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Integrating Equity into Climate Change Adaptation

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nola flooding post katrinaWe developed our ClimateWise® program in 2008 to help communities develop solutions to climate change that meet the needs of both people and nature. We work with communities to develop solutions across 5 different systems (human, built, economic, natural, and cultural) ensuring through our process that all have a seat at the planning table.

Since that time, we have been thrilled to see the adaptation field embracing many new and innovative strategies to meeting human needs while also protecting and enhancing natural systems. What we have yet to see is the adaptation field taking the same level of action to address the disproportionate impact that climate change has on already disadvantaged people and using action on climate change as a vehicle to improve equity within our communities. In fact, in a review of 800+ individual adaptation strategies in recent city, county, and agency adaptation plans, we found that only 3 created explicit benefits for disadvantaged people.

Climate change will not impact all people in the same way. Climate change planning requires an assessment of the individual needs of various groups of people who will be impacted by climate change, based on their unique vulnerability to the expected impacts. Specifically, equity demands that we consider the needs and vulnerability of disadvantaged people in the community who do not or cannot participate in developing adaptation strategies for climate change. These groups include the elderly, babies and children, chronically ill, homeless, people of color, legal and non-legal immigrants, non-English speakers, low-income, and more.

Action on climate change represents new investment in our communities. An investment of 1-2% of our nation’s GDP is required to shift to clean energy and reduce emissions through conservation. More will be needed to protect people and resources from impacts that are already underway. These include investments in housing, transportation, energy, education, and others. Without special consideration, these investments are likely to disproportionately benefit those who already have wealth and own businesses, homes, and cars, exacerbating the divide that already exists.

Unfortunately, climate change is not color blind. The communities on the front lines for climate impacts, such as hurricanes, floods, and droughts, are disproportionately low income and/or communities of color. Because black and Latino households have substantially less wealth than white households, they often have poorly built infrastructure, live in homes built in riskier areas, are exposed to higher levels of environmental contaminants, and have less insurance and other assets with which to respond.

Emergency response efforts are also often inequitable. Low income neighborhoods hit by Hurricane Sandy waited days longer for assistance compared to higher income neighborhoods.

And post-disaster recovery efforts do not fare much better. After hurricane Katrina, low income black residents of New Orleans largely missed out on the economic benefits of rebuilding. In fact, many were displaced, lost everything, and never returned, resulting in 100,000 fewer black residents today than before the storm.

This difference in opportunity, support, and outcome is unfortunately the rule rather than the exception. As climate change results in more natural disasters and unexpected events, without some form of intervention, low income people are likely to suffer the most, even though they have contributed the least to the problem.

The Geos Institute and numerous other climate change and equity organizations are asking how we change this storyline. Can we take this opportunity to not only address climate change, but also change the decision-making processes and power structures that create inequity in the first place? Can we use action on climate change to reduce the number of households that are low income, and disrupt the link between race and household wealth? And most importantly, HOW DO WE DO IT?

We held our first workshop on equity and climate change as part of a Vulnerability Assessment for Ashland, Oregon and the Rogue Valley. This workshop covered low income populations, disabled and elderly residents, people of color, non-English speakers, low wage and outdoor workers, and other populations of concern. We brought the information that was gathered to subsequent workshops on health, emergency response, natural systems, infrastructure, and the economy.

One important lesson that we learned was that disadvantaged people are already so stressed that engaging them on climate change through traditional outreach is unlikely to be effective. Many of us see climate change as the ultimate threat to our communities and especially to disadvantaged people, yet thinking about the future is a luxury enjoyed by those whose immediate needs are met. It is not, and cannot be, a high priority for someone who is scrambling to make rent and worrying about putting food on the table for their children.

We must develop climate change solutions that are fair and build resilience at the family and community levels. Equitable strategies reduce everyday stress to disadvantaged people, even the playing field in business and education, and create overall community resilience.

Our ClimateWise team is working to integrate equity as a foundation of our Whole Community Adaptation framework by working with partner organizations to assess vulnerabilities and proposed climate change solutions through an equity lens. The Rogue Valley of Southern Oregon is once again serving as our experimental grounds for testing climate change solutions, and this project will inform future projects in the southern Gulf Coast and other areas.

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