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Adapting to Climate Change in the United States: Seven Principles for Achieving Fairness

Climate Justice Climate

As the waves rolled over New Jersey, New York, and much of the Atlantic seaboard during Hurricane Sandy last fall, climate scientists’ austere graphs predicting severe climate impacts suddenly popped to life. While we don’t know whether that particular hurricane was “caused” by climate change, we do know that climate scientists predict intensifying hurricanes, heat waves, and wildfires, as well as more extreme precipitation (in some areas) and droughts (in other areas), and, of course, the slow march of rising sea levels and the accompanying retreat of shorelines.

The impacts of climate change do not fall equally. That is obvious on a global level, where low-lying countries, like Bangladesh and small island states, face inundation, while poor equatorial countries face devastating heat and droughts. It is less obvious, but still true in the United States, where poor and marginalized communities without sufficient financial and social resources will face significant challenges adapting to the changing climate. While catastrophes appear to affect everyone equally, they are much harder on those who lack the resources to prepare and to cope.

In an article entitled “Domestic Climate Change Adaptation and Equity” (free SSRN registration required), recently published in the Environmental Law Institute’s Environmental Law Reporter, I detail the equity implications of a wide range of existing and anticipated climate impacts. For example, Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the challenges poor families face in finding shelter and new housing after floods destroy their homes. Poor families are also less likely to have money to prepare for storms and wildfires, buy hazard insurance, or have the resources to relocate to less risky areas, where a persistent lack of affordable housing limits the mobility of vulnerable populations. The “urban heat island effect” increases inner-city temperatures several degrees more than in outlying areas, with adverse impacts on those poor and elderly who lack air conditioning (or the money to run it). Resources for medical care and underlying health conditions strongly impact the public health consequences of climate change. The list goes on.

Of course, reducing greenhouse gas emissions (“climate mitigation,” as it is known) is essential if we are to contain future harm. But, given locked-in increases in atmospheric greenhouse gas levels, preparing for and adapting to climate impacts is an urgent priority. Policy-makers at the local, regional, state, and federal level are struggling to determine how to parlay existing authorities and develop new measures to avoid future calamity. Because the severity of climate impacts is so strongly determined by socioeconomic as well as physical variables, adaptation policies must address social as well as physical factors.

In the article, and in a shorter version of it published in Sustainable Development Law & Policy called “Seven Principles for Equitable Adaptation” (free SSRN registration required), I argue that policy-makers at all levels of government, whether considering the use of existing authorities or developing new ones, should attend to seven key principles and themes. These principles are intended to improve substantive outcomes for disadvantaged communities, foster inclusive and empowering participatory mechanisms, and address the deeper social and institutional forces that create and perpetuate systemic disparities. The principles are:

  1. Government Has an Important Role to Play. While flooded homes and perishing heat waves will send critical “market signals” about future sustainability that could lead some private individuals and businesses to prepare and respond appropriately, exclusive reliance on the market will not lead to sufficient adaptation. In particular, reliance on private action will fail to protect those without the knowledge and means to act, systemically disadvantaging poor and isolated communities.
  2. Design Substantive Adaptation Measures that Address Vulnerability. Adaptation policies that treat everyone the same, regardless of underlying demographic characteristics, will result in substantial inequality given underlying differences. Equitable adaptation can be achieved only by explicitly addressing the demographics of affected populations and targeting assistance toward the most vulnerable. Income is a pervasive issue: Poorer populations require assistance in preparing for hazards, fleeing disasters, finding shelter, finding affordable housing in safe areas, and having access to cooler homes or cooling centers. More broadly, as climate changes require regions to re-think land use, the fate of poorer communities – and whether they are protected or abandoned – requires careful attention. Other factors are also critical: The elderly and disabled are especially vulnerable to disasters and require targeted initiatives; renters have less control over housing conditions and options; and certain outdoor occupations, like agriculture and construction, require tailored adaptation responses.
  3. Provide Culturally Sensitive Communications and Services. As climate change causes more natural disasters, effective communication is critical to warning people about impending hazards, informing them about shelter options, and providing long-term recovery. Communication strategies are not one-size-fits-all. Adaptation planners need to develop tailored strategies that address the differing needs of immigrants, the elderly, and others detached from mainstream institutions.
  4. Develop Participatory Processes. Bottom-up participatory adaptation planning processes are essential to obtain community-specific information about needed adaptation measures and appropriate communication methods. They also matter to the politics of adaptation: all voices need a seat at the table as critical decisions about land use and the distribution of resources and development are made.
  5. Reduce Underlying Non-Climate Environmental Stresses. Climate change will exacerbate existing risks. For example, increasing temperatures will aggravate existing air pollution, and increased flooding or wildfires could increase the risks already posed by facilities like sewage treatment plants, industrial facilities, or waste sites. Although reducing underlying non-climate stresses is an important adaptation principle in its own right, it has equity implications because disadvantaged communities are disproportionately exposed to these underlying environmental stresses.
  6. Mitigate Mitigation: Addressing Adaptation/Mitigation Tradeoffs. Some climate mitigation strategies, like smart growth to reduce driving, could have “maladaptive” consequences: they could, for example, increase urban heat, worsening the consequences of climate change. Similarly, certain adaptation policies, like ensuring the availability of air conditioning, could increase greenhouse gas emissions, interfering with climate mitigation strategies. Successful mitigation and adaptation will require policymakers to carefully address the tradeoffs.
  7. A Comprehensive Agenda. Climate impacts will strike unequally because of underlying socioeconomic vulnerabilities. Successful adaptation will require addressing such pervasive issues as poverty, affordable housing, the provision of healthcare, and the political voice of marginalized communities.

These recently published articles make clear that climate change impacts could exacerbate existing inequalities and cause severe hardships for the nation’s most vulnerable populations – hardships that are not just of intrinsic concern, but also destabilizing to the larger community. The seven principles provide policymakers with guideposts for achieving more equitable adaptation.

Read “Seven Principles for Equitable Adaptation: Domestic Climate Change Adaptation and Equity,” as published in Sustainable Development Law & Policy; and “Domestic Climate Change Adaptation and Equity” (free SSRN registration required), as published in the Environmental Law Institute’s Environmental Law Reporter.

Climate Justice Climate