This post is the fifth in a series about human rights and environmental, climate, and energy justice. The series builds on a forthcoming article, Environmental Justice as Environmental Human Rights, by Member Scholar John H. Knox and co-author Nicole Tronolone.
High-profile environmental disasters during the summer of 2023, including catastrophic wildfires and a global heatwave punctuated by the hottest month on record, have delivered the latest do you hear us now message from fragile global ecologies.
The impacts of ecological collapse are profound and uneven. Due to the overlapping nature of energy, environmental, and social inequality, preexisting socioeconomic vulnerability is compounded as residents are forced indoors to shield themselves from poor air quality and extreme heat. Consequently, household cooling needs increase.
While wealthy households can press a button (or command a virtual assistant) for immediate relief from extreme weather, low-income households — the ones with air conditioning, at least — are faced with an excruciating decision: cool now and pay an exorbitant price later when the utility bill comes due, or face the heat, which can exacerbate existing health conditions, induce new illness, or ultimately lead to death.
These decisions operate within a profound racialized context. Consider that the energy burdens — the percent of income spent on energy services — for African American and Native American households are more than 40 percent higher than that of white households, while Latino/a households have burdens, on average, that are 20 percent higher.
Twentieth century environmental racism and development policy, such as redlining, fueled much of this inequality. Targeted neighborhoods were left with excesses of heat-trapping highways, buildings, and other impervious surfaces, which, along with the related felling of trees and vegetation, have created the conditions which drive sub-municipal urban heat island disparities. Residents in these neighborhoods, sacrificed in the name of urban development, disproportionately suffer. It’s important that this history be a focal point for the clean energy transition.
Energy justice mandates that renewable energy transitions center marginalized and historically overburdened households, including fenceline and extraction communities, that have faced heightened burdens from the prevalent fossil fuel-based energy system, and further have been mostly overlooked by the burgeoning renewable energy sector.
Our renewable energy transition can’t be led solely by access to technological advances (i.e. the proliferation of charging stations, more efficient rooftop panels, or geothermal installations) as energy justice isn’t just about zero-carbon emissions. It is equally concerned with a number of interconnected environmental, social, and public health issues, including safety (both for communities and workers), democratic decision-making, workforce development, and access to living wage jobs. With job growth in the renewable energy sector outpacing overall job creation, the potential for economic development — including firm ownership and energy cooperatives — within marginalized communities is substantial, but these efforts must be intentional, transparent, and equitable.
Proactive attention to who has access to jobs and who’s involved in decision making are important details that energy transitions must deal with; a replication of the top-down and oligarchic nature of the fossil fuel-based energy paradigm is antithetical to the principles of justice. Fortunately, the place-based nature of many renewable energy technologies lend themselves to more local control, though this isn’t a given. Similarly, just as we interrogate the environmental harms associated with coal or oil, we must be mindful of legitimate questions regarding worker safety and the impacts of extraction and siting associated with turbines or photovoltaics.
Energy justice also mandates that we unlearn power and that transitions be democratized. Just energy systems must be supported by resident education and choice predicated on locally appropriate pathways, and these systems must engage residents and communities so that they are equipped to prioritize their own renewable energy futures.
Complimentary strategies such as conservation and weatherization should also be focal points; the latter is particularly important for those living in older and rental housing. Additionally, urban forest strategies, including plantings that have the potential to mitigate and reverse the most pernicious impacts of neighborhood-scale urban heat island effects and extreme temperatures, while providing a host of other ecological and economic benefits such as air purification, flood control, and recreation, are also essential. These non-technology intensive efforts provide near-term benefits, particularly for marginalized communities that have long suffered under the status quo.
While the window to heed the planet’s warnings to stave off the worst impacts of climate change may be closing, there is time to act responsibly. But for the overhaul of our energy systems to have legitimacy, our collective actions must center the most vulnerable places and peoples for those efforts to be democratic and just.