Low-income communities and people of color are hit first and worst by climate impacts, but some cities are proving it doesn’t have to be that way.
THE YEAR 2020 HAS BEEN one of reckoning with the inequities that shape American life. The killing of George Floyd, among others, has brought national attention to how people of color are targeted by law enforcement. And the disproportionate death toll from COVID-19 among Black and Latinx people has revealed longstanding inequities in health and access to care.
It is no surprise, then, that our greatest existential challenge – climate change – also reflects racial disparities and the widening gulf between rich and poor. Climate change does not affect all people equally: low-income communities and people of color are hit first and worst by climate impacts, such as extreme heat and flooding. Struggling communities also receive fewer resources for recovery, so disasters push many into a downward spiral of poverty and vulnerability.
But while climate change illuminates our nation’s racial and class divides, the steps we take to address it also offer opportunities to build a fairer future.
As cities prepare for the impacts of warming that are now inevitable, many are already addressing inequity head-on. My colleagues and I at the Georgetown Climate Center collected more than 100 case studies of equitable climate adaptation as part of our recently released Equitable Adaptation Toolkit for state and local governments and community leaders.
While local strategies vary widely, some universal rules apply. Truly resilient communities have what they need to withstand impacts and recover quickly after a flood or storm, as well as prepare for the next one.
We found that equitable adaptation starts with understanding inequitable impacts. That’s why, in Richmond, Virginia, young “citizen scientists” with the nonprofit group Groundwork RVA fanned out across the city, measuring heat levels in a wide range of neighborhoods. They discovered dramatically higher temperatures in low-income Black neighborhoods with more pavement and less green space. Their findings are now guiding an update of the city’s master plan.
With an understanding of who’s at risk and why, governments and nonprofits can focus their efforts on the most vulnerable. In Miami, Florida, more than half of residents are one disaster away from falling into financial crisis. Catalyst Miami, a community group, created a disaster matched savings account to bolster families’ financial resilience. The program offers a 1-to-1 match to encourage savings, and helps households build assets through coaching and lending circles.
Equity considerations can also be built directly into climate adaptation efforts. In Prince George’s County, Maryland, climate change has brought increased flooding and water-quality problems. At the same time, this majority-Black county struggled to rebound from the Great Recession. In response, the county launched a public-private partnership with twin goals: to reduce storm-related flooding by constructing green infrastructure, and to give a leg up to small and minority-owned businesses by hiring them to carry out the work. The partnership has so far met or exceeded all of its environmental and equity objectives, on time and under budget.
Integrating equity is a twofold process. Procedural equity ensures those who are most impacted have a seat at the table to help shape decisions. Substantive equity means outcomes that fairly distribute the benefits of new programs and investments, while seeking to remedy historic discrimination and underinvestment.
Philadelphia’s community Heat Relief Plan is a great example of both. The plan started with vigorous community engagement in a low-income, mostly Latinx neighborhood – “Beat the Heat” parties and an environmental wellness fair, followed by a resident survey and interviews. The resulting plan identifies literal hot spots and targets efforts to keep residents in those communities cool and healthy.
In Philadelphia and other cities here and around the world, climate change is now a fact of daily life. While there is much we can still do to limit its scale and impact, our previous carbon emissions guarantee a warmer, more disaster-prone world for years to come. Inequity, on the other hand, is a choice – a condition that flows from countless policy decisions. As we brace for climate change, we can choose to share risks and rewards more fairly, and protect those who are most vulnerable in an uncertain future. When we choose that path, we will be taking an important step toward a world that is safer, and more just, for all people.