Climate Vulnerability: It’s About People

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When politicians, policymakers, activists, and even environmental leaders talk about the problems caused by climate change, they often speak in silos—energy, pollution, extreme weather, flooding, and water and air quality.

Solutions are presented in terms of energy efficiency, building resilient infrastructure, and “green” financial investment. These often useful approaches dominate the literature as well as the news and trade press daily.

But when looking at our built environment—the physical representation of our cities and neighborhoods—most of us really see only one issue related to climate change: Will the people who live and work there suffer or thrive?

The answer, unfortunately, often depends on geography. And, I’m not talking about whether you’re on the coast, the South or the Plains, though that will have something to do with it. I’m talking about which specific neighborhood you call home.

Most of us across the country are now aware that living in Flint, Mich., means struggling with lead-contaminated drinking water, but we may not know about the other problems in Flint—including the acres of abandoned, blighted and contaminated land that reduce resiliency from storms, contribute to pollution of ground water and fail to mitigate heat-island effects from lack of green space to cool air temperatures.

We hear those who live in parts of Newark, N.J., wonder if their neighborhood could become a designated “diesel hotspot” with potentially dangerous levels of particulate matter in the air from nearby highways, causing high rates of asthma, heart problems, and premature death.

We engage with residents living in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles who have little access to locally grown, healthy food and have been exposed to decades of environmental degradation with little infrastructure to deal with storm water, extreme heat, or traffic-related pollution.

We partner with people living in certain areas of Baltimore in buildings constructed in the early 1900s with little insulation to protect against heat waves and extreme cold, exacerbating chronic health conditions and requiring a substantially higher portion of residents’ limited incomes to go toward energy.

We study how living in some areas around San Francisco means not having the same access to public transit as other areas, limiting residents’ employment opportunities and forcing them to buy and maintain cars, contributing to gridlock when cleaner alternatives should be available.

A domino effect

The average person likely doesn’t know that our land-use and zoning laws can be discriminatory. He or she won’t know that the low-income are more likely to live in flood plains. Or that distressed neighborhoods have more industry and pollution-generating power plants, and they’re closer to carbon-spewing freeways, meaning low-income children suffer more from asthma and all that that entails for their education, family well-being and economics. More than 70 percent of African-Americans, for example, live in counties in violation of air pollution standards, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

When 46 percent of the public can’t respond to a $400 emergency, as reported last spring, it’s easy to see how a major storm and flooding event can leave these vulnerable communities with few real options. Ever wonder why it’s always the trailer parks that get hit by tornadoes? Don’t people know any better than putting flimsy homes in proven paths of destruction, you may ask? Trailer parks are in vulnerable areas because that’s where the land is cheapest—and where the working poor can afford to live.

Add it all up and you’ve got a large number of people with little chance of pushing back against what Vernice Miller-Travis of the Maryland State Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities calls a “cascade of vulnerability.”

“Either we plan for all communities or we keep paying for it,” Miller-Travis told a recent panel: The Next Frontier of Climate Change. “Each of us as taxpayers is paying for this conversation. Until we change our conversation and our notion to value every community and every life, we will pay and we will keep building vulnerable places.”

Little did we know that environmental issues are often at the heart of America’s economic struggle at the local level, where climate change effects are felt daily.

Who benefits?

Low-income communities aren’t just closer to major highways and coal and manufacturing plants, with buildings that are older and less energy efficient. They don’t just exist in food deserts and transportation wastelands—both suffering from climate change and also contributing to it. They are also often left out of planning projects in their own neighborhoods, perpetuating a cycle that risks health, limits opportunity and puts an additional burden on all neighborhoods from dirtier air, more sickness and more poverty-related problems.

Federal and local governments need to be working with these communities, but crossing boundaries and silos while getting the big picture of the genesis of the problems is hard. Property valuations are driven by market forces, government regulation and private insurance companies, but many communities are mobilizing themselves and learning to not only enter but drive the conversation. Ironically, some large-scale disasters have unveiled a problem many Americans didn’t know was a problem: There is a vulnerable but heavily invested layer of people who aren’t factored in when disaster plans are drawn up.

 It’s a major tenet of the environmental justice movement that communities must speak for themselves—a concept FEMA says it has come to understand after “taking hard lessons of a number of tragedies,” Timothy Manning, deputy administrator of FEMA for Protection and National Preparedness, told the same panel. “It needs to start with pulling together people who live in the communities—disadvantaged and vulnerable communities … so we can withstand the shocks, not simply respond and react.”

That’s a good start because usually what planning for a disaster means is protecting infrastructure and property, and simply moving people out of harm’s way. Local jurisdictions see recovery as an opportunity—to use new money to invest in infrastructure and create value where there was none. Then, guess what? Some communities are then marginalized and, again, left out of the process.

As my Urban Solutions colleague Khalil Shahyd put it: “Investing in infrastructure to transform cities creates wealth. If we are not deliberate about ensuring that wealth is shared, we inevitably create more inequality in the process.”

At the ground level

Which is why the work has to be local, helping to create victories on the ground such as expanding emergency management to include more mitigation, more prevention and making communities whole after a disaster. This also includes increasing energy efficiency in affordable housing and big city buildings in general, creating sustainable neighborhood development and building what we call High Road Infrastructure that takes community health and well-being into consideration.

The question before us as we advance efforts to address the causes and impact of climate change in cities is whether those efforts will simply rely on existing methods of urban redevelopment or enable alternatives that create equity as well as sustainability in a manner that brings all, particularly the most directly affected, to the decision-making table.

One of the reasons climate change is starting to dominate the national conversation is because of this truth: We can’t think of climate change as only happening in the neighborhoods that most of just drive by as we barrel down a freeway, or avoid altogether.

It’s bearing down on all of us—if not directly such as with flooding, drought, harsh heat and cold, or asthma and other illnesses, then through interrelated global problems such as political instability, higher food and other prices, and restricted lifestyle choices.

Like I said, climate change is about people. So, by working together and seeking holistic understanding to help slow it down and be resilient to its effects, we all do better. We all thrive. 

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