the best tools are going to be clear on the objectives for their use. There can be danger in thinking that one tool will work for everything; I don’t necessarily think that’s a great idea.
States and cities have been developing their own screening tools, which incorporate various kinds of local data. What do you think of these?
I think it’s a great idea. Those tools can reflect the local context for values and priorities. For instance, California has CalEnviroScreen, and Maryland has MD EJSCREEN. The demographic characteristics, dominant industries, and risks in California are, in many cases, quite different than those in Maryland. State-specific and theme-specific tools can pick up these differences.
We can take an example from a paper I’m working on right now on social vulnerability to floods. Let’s take the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Reducing vulnerabilities will need to be a little bit tailored to what’s going on in the Los Angeles area. The populations that are highly vulnerable in Los Angeles may be different than the metro area of Houston. They both might have high vulnerability, but in one place, maybe the exposure is driven by a combination of insufficient health insurance and linguistic isolation, whereas in another place, the exposure is due to poverty and racial discrimination. So, both locations may be highly vulnerable, but you’ll likely want to have different interventions in these places.
The screening step gets you to look at these places. And the second step involves determining what we’re going to do about the issues there, which needs to be driven by the context of how this vulnerability came to be and the local geographies, actors, and capabilities in that local area.
I think creating state-level screening tools is good because, ultimately, the value in these tools is in understanding more about how inequities work—how they’re produced, how they’re reproduced, what their effects are, and what to do about them. It’s sometimes hard to understand that until you’re looking at specific places. And I think these tools help identify these places. And ideally, if people are curious or really want to solve problems, the next question is what we can do about it. If we don’t understand why, then I don’t think we’re ever going to have effective solutions.
Would you like to add anything about how your research intersects with environmental justice? What are some of the touchstones and goals that guide your work?
Thinking about vulnerability to natural hazards involves a lot of overlap with environmental justice. It’s just that, traditionally, environmental justice tends to focus on anthropogenic hazards like pollution, while natural hazards focus on things like heat, floods, and earthquakes. But if you start thinking about why people are vulnerable, or why some groups are more affected than others, the focus becomes not on the hazards themselves, but on our social structures that enable hazards to become disasters.
How have we arranged ourselves as a society, so that some groups persistently are more affected than others? It’s not an accident. This is how we’ve built things. Whether intentional or not, this is how we’ve designed things.
I used to be an engineer; I studied floods. I spent six years working as a contractor for the US Federal Emergency Management Agency building a flood-risk model called Hazus. When we thought about floods, we’d ask, Where is the rain coming down hardest? How is the water running off into streams? How fast is the water moving? How deep is it? How is the flood affecting bridges and buildings? We focused on natural science and engineering to examine the problem. This focus aligns with the largely traditional viewpoint that physical processes drive problems. But when we think about environmental justice or social vulnerability, we also think about societal disparities in who is affected as sources of the problem.
The federal government mostly consists of people who are in the physical sciences or engineering when it comes to environmental hazards. Only in the past five years or so, efforts like the CEJST have put a spotlight on social characteristics. And the more we dig into environmental justice, social vulnerability to hazards, and disproportionate human impacts, the more we will see that social processes drive or work in concert to produce these problems. Depending on how people diagnose the source of a problem, they’ll tackle the problem very differently.
A big campaign in disaster research encourages people to not use the term “natural disaster.” Starting roughly in the 1970s, people began to understand that most major disasters aren’t “natural.” Yes, we see a lot of rain or a big wildfire—but people decided to build there. Discrimination and exclusion have restricted certain populations to be more represented in floodplains and high-risk areas. Those aren’t natural processes at all.
How have we arranged ourselves as a society, so that some groups persistently are more affected than others? It’s not an accident. This is how we’ve built things.
So, how are we going to understand disproportionate exposure to pollution hazards and natural hazards by focusing on the hazards themselves? We’d never truly understand, because these issues aren’t due to natural systems. The consequences of hazards often are driven by human decisions—our decisions. In fact, the results are almost predictable by the way we organize society. If we pay more attention to the interactions of social and physical factors, then we’ll get more to the heart of the problem, and then I think we can arrive at more sustainable solutions.