In a stark reversal from both the Trump era and prior Democratic presidencies, the Biden administration has made clear it understands the urgent and unequivocal — but also unequal — threat that climate disruption poses to life on Earth. Among other injustices, our pernicious histories of white supremacy and systemic racism have long caused low-income communities and communities of color to suffer more toxic pollution, failing infrastructure and increased exposure to climate risks.
Both Executive Order 14008, the administration’s whole-of-government climate roadmap, and the American Jobs Plan, its recently announced infrastructure bill, recognize this painful history — and in fact, “target 40 percent of the benefits of climate and clean infrastructure investments to disadvantaged communities.” The strategies include retrofits to make homes more energy efficient and climate resilient, fortifying public transportation systems, electrification of vehicles, and making food systems more resilient to climate threats like floods and wildfires. However, which communities are actually able to build health and resilience in the face of an uncertain future will be determined by how this huge influx of money is spent. Without a carefully targeted approach, these climate and infrastructure investments will almost certainly exacerbate persistent inequities.
We have a history of governmental investments supporting some and leaving out others. For example, after Hurricane Harvey, research showed that, even adjusting for damages, the racial wealth gap widened significantly more in counties that received FEMA aid than those that did not. Our disaster response funds should be helping those who bear the worst climate impacts, not putting them at a further disadvantage.
As we prepare for a wave of infrastructure investments that move us toward a climate resilient future, we can rely on some key approaches to ensure that environmental justice communities are empowered rather than overwhelmed by this flood of capital, and can establish democratic processes for self-governance.
To ensure that these investments authentically support the neighborhoods and communities they are trying to reach, decisions must be inclusive, democratic, and transparent. Increasingly common engagement strategies like holding meetings on evenings and weekends and providing food, interpretation, and childcare are necessary, but not enough.
Providence, for example, created its Climate Justice Plan in partnership with the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee of Providence, a representative group of community members. To address historic wrongs, Providence developed a robust engagement process to cultivate “deep democracy.” This included time for the REJC members to meet, every other month, with a broader set of their neighbors, making the process consistently accountable to over 100 residents. In addition, the city provided education and training so the REJC could engage fully, and compensated them for their time and local expertise.
Outcome-oriented resilience indicators
An equitable engagement process is just the start. The ultimate goal is to ensure that everyone can thrive despite a changing climate. Outcome-oriented resilience indicators that are co-developed and co-monitored by community members can provide a foundation for effective policy decisions and increase government transparency and accountability. They ensure that the improvements community members want, whether housing stability, increased tree canopy, or something else entirely, actually happen in the places that need them most.
Finally, there should be a broad definition of which projects qualify as climate or infrastructure investments. Some of the most effective interventions are not simply in the built environment but in community connections as well. For example, across Puerto Rico in Hurricane Maria’s aftermath, communities self-organized Centros de Apoyo Mutuo (Mutual Aid Centers) that allowed neighbors to assist each other with survival and recovery needs in the face of utter government collapse. Community-owned resilience hubs that anchor local renewable energy-based microgrids can act as community centers under blue-sky conditions, and be stocked with tools, supplies, and communications for emergencies. They enable communities to develop a powerful support system when first responder resources are thin — especially in places more likely to be devastated due to compounding risk factors like economics and race.
While there is no one answer for all communities, finding the right mix requires keeping an understanding of structural injustices central to decision-making. Given the massive scale of investment envisioned by the Biden administration, it is critical that, at all scales of government, we develop plans to ensure climate investments do not exacerbate existing inequities, but build broad social resilience instead.
Alex Papali is political director at the Center for Economic Democracy. Rebecca Herst is a research fellow and the director of the Sustainable Solutions Lab at UMass Boston.