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OPINION

Greater Boston’s climate adaptation field is divided by race

To truly implement a Green New Deal agenda, we need projects that intentionally bring together disconnected parts of the field, incorporate new expertise for deeper social resilience, and focus our efforts on diversity.

Few trees and plantings visible along Warren Avenue create a heat island for the residents who live outside of Nubian Square, June 2021. Neighborhoods with higher amounts of asphalt and concrete are hotter, and more dangerous, especially as the city heats up from climate change.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

This month the City of Boston’s Green New Deal director, Oliver Sellers-Garcia started his post. By appointing a high-level leader to focus on the Green New Deal, Mayor Michelle Wu is signaling her desire to integrate climate, jobs, and equity into one agenda. However, our recent research mapping Greater Boston climate adaptation stakeholders shows a fragmented field that is prioritizing property preservation rather than the needs of the most vulnerable Bostonians.

To come to that conclusion, we mapped the collaborative relationships among 169 climate adaptation practitioners, activists, researchers, and officials in metro Boston. This gave us a snapshot of who is and is not in the field, who is working with whom, and how these connections and networks advance climate resilience agendas. Here is what we learned:

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The climate adaptation field is divided by type of work and race. We found that the local climate adaptation field is grouped into loosely connected subnetworks. The largest one consists mainly of engineering and planning consultants, municipal staff, and some well-established environmental organizations largely focused on physical infrastructure projects. It is almost entirely white. A smaller network, mostly made up of grassroots organizations and some academics, is more focused on projects supporting Bostonians who are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Most climate adaptation practitioners of color sat in this smaller cluster. This is especially notable given the lack of diversity in the local climate adaptation field. This bifurcation in the climate adaptation field is limiting because, while physical infrastructure projects are essential, decisions about their implementation are not currently sufficiently informed by the needs of those who will face the most climate impacts. It is also fundamentally counter to the Green New Deal’s integrative approach.

Deeper investments in social climate resilience and network building are necessary. Our research shows that a large majority of the climate adaptation professionals are working on physical infrastructure projects focused on property preservation vs. people-centered resilience initiatives. This is a problem because there’s more to preparing for climate change than building flood barriers and safeguarding buildings and roads. And while there are many in Greater Boston who are doing work to support food security, housing stability, public health, transportation access, and other issues that are deeply impacted by climate change, most of these people do not identify as doing climate resilience work. The list of stakeholders for our research was created by asking leaders in the field to identify individuals doing climate resilience work. There were relevant fields almost completely missing from our maps because people did not see that work as falling within the current definition of “climate resilience.” The key here is not just that social experts and practitioners are included in physical infrastructure projects to ensure a more people-centered approach, but that residents’ broader needs are prioritized and that those experts are given the skills and knowledge they need to incorporate climate planning into their work.

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Boston is missing out on diverse talent. Seventy-five percent of the climate adaptation stakeholders who responded to our survey were white. Compare that with the 54 percent white population rate of the cities and towns included in our research. Meanwhile, 7 percent of climate adaptation stakeholders were Black, 10 percent were Latino, and just under 5 percent were Asian American. Nationally, almost two-thirds of environmental science and sustainability studies graduates are white, with Asian, Black, Latino, and Native Americans significantly underrepresented in these fields. While we did not get to hear from everyone working in climate adaptation in metro Boston, our research suggests that workforce diversity in the field lags significantly. This has implications for equity in access to high-paying green jobs and for the priorities, perspectives, and human capabilities brought to bear in climate work. Green jobs are among the fastest growing professions in the United States and Boston’s Green New Deal has the potential to accelerate this growth. However, without targeted recruitment and job training programs, these jobs will be disproportionately white.

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To truly implement a Green New Deal agenda, our research shows we need projects that intentionally bring together disconnected parts of the field, incorporate new expertise for deeper social resilience, and focus our efforts on diversity. Here is where Boston’s planning could play a transformative role. It will be challenging to bring people together to integrate agendas and work on shared goals but will result in a much more resilient city. Together we can ensure all Bostonians benefit from the promise of the Green New Deal.

Rosalyn Negrón is an associate professor in the department of anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts at UMass Boston. Rebecca Herst is director of the Sustainable Solutions Lab at UMass Boston. Antonio Raciti is an associate professor in the department of urban planning and community development in the School for the Environment at UMass Boston.

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