From COVID-19 to Climate: Lessons for Climate Justice

The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing deep inequalities in race and economic status, and the inadequacy of the nation’s social safety nets. Still, the massive social disruption caused by the pandemic offers important lessons to consider as we craft strategies for aggressive climate action.

Historically, the U.S. environmental movement has largely failed to consider how the creation of strong social safety nets is critical to our mission. More than ever, we must assume this responsibility if we hope to build a just, equitable and livable future for all.

Now is the time. The environmental movement is undergoing a fundamental shift in the way it understands and responds to environmental problems. It is no longer publicly acceptable to endorse and forward policies to address climate change that do not account for existing inequalities and the potential to exacerbate them unless deliberate actions are taken. “Equity” is the (new) buzzword among national environmental organizations. However, “equity” can be seen as difficult to define and while everyone is in favor of it, interpretations of the term vary widely meaning implementation of an equitable climate policy can be abstract and ad hoc.

The political realities of living under a pandemic offer important insights for environmental advocates to consider as we develop priorities for what successful climate action looks like.

COVID-19 Response: A Lesson in Public Mobilization

In just a few months, we have convinced millions of people—in the interest of their personal and public health—to drastically change their behavior, to stop working jobs at high risk of infection or transmission, and adjust social lifestyles to help slow the spread of the virus. Many people deemed essential service workers are unable to stay home and they struggle with having the information, resources and equipment necessary to ensure their safety while continuing to work. Still more are grappling with loss of income due to reduced hours, loss of job and business closings and must now consider what that means for them and their families—but with little clarity and largely inadequate support from the federal government.  And yet, people have accepted these measures as in the interest of public health (and again their personal interest), but they are counting on the nation’s governing institutions and policy to support them.


In just a few months, we have convinced millions of people—in the interest of their personal and public health—to drastically change their behavior, to stop working jobs at high risk of infection or transmission, and adjust social lifestyles to help slow the spread of the virus.


Our fight now is about how to help those people survive this "temporary" transition away from lifestyles and livelihoods that place the world at risk. How to provide supplemental income for people unable to work due to job loss, sickness or other cause. How to provide emergency rental assistance so that they don't lose their houses or apartments. How to provide assistance for paying energy and water utility bills to enable them to protect their health, telecommunications so they stay socially connected to people and media, and child care and other services for people who still must work even when they would prefer not to.

We will also have to do all of this in the fight against climate change but it will be permanent rather than temporary. We have to convince millions of people, small towns, cities, states, and regions to voluntarily "walk away" from existing economic activities that generate livelihoods, incomes, local taxes and economic growth because those activities are slowly killing us and the environment. We are asking oil, gas, and coal regions to abandon generations of stable economic production and expose themselves to the open market with no guarantees for how they will make a living. However, climate change isn’t concerned about that nuance and failure to act will cause even greater harm—which is why we must ensure we are addressing the full ramifications of this crisis. Without help, many African-American communities, fossil fuel regions such as coal reliant communities and many others will be unable to successfully transition to a clean energy economy.

COVID-19 perhaps more than any crisis before it has exposed the depth of these fault lines as a weak to almost non-existent social safety net has left those most vulnerable—exposed to the disease, and the economic and social ramifications of its aftermath. African-Americans and other people of color have been particularly devastated by the pandemic as it has blown past the limits of the nation’s safety net.


We have to convince millions of people, small towns, cities, states, and regions to voluntarily "walk away" from existing economic activities that generate livelihoods, incomes, local taxes and economic growth because those activities are slowly killing us and the environment.


Despite the obvious need across the country and the threat of even greater difficulties to come, the Federal response to the pandemic has followed traditional battle lines over the scope and scale of social policy in American society.

From COVID-19 to Climate Action

As with the COVID-19 response, how we support those who will bear the largest burden of the green transition will involve fights over policies to deliver health, housing and income supports to maintain and access essential needs and services.

Much of that discussion will take place, as it is now, outside of the traditional realm of environmental policy. The fight will be over social policy and how we go about decarbonizing a modern welfare state to ensure that it supports people's ability to respond to the challenge of climate change.

Integrating equity in environmental policy and advocacy, requires much more than a “do no harm” approach to social justice. It means making an active commitment to integrate equity outcomes as metrics we hold ourselves and our work accountable to. That we see the achievement of a just society as part of our process to transition to a cleaner future.


If the goal is to create a truly just and sustainable society social policy must be seen as a necessary component to addressing environmental and climate crises.


If the goal is to create a truly just and sustainable society social policy must be seen as a necessary component to addressing environmental and climate crises.

The scope of climate policy is typically understood as mitigation: efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in energy production, transmission and use/consumption and increase the capacity of carbon sinks (such as forests and nature-based solutions) to absorb carbon dioxide pollution. More recently, the scope has expanded to include adaptation: efforts to reduce the damaging effects of climate change that are now seen as complements—rather than threats—to the mitigation agenda.

Social policy on the other hand is necessary to create collective protection against the social risk and uncertainties inherent in a modern society. And climate change implies a massive amount of social risk and uncertainty. The choices we make to act on climate will have enormous impacts on, poverty, inequality, distribution of environmental burdens and benefits, social and labor rights, healthcare, housing quality and affordability, education, and labor training.

Implementing demands for social equity and justice in the face of risk requires engagement with social policy—and it does not change in the context of climate change. In fact, the need is only increased because the scale of the transition needed to address the climate crisis is larger and more complex than any we’ve dealt with in the past.

Rarely has social policy been engaged with its impact on the environment or its relevance to environmental policy. Similarly, climate change is not understood with real appreciation for the role of social policy even though much about climate policy specifically has deep implications for health, livelihoods, housing, nutrition, migration and other issues addressed by social policy. We see examples in the reactions of critics to components of the Green New Deal (GND) that included housing and jobs “guarantees.” Even now, many people misconstrue the meaning and need for a Green New Deal, equating it to a climate strategy driven by a large commitment to federal spending on industrial policy while reducing emissions, with some carve out—for targeted investments in communities of color and low-income communities. We easily forget that the original New Deal included large investments in new social infrastructure in addition to the industrial investments.


Climate change raises very difficult questions concerning resource ownership and distribution, as well as just and inclusive governance over the economy, during a massive economic transition.


The fact that we have yet to see a fully-articulated argument for why GND targets related to housing  (not just residential emissions but addressing the affordable housing crisis), and employment (not just green jobs but addressing long standing discrimination, union busting and worsening job quality), and health (not just improved air and water quality but how people actually access and afford health services) are critical aspects of successful climate action. This is indicative of the wide chasm between climate and social policy.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are another important framework showing how integrated targets for reducing climate change causing emissions with measurable social outcomes are intertwined. However, the U.S. environmental community remains unconvinced of the value of the SDGs as a supportive framework just climate action.

A paradigm shift is required in what we understand is the scope and breath of climate policy if we are to make timely and effective movement toward just sustainability. Climate change raises very difficult questions concerning resource ownership and distribution, as well as just and inclusive governance over the economy, during a massive economic transition. To date, we, as environmentalists and climate justice advocates, have attempted to answer these questions within a faulty and ill-equipped policy framework and agenda.

Social Policy as Climate Action

Advocating for a carbon tax? Much of our discussion of tax policy is really a debate over the role and scope of social policy and the capacity of governments to manage the regulation of distributive benefits of burdens of the economic growth.

Overcoming the barriers to a more holistic climate policy that integrates energy/environmental policy with social policy requires consideration of three fundamental questions;

  • How should a modern welfare state respond to climate change?
  • How should social policy assist in efforts to transition livelihoods and communities in response to the economic changes required by climate mitigation strategies; and
  • How should social policy help people and communities adapt to, alleviate, or repair the damaging effects of climate change already occurring with increasing frequency and intensity?

When we limit the scope of climate policy to initiatives meant to restrict and eliminate the flow of “end of pipe” GHG emissions, we also limit the scope of inclusivity and social justice realistically achievable despite those issues being very relevant to discussions of climate change. By choosing the narrower policy path we close the policy space leaving equity advocates with little room or recourse to act but to resist the policy. 

Achieving successful climate action requires a combination of effective policy development, while building and mobilizing diverse constituencies capable of promoting those policies. Climate policy faces significant barriers to doing so and has proven a cultural wedge issue particularly for communities and regions tied to direct fossil fuel extraction.

There’s no way to sugar-coat it; the issue is complex. Any effective policy addressing climate will require large scale economic restructuring away from carbon intensive energy sources, which will create strong opposition from those who will utilize the fears and insecurities of the most vulnerable to stop or slow progress.

Prioritizing social policy as a tool to address climate change offers an opportunity to overcome many of those barriers. It humanizes climate policy by focusing on how a national and global response to climate change is managed through continued maintenance and enhancement of human wellbeing. Addressing climate change through social policy enables us to ease the transition to a low carbon economy by reallocating social expenditures in ways that support essential changes in human livelihoods and behavior. This ensures that those most burdened by climate change such as low income and impoverished families are not disproportionately disadvantaged further by policies designed to address it.


By choosing the narrower policy path we close the policy space leaving equity advocates with little room or recourse to act but to resist the policy.


The UN IPCC 5th Assessment on Climate Change made it clear that in order to reach targets to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre- industrial levels, policy pathways that reduce poverty and inequality are more likely to be successful and at lower overall cost. In contrast, climate strategies that ignore equity in pursuit of growth with high social fragmentation, increased inequality and poverty will encounter much higher mitigation and adaptation challenges.

Rising inequality fuels distrust, discontent and the type of right-wing populism that limits aggressive action on climate change. If those who have already been pushed to the margins or fallen behind also have to bear the cost of transition, it is likely that we will fail to reach critical mitigation targets.

Social policy must be viewed as simultaneously creating a floor (social protections) that form a base standard for society to meet, as well as providing support for community and individual capacity building (social development) that enable people to adapt and prosper while the green transition is underway.

Whether in the form of mitigating the worst effects of climate change, or in adapting to the existing and likely future effects, the challenge of climate change implies a massive disruption and transition for people’s livelihoods. It will create new vulnerabilities to wellbeing and place many at risk of falling into poverty which social policy is best suited to address.  

In this sense, social policy is key to ensuring a more just sustainable society: it is a critical ingredient to successful climate action.

"Just sustainable development is not a co-benefit of climate action; it is its organizing principle."

About the Authors

Khalil Shahyd

Senior Project Manager, EEFA, Resilient Communities, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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