Cities Urged Not To Ignore Marginalized In Climate Change Plans

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ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI — When Tropical Storm Irene hit in 2011, New York City took protective measures by ordering mandatory evacuations. What it didn’t consider, though, was how disabled residents would manage to leave their homes.

As a result, the city was sued for allegedly violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. Before the case was resolved, the city was struck by Hurricane Sandy, the most damaging storm in the region’s modern history. Residents with disabilities were stranded for days without power in high-rise apartment buildings unable to reach emergency service centers.

While New York was eventually found guilty of “benign neglect” of city residents, the issue of inequity in preparation for climate change impacts — also known as climate adaptation — is not unique. That was at least according to multiple attendees at the National Adaptation Forum in St. Louis last week, who emphasized a greater need for inclusive climate adaptation work in cities across the country.

“If you take one thing away with you today, it’s to ‘include everyone,’” said Jalonne White-Newsome, director of policy at the Harlem-based WE ACT for Environmental Justice. “I haven’t been in the policy world for very long, but I’ve found it doesn’t happen very often.”

Throughout the week-long conference, frequent examples of “frontline communities” — or low-income neighborhoods already overburdened by environmental injustices and less likely to have resources to adapt to climate change than their wealthier neighbors — were highlighted to help attendees avoid overlooking their specific needs in adaptation plans. Areas like Oakland, Detroit, and Shishmaref, Alaska where many residents live below the poverty line were discussed as areas where community input was key to enhancing adaptation work.

In the relatively new field of climate adaptation, early actions in the United States have primarily targeted infrastructure, industry, or seafront developments. But as frontline community advocates demand to have their voices heard, incorporating equity into resilience — a term referring to the ability to not just bounce-back from climate impacts, but bounce-forward more sustainable and prepared than before — is gaining traction in cities preparing climate adaptation plans.

One of those venues is New York City. Last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he was adding equity as a core column to the city’s climate action plan.

“A beautifully sustainable city that is the playground of the rich doesn’t work for us,” he said.

First released by former mayor Michael Bloomberg after Hurricane Sandy, de Blasio stated the “profoundly important” plan will now have a major poverty reduction goal alongside its standing greenhouse gas reduction goal.

The same week as de Blasio’s announcement, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray formally launched the Equity & Environment Initiative, an effort to overcome a lack of inclusion of overburdened communities in climate and environmental programs. Among the framework’s three goals is fostering leadership among Seattleites who are “people of color, immigrants and refugees, people with low incomes, and limited-English proficiency individuals.”

For environmental justice advocates, major cities like New York and Seattle are ahead of the curve in efforts to make official policy more inclusive, but a larger issue lingers. According to the Georgetown Climate Center, only 106 local and regional adaptation plans of some kind exist nationally. Many of those are plans for different sectors of the same city.

Advocates are concerned that as unprepared governments scramble to respond to climate impacts like more extreme weather, marginalized communities will be left to improvise for themselves. Yet, according to National Adaptation Forum presenters, planners and government officials can and should include the concerns and unique needs of overburdened communities in sustainability plans.

For those looking to get leaders to incorporate equity into climate action, Shamar Bibbins, environment program officer at the Kresge Foundation, put forward a friendly reminder: “It doesn’t happen by accident. It’s because community groups were at the table pushing for it for a long time.”