Environmental Justice Was a Climate Forum Theme. Here’s What It Means.

Leading candidates like Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts did not mince words in Wednesday’s forum. Climate policies, Ms. Warren said, must be designed to help “people who have been displaced, workers who have been displaced, people in communities of color who have for generations now been the ones where the toxic dumps got sited next to their homes.”

Several candidates proposed a variety of policies related to environmental justice.

  • Mr. Buttigieg promoted his “Douglass Plan” to combat systemic racism, including in housing and health care, and to provide funding for environmentally vulnerable communities.

  • Julián Castro, the former housing secretary, said he wanted to increase funding for the National Flood Insurance Program to help low-income Americans recover from natural disasters.

  • Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota highlighted her carbon pricing proposal, revenue from which would be used to “make sure that people are basically held harmless” when climate change damages their homes or livelihoods, she said.

  • Former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas said he would use revenue from his proposed cap-and-trade system to help people in polluted neighborhoods and flood-prone coastal areas.

  • Andrew Yang, the tech entrepreneur, promoted his $1,000-a-month universal basic income proposal. “That would help citizens of this country protect themselves in a natural disaster, because we all know when Hurricane Dorian or Hurricane Harvey hits, who suffers?” he said. “Poor people, people of color, people who don’t have a car they can get into and just drive to some relative’s house.”

Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California have gone further, making environmental justice a central theme of their overall climate plans. Earlier in her career, Ms. Harris created an environmental justice unit within the San Francisco district attorney’s office, a point she noted on Wednesday. She and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York also introduced legislation in July that would require the government to evaluate environmental policies based on their effects on low-income communities.

The very presence of environmental justice as a topic of discussion in a major presidential forum was noteworthy and reflects broader shifts in the Democratic Party. In many policy areas, from climate change to abortion, candidates have begun to explicitly emphasize socioeconomic disparities — and, in particular, the impact of generations of systemic racism.

But Dr. Bullard said much more was needed.

“The climate proposals that candidates have pushed out are aspirational, and I commend them for doing that,” he said. But, he added: “Breathing clean air should not be aspirational. It should be experiential. Clean drinking water in Flint or Newark — that’s something that should not be aspirational. We should be able to drink clean water right now, not 20 years from now.”

Dr. Martin said that while she was very glad the discussion was happening, it had been oversimplified and, at times, reinforced stereotypes of powerlessness surrounding poor people and communities of color. Environmental justice plans should not only benefit marginalized communities, she said, but also bring them into the policymaking process.

“We have an opportunity to have a more sophisticated and nuanced conversation,” she said.