WASHINGTON — Senator Kamala Harris of California and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York on Monday unveiled legislation aimed at ensuring that climate change plans benefit low-income communities. They described the measure as a key element of the Democrats’ Green New Deal.
The effort comes as Ms. Harris, who is running for president, and other Democratic candidates prepare for a set of debates in Detroit this week. Racial and economic disparities on issues ranging from housing to education are expected to take center stage.
Ms. Harris, who has yet to release a comprehensive climate change plan of her own, has focused much of her economic agenda on providing tax credits and other assistance to low- and middle-income Americans. This month, she and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez introduced a bill designed to help people with criminal records obtain housing.
The new proposal, titled the Climate Equity Act, provides a view of Ms. Harris’s environmental priorities. Under the plan, any environmental regulation or legislation would be rated based on its impact on low-income communities, which are disproportionately affected by climate change because they are often in flood zones, near highways or power plants, or adjacent to polluted lands known as brownfields.
The rating system would be modeled after the Congressional Budget Office score, which measures the costs of every major piece of legislation.
“We can’t do anything without a C.B.O. score, but we never actually consider if it’s disastrous to communities as long as it’s revenue-neutral,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview.
The bill would also establish an independent Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability to represent vulnerable communities, and create a position of senior adviser on climate justice at “all relevant agencies.”
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was the primary House sponsor of the Green New Deal, a nonbinding resolution that set out a broad vision for significantly reducing planet-warming pollution by 2030 while also guaranteeing millions of new jobs. She said low-income workers were often ignored in the climate discussion.
“One of the tenets of the Green New Deal is prioritizing vulnerable communities,” she said. “We have to talk about Flint. We have to talk about West Virginia. We have to talk about the Bronx and we have to talk about the ways climate change manifests in our lives.”
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said that she had not endorsed anyone in the presidential race and noted that she had worked with various candidates on different aspects of the climate challenge.
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Climate change analysts said they were encouraged by the bill, and by the fact that several presidential candidates had recently made issues of equity more central to their discussions of the environment. Many of the candidates’ early plans for tackling global warming focused almost entirely on methods of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including by establishing a price on carbon dioxide, eliminating coal-fired power plants and investing billions of dollars in clean energy technologies.
But in another example of the growing focus on economic and racial disparities, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington released the final plank of a five-part global warming plan on Monday, aimed at new federal policies to prioritize low-income areas and communities of color. Mr. Inslee, who has made climate change the top issue of his presidential campaign, also called for a way to score, or screen, federal environmental decisions and proposed a new office dedicated to environmental justice.
Tom Steyer, the billionaire former hedge fund investor who also is running for president, last week released his own “justice-centered” five-pillar plan for tackling climate change focused on protecting low-income communities.
The new plans “send an important signal,” said Mustafa Ali, who ran the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice office under the Obama administration.
“They are timely and they are needed,” he said, “and they help us to begin to think critically about the steps that are going to be necessary to protect people’s lives in the moment, and in these challenges that are rushing at us at a very quick pace.”
The candidates are making equity a top issue in other arenas. This month Ms. Harris has introduced a $100 billion housing plan to help black families and individuals buy homes in historically redlined communities, and a $75 billion initiative to invest in minority-owned businesses and historically black colleges. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has called for an executive order requiring recipients of federal contracts to diversify their workforces. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey has proposed creating savings accounts for every child born in the United States.
Ms. Harris also released her health care plan on Monday, proposing a system that would provide Medicare for all Americans but allow people to choose private plans modeled on Medicare Advantage.
Ms. Harris’s campaign said her full climate plan was forthcoming. But in a statement, Ms. Harris said she believed it was important to address equity even before nailing down the specifics of how to curb carbon emissions.
“We cannot accept a status quo where children of color are drinking toxic water in Flint or breathing toxic air in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley,” she said. “This systemic environmental injustice will only get worse and become more ingrained if climate and environmental policies like the Green New Deal do not specifically focus on lifting up these communities.”