Centering climate justice in federal legislation

Ayessa Mae Oasan recently completed her Environmental Studies and a minor in Asian and Asian American Studies at Binghamton University. She has been involved in a number of local green revitalization projects in Binghamton while attending university and is passionate about working directly with a community on creating an equitable and sustainable environment for all. Ayessa Mae was also an executive board member of the Asian Student Union on campus, setting a platform for topics in Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) history, contemporary issues, and civic engagement to flourish. In her spare time, Ayessa Mae enjoys drawing, playing guitar, singing, and going to concerts.


On Friday, August 24th, I met with my Congressman, Paul Tonko, who represents New York’s 20th Congressional District. During his August recess from his office in Washington, D.C., Tonko returned to his home district to reconnect with the communities he represents, which includes counties from Albany to Saratoga Springs. As the reigning Chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change and committed member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Tonko has a lot of power to help move and influence climate legislation. I began the meeting with an appreciation of his commitment to support research and development of clean energy and for understanding the urgency of bold legislation to fight the climate crisis. 

I focused our conversation on an issue that needs more attention on the federal level: Environmental Justice — the movement fighting against the disproportionate impact of environmental crises on marginalized frontline communities. As a young person from the Philippines who experienced environmental degradation and fossil fuel pollution as a child, I wanted to discuss ways Tonko can use his position to elevate the conversation and ensure that climate justice, and those communities who bear the burden of the crisis, are centered in future legislation. 

Tonko answered my questions with sincere and thoughtful responses. On the issue of environmental justice, Tonko shared his own personal account of growing up seeing water pollution due to industrial negligence in his hometown of Amsterdam, NY. Despite this narrative, the Congressman considers a diversity of perspectives when discussing climate policies. “In order to really represent issues of environmentalism, we mustn't forget all parties and stakeholders involved,” Tonko said, maintaining his stance on balance and compromise. I asked him to consider the needs of frontline communities and we discussed how we, as a community, can educate the public about environmental justice and integrate these principles into local and federal policies.

We ended the meeting with shared appreciation and Congressman Tonko said that meeting with a young leader was new and refreshing, and he hopes to see more young lobbyists fight for what they believe in. It was an incredible honor and privilege to have the opportunity to meet with such an accomplished member of Congress and an outspoken advocate for climate issues. I hope he looks back on this conversation and will center environmental justice in future climate policy discussions. 

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