Why Climate Equity Is More Important Than Ever

handsThe results of the Presidential election took a lot of us by surprise. Political analysts will be parsing the outcome for weeks, but one thing is abundantly clear: a sizeable number of Americans have been feeling marginalized and abandoned. Climate advocates must be careful not to make the same mistake.
Whatever our president-elect may believe, climate change is happening now. We see it in children debilitated by asthma caused by carbon emissions, or the elderly suffering from heat stroke when temperatures spike. These impacts are more severe in low-income communities or communities of color, where people often live near landfills or power plants, and are disproportionately affected by air and water pollution as a result.
People of color – especially Latino Americans and African-Americans – are aware that they bear the brunt of climate change. In many cases, these populations are more concerned about impacts and more supportive of solutions than Americans overall. A recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council shows that U.S. Latinos, though hardly a homogenous group, are nearly unanimous in wanting action on climate change. If the next administration isn’t willing to act, it will be increasingly necessary to implement solutions on the local level. But unless those climate policies are created thoughtfully and inclusively, some people may still be left behind.
Involving the community in climate solutions
Cutting emissions is key to curbing climate change – but from a climate justice perspective, there is more to the story. Lower emissions across the state or the country don’t help poor communities if their local air quality remains as bad as ever. In California, an emissions-reduction bill (SB-32) that failed initially was later passed in tandem with a new bill (AB-197) that ensured the emission cuts would happen in the low-income communities that were actually affected.
These climate bills, and other California legislation that will increase climate funding for disadvantaged communities, were possible because instead of being created behind closed doors, they were developed with the cooperation and input of local citizens and environmental groups. This is key in order to build public support for climate solutions – community members themselves need to have a voice and a role if they are to feel invested.
The power of social infrastructure
Any good climate plan includes efforts to both reduce emissions and prepare for impacts. Even if we are able to meet the international goal of keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius (and we must), serious effects will still be felt – and in fact, are already being seen in terms of higher sea levels, severe droughts, heat waves, and heavier precipitation.
green-roofCities around the country are working to protect against these dangers through improved infrastructure, such as sea walls, better stormwater management, green roofs that can help reduce urban heat-island effects, and dunes and wetlands that help absorb the impacts of storms. But while all these steps are important, social infrastructure is an equally crucial component of climate resilience.
From the deadly Chicago heat wave of 1995 to the devastation wrought by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, how well neighborhoods survive extreme weather events has a lot to do with how socially cohesive those communities are. Neighborhoods with strong social structures keep better tabs on one another when disasters are happening, and are more likely to share resources like food and water afterwards. These communities also tend recover more quickly, whereas neighborhoods with poor social infrastructure are more likely to suffer climate displacement and potentially be lost to gentrification.
Climate equity is key to resilience planning
As a recent White House report on climate resilience points out, state and local governments must ensure that climate solutions benefit all populations equally. “Challenges such as poverty, language barriers, or physical and mental health make it difficult to respond to and recover from climate change impacts and should be considered in the resilience planning process,” states the report.

Image courtesy of rebuildbydesign.org

Image courtesy of rebuildbydesign.org

This means making sure that resilience projects like sea walls enhance rather than disrupt the community. For example, one award-winning proposal for lower Manhattan allows the protective berms at the water’s edge to serve as functional and appealing public green spaces, instead of creating an imposing fortress that discourages human interaction.
Climate equity also means involving the community in decision-making plans, and allowing them to voice their own needs and concerns. This will help determine what’s actually needed for recovery and preparedness, which may differ from existing allocations of funds or resources.
Finally, climate equity means educating the public about the impacts of climate change and the need to both protect against it and work towards solutions. It means sharing resilience plans with the community, so they can express their support and ensure beneficial projects stay on course. And it means cultivating local leaders who will advocate for the needs of the community and help strengthen and maintain its social fabric.
Now, more than ever, it’s important to listen to and look out for one another, and remember that we’re all in this together.

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