Editor's Note: This research brief is part of a joint research project by the Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy at The New School and Brookings Metro.

California’s CalEnviroscreen: Linking Economic and Racial Equity To Environmental Justice 

Environmental justice is a growing arena for racial equity scoring and analysis. Poor and nonwhite communities often are more exposed to environmental hazards in occupations (agriculture, hazardous materials, and waste), housing (lead paint), neighborhoods (excessive air pollution from highways and industry, contaminated water), and other inequitable pathways. Racially unequal access to medical care and information compounds these exposure problems.

The public’s knowledge about these differential environmental risks and harmful effects has grown during the past decade. In response, community advocates have argued for environmental analysis by race and class, along with crafting remedies that recognize and confront these inequities. California has been a leader in this movement for change.

The state now administers CalEnviroScreen, a tool that maps 21 environmental and related indicators down to the “hyperlocal” census tract level, which are typically home to several thousand people. The tool provides a visual representation overlayed on a map, and shows how these environmental and related indicators are distributed across various geographies and populations. This, in turn, provides community advocates, policymakers, and the public with detailed information that can be used to allocate public funds, analyze emerging problems, advocate for environmental justice measures, and inform state legislation and regulation.

CalEnviroScreen’s story is instructive, with both many positives but also some concerns for equity advocates, especially those focused on race. While CalEnviroScreen is a very detailed, flexible tool that can map down to the tract level, the tool does not include race and ethnicity in the data set. While demographic data can be combined with CalEnviroScreen’s detailed information, due to the ability to map census tracts, it makes the tool much less useful for those without that technical capacity, including community and advocacy groups. 

First, the tool. CalEnviroScreen is now on version 4.0. It maps thirteen “pollution burdens,” and eight non-demographic “population characteristics,” drawn from publicly available data by census tract, to generate a composite score. That score can then be used to rank tracts relative to each other and produce a scale for all tracts in the state. Although the population data are not direct measures of race and ethnicity, several (such as poverty, low birth weight of infants, educational attainment, and unemployment) are highly correlated with race.

Those indicators are then used to create a composite score for each of the more than 9,000 Census tracts contained within the state of California. The score assesses relative, not absolute, environmental risks such as measured air and water pollution. This allows for relative ranking of the state’s tracts along with the larger units, such as counties, made up by combining tracts. 

The tool emphasizes the cumulative environmental burden resulting from both pollution sources (the risks often reported by environmental monitoring) and from “nonchemical” factors such as socioeconomic and health status. CalEPA, the state agency responsible for environmental protection also distinguishes between risk and impact, with risks viewed as “the probability of an injury or loss that is quantified” while impact “refers more broadly to the overall burden that affects health and quality of life.”

Report Contents

Case Studies

As with many efforts focused on policy and equity, CalEnviroScreen resulted from a long history of advocacy, community engagement, and learning from both inside and outside of government. Activist Caroline Farrell, of the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment, described CalEnviroScreen as having “its roots in a lot of environmental justice (EJ) advocacy from the late 90s and early 2000s.” Activists behind the push for EJ needed measurement tools to document the problems they saw, for regulatory reform work, to advocate for new laws and rules, and community organizing to build more awareness and influence.

The most pioneering work on EJ screening was carried out by scholars who had worked with advocates since at least 1998, when an academic-community partnership used environmental monitoring and community-participant research to document EJ impacts. The community research was used to supplement and sometimes correct administrative reporting on environmental risks that were reported to the state for permitting and regulation–an approach, sometimes called “citizen science,” that dates back even further, in efforts around the world. At the same time, EJ activists pushed to legally recognize environmental justice, which resulted in a definition being codified into state law in 1999.

The academic-community collaboration gave rise to ongoing action research, which was supported in part by philanthropic research. As activists pressed for the development of greater EJ policies, the need for measurement grew, and the researchers developed an Environmental Justice Screening Method (EJSM) that played an important role in the state’s eventual development of CalEnviroScreen.

Importantly, the EJSM work included “ground-truthing” of official state data, which brought community residents directly into the process and made sure that the screening accurately reflected real conditions in affected communities. In 2001, Manuel Pastor, one of the lead scholar-activists on environmental justice, race, and ethnicity, called for “a new state effort in the field of environmental justice.” The formation of the California Environmental Justice Advisory Committee that same year helped the state define “cumulative impacts” for environmental harm rather than having to rely on single measures of pollution or exposure.

The development and use of the CalEnviroScreen tool was initially boosted by state legislation (SB535) from 2012 that mandated EJ in California’s larger cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which was originally passed in 2006. Cap-and-trade produced a significant stream of revenue to the state, and SB535, opposed by some industry and political leaders, required that at least 25% of the funds must benefit disadvantaged communities, with a subset of projects funded directly in those communities. That meant the state needed a way to identify and rank communities for these expenditures, resulting in the state’s first version of CalEnviroScreen that debuted in 2013.

Not surprisingly, the tool’s development and use became politically contested. Activists and affiliated scholars who criticized technical aspects of the tool felt the harms to affected communities were understated. Conversely, industry groups and others pushed to limit the tool’s information content and how it could be applied, for fear that it would be expanded beyond cap-and-trade and perhaps create new financial liabilities for polluters.

In 2016, environmental justice advocates successfully pushed for new legislation, AB1550, which strengthened the earlier legal provisions. It set stronger distribution formulas for funding to disadvantaged communities (DACs) and tightened and specified standards for identifying those communities and projects located within their boundaries..

Farrell, of the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment, noted the tool’s positive impacts, but also worried that its emphasis on the distribution of funding might distract from broader EJ uses, especially more stringent permitting requirements or pollution reduction through rules, regulation, and new laws. Activists and affiliated scholars continue to use the tool to this day,ut they also have an ongoing dialogue with CalEPA: To identify ways to further improve the tool; note new emerging threats and exposures; and continuing to press for robust inclusion of community voices in providing information to the database and suggestions for broader and more community-focused use.

In particular, CalEnviroScreen’s ability to identify target regions, and specific communities within them through the aggregation of tract-level census and other data, allows clearer mapping of DACs and attendant risks rather than obscuring those patterns in statewide or overly-broad measures. That more precise geographic definition of specific communities also allows better identification of environmental impacts on different racial and ethnic groups.

That is critical, since a major shortcoming of CalEnviroScreen, from a racial equity perspective, is the failure to directly include race and ethnicity in the data set. The exclusion is linked to a 1996 anti-affirmative action ballot measure, Proposition 209, that amended the state constitution barring consideration of race, sex, and ethnicity in many state government actions. Attempts to modify or remove the amendment have failed, so it remains a significant barrier.

But under prodding from activists and progressive officials, the state now carries out race and ethnic analysis of CalEnviroScreen results. CalEPA has a racial equity team for these analyses, and they have found that the “racial makeup of communities'' is clearly linked to “the highest pollution burdens and vulnerabilities” among communities. A 2021 study by CalEPA found that of the 10% of least impacted neighborhoods in the state, people of color averaged 33% of the population while in the 10% most impacted neighborhoods, 91% were non-white. It would be better to have racial and ethnic data in the tool’s data set, making it easier for community groups and the public to generate these analyses, but the state feels constrained by the anti-affirmative action constitutional amendment from making that change.

CalEnviroScreen also has incorporated health measures strongly related to race and ethnic disparities, such as infant birth weight, heart disease, asthma and other social determinants of health such as income and housing expenses. This has helped the state use CalEnviroScreen data to identify and increase funding for EJ projects in transit, energy, and community capacity building “in priority communities that are overwhelmingly populated by residents of color.”