Addressing the Issue of Climate Justice

Sep 23, 2019

Climate change is real, it’s human-caused, and it will affect everyone. But the impacts will vary from place to place and person to person. And, already, there are major disparities in climate impacts. Women are disproportionately impacted, as are those with limited financial resources.

Theoretically, that means that policies aimed at limiting climate change should disproportionately benefit those people. But that’s not always the case. For example, market-based solutions that might result in increased energy prices are a disproportionate burden for those already at a financial disadvantage.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative – or RGGI - is a carbon cap-and-trade program for the energy sector. There are currently nine member states in the northeast and mid-Atlantic. And many of those states also have other climate policies and programs in place.

Recently, a group of independent researchers decided to see whether and how RGGI states are addressing the issue of equity.

“It's widely accepted and well documented that while all people are affected by a changing climate, that some populations are disproportionately affected,” said Jeanne Herb, the Executive Director of the Environmental Analysis & Communications Group at Rutgers University. She is lead author on the new report on the topic.

Those populations include communities of color, people who are lower income, indigenous populations, seniors, people with chronic health conditions, and outdoor workers.

Herb explained that if you can’t afford to buy an air conditioner and you live in a city that has less trees and is a lot hotter than a suburban area, the conditions may send you to the emergency room, and more likely than not, you're not going to have insurance. Or if you work an hourly wage job and you can't get to it because the roads are closed due to flooding, you're not going to get paid.

While states and cities are leading the way regarding climate policy, it’s not as simple as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Some well-intentioned policies could end up causing unfair and disproportionate impacts.

“There's concerns in the environmental justice community that some policies, particularly policies that establish broad caps on carbon dioxide emission, that we may see individual power plants increase emissions and that those increased emissions might occur in places where there are already historic disproportionate environmental burdens,” said Herb.

What the states are realizing is that they're not going to meet their state climate targets unless they also aggressively direct their state climate programs to those disadvantaged communities. So instead of providing rebates for purchasing electric cars, states should focus on purchasing electric buses so that all incomes can benefit.

So what works? For policies to end up being truly equitable and for them to benefit the most vulnerable communities, equity has to be a focus from the beginning and according to Herb, leadership from the top matters.

“We found that when mandates are set such as directing that a certain portion of solar energy be directed to low income households, that the agencies then really have this long leash to innovate. We also found that when the states establish mandates for the utilities then innovation occurs as well.”

Herb gave an example of a solar program in Massachusetts that tried to include low income families. They didn't receive the participation that they wanted, so they opened up a line of communication and asked for more input. It’s an example of a type of governance that will benefit an entire community.

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Web content created by Liz Lerner.