5 Action Steps for the Department of Justice to Lead a National Mobilization to Defeat the Climate Crisis
Originally published January 7, 2021
Republican leaders have brought America to the brink of a constitutional crisis. President-elect Biden’s newly announced Department of Justice must act quickly to revitalize our democracy and prosecute those who threaten it. As Attorney General, Merrick Garland must re-enshrine justice in the Department of Justice — from upholding the rule of law to environmental justice.
The DOJ must lead the way on climate change. The same climate-denying Republicans denied Merrick Garland a Supreme Court seat have also left us at the mercy of the climate crisis. Now, Garland’s Justice Department has a mandate to urgently deliver long overdue environmental justice, climate action and accountability for fossil fuel industry pollution.
Donald Trump turned the Justice Department into a corrupt personal law firm for his family and his wealthy friends. Under the Trump Administration, special interests were given carte blanche to pollute without prosecution. It’s time for Merrick Garland to return the U.S. Department of Justice to its role of enforcing pollution laws, and launch new efforts to support climate action and protect impacted communities. Specifically, the U.S. Department of Justice should launch a new Environmental and Climate Justice Division with a focus on defending communities impacted by environmental justice, as Joe Biden committed to in his campaign.
The Department of Justice can become a powerful climate agency through strict enforcement of laws already on the books. President-elect Biden’s Attorney General should place unprecedented priority on climate and environmental justice. Judge Garland will need to rapidly reverse the Trump administration’s worst legal actions and hold corporate polluters accountable for their illegal and irresponsible actions.”
In order to realize Biden’s climate mandate, every federal agency must become a climate agency. The Department of Justice under Judge Merrick Garland will be critical in this effort. As President-elect Biden begins an all-out government mobilization to defeat the climate crisis, today, Evergreen Action is releasing 5 concrete actions for how the next Department of Justice must act:
1. Reverse the Trump Administration’s Attacks on Climate Leadership
The next Attorney General must take immediate action to reverse the Trump Administration’s attacks on state, local, and private sector climate leadership. Under the Trump administration, the DOJ sued California to shut down its climate program, backed oil companies in a legal battle with the city of Baltimore, launched a bad-faith antitrust investigation against four car companies opposing Trump’s reversal on California vehicle efficiency standards, and worked hand-in-glove with energy firms in litigation over their carbon pollution. The next Attorney General must urgently reverse course and drop all lawsuits intended to limit climate ambition.
2. Establish an Environmental and Climate Justice Division
The new Attorney General should create a division devoted exclusively to environmental and climate justice, as called for in the Biden campaign platform. This office will drive the DOJ to reverse course on the Trump administration’s weak environmental justice enforcement and help create lasting change that centers environmental justice in the federal government. It is past time for the DOJ to defend the communities of color disproportionately burdened by pollution and the illness it brings. The new division can also strengthen the partnership between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the DOJ, ensuring that civil rights enforcement occurs in the environmental context. And it can support state and municipal lawsuits that are attempting to hold major emitters accountable for the damages their pollution and misinformation campaigns have caused.
3. Step Up Enforcement Action Against Corporate Polluters
The Trump DOJ has issued several memos to limit environmental enforcement, and DOJ client agencies have implemented policies that would slow the prosecution of environmental violations. For example, the Trump DOJ phased out allowing environmentally beneficial projects in legal settlements, the Trump EPA has issued a blanket waiver to pollute during the COVID pandemic despite evidence that air pollution increases COVID death rates, and polluters are getting a break on millions of dollars in fines. The next Attorney General must act quickly to identify and reverse these tripwire rules and loopholes intended to protect lawbreakers, and pursue criminal anti-pollution cases to the fullest extent permitted by law.
4. Mobilize Discretionary Funding to Support Climate Litigation
Historically, environmental enforcement has only constituted 3% of DOJ’s budget. The next Attorney General will have the authority to bolster resources for climate litigation efforts. Absent additional congressional appropriations, the Attorney General should ensure that sufficient allocations from the Department’s civil debt collection funds are routed to staff and support climate litigation against unlawful polluters.
5. Collaborate with Client Agencies on Rulemaking and Enforcement
The next Attorney General should embed attorneys from the DOJ Environmental Defense section in client agencies to strengthen climate rulemaking procedures. Anticipating legal challenges to any new climate regulations, the embedded attorney can offer counsel on drafting rules and communicate the substance of the rule to DOJ attorneys who may be called upon to defend it. The DOJ should also partner with its client agencies’ enforcement and regional offices to prosecute environmental violations, with a special focus on those that occur in overburdened environmental justice communities and on Tribal lands.