- Lack of access to disaster preparedness and relief programs
- Coastal relocation programs that can either exacerbate risk and create inequalities, or, when done well, reduce communities’ vulnerability
- Unequal Extreme Heat
The United States has not traditionally been thought of as being on the frontlines of climate injustice globally, as countries including low-lying islands and desert nations face immediate and far-reaching threats and often lack the funding to cope with these disproportionate impacts. In many ways, the United States actually worsens injustice on the global scale by continuing to emit massive amounts of carbon, while simultaneously failing to deliver funds to the nations’ most vulnerable to climate change.
But the past few years have proven that climate change is taking its toll in the United States, too, and these impacts often fall heaviest on the most marginalized groups, making climate injustice a very real concern for Americans. With a wide range of geographies and demographics impacted by climate change in the country, climate injustice can take many forms. Here are three central climate justice issues that need to be addressed:
Disaster preparedness and response
Climate change heightens the risk of weather disasters across the United States, including extreme precipitation and hurricanes. These disasters put everyone in their path at risk, but it is often low-income people who have the hardest time escaping and recovering from disasters. The reasons for this inequality are numerous: low-income households may lack the connectivity to warn them of disaster, they may not have a car to evacuate, their houses may be less able to withstand water and winds, they may be unable to afford the cost of flood insurance, and more. Even after a climate-induced disaster strikes, low-income people may struggle to access aid programs that can help them recover.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), for instance, has been critiqued for exacerbating inequality by benefitting wealthier homeowners through its recovery programs, while underserving low-income households and communities of color. This inequality in disaster aid is enabled by the fact that FEMA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which also administers aid, do not track the demographic data of their aid applicants and recipients, making it virtually impossible to know whether funds are going to the communities most at need, or whether certain demographics are consistently denied aid. That could change soon, though. Calls are growing for HUD to track that data, and FEMA recently to collect demographic information from aid applicants, including race, ethnicity, sex, marital status, education level, and tribal membership. As climate disasters become more frequent and more extreme, strengthened data and transparency will be essential to ensure the federal government provides aid equitably, in a way that reduces climate injustice.
A number of communities across the United States are being forced to make difficult decisions about relocation as a result of sea level rise, storms, and other climate impacts. This is particularly true for tribal and Indigenous communities in coastal regions, from Alaska to Florida, who face threats to their land, livelihoods, culture, and history as a result of climate stressors. In Washington state, for instance, the Quinault Indian Nation is undertaking a proactive relocation of 650 residents and facilities following an assessment of their climate vulnerability from sea level rise, storm surges, and river flooding. The need for coastal relocation is not limited only to tribes, though.
The federal government funds “buyout” programs through which coastal homeowners sell their high-risk properties after disasters, to enable them to relocate and reduce their disaster risk. But these programs aren’t always successful. Following Hurricane Sandy, for instance, 99% of buyout participants in Staten Island moved to an area that increased their vulnerability after their properties were bought out. In other cases, homeowners moving away from the coast can actually create new injustices. Some areas of the U.S. are now seeing “climate gentrification,” where wealthy, white homeowners who previously owned coastal property move further inland into lower-income, often minority neighborhoods, pushing out their original residents. Coastal relocation is thus a complex and challenging issue that has the potential to either exacerbate risk and create inequalities, or, when done well, reduce communities’ vulnerability.
Unequal extreme heat
Climate change is making extreme heat more common across the United States, but this heat does not fall equally on all. In cities, for instance, research has shown that Latino and low-income neighborhoods can be up to 7 degrees F hotter than white, higher-income neighborhoods, due in part to racist housing policies that led to unequal tree cover and other factors. Low-income households are not only more likely to experience extreme heat, but also less able to manage it, as they may lack air conditioning or be unable to pay electric bills, putting them at higher health risk during heat waves. And individuals with prolonged exposure to the outdoors, such as agricultural workers and people experiencing homelessness, are especially at risk of heat-related illnesses or death. In Maricopa County, Arizona, for instance, over half of the 323 heat-associated deaths in 2020 were homeless individuals. Strategies to reduce the injustice of extreme heat include funding accessible community cooling centers in high-risk areas, as well as investing in cooling infrastructure in vulnerable neighborhoods, including cool pavements or expanded tree cover.
The United States has extensive resources to devote to addressing these issues. But in many cases, resources are allocated after a disaster occurs, meaning recovery is often prioritized over proactive preparation. Without a comprehensive climate resilience strategy that explicitly addresses climate injustice, the United States may continue to fund piecemeal solutions that leave certain communities vulnerable. Fortunately, Congress is now considering bipartisan legislation that would direct the federal government to create a Climate Adaptation and Resilience Strategy. If passed, this legislation could help the country better plan for and allocate resources to these challenges.
A number of organizations work on climate justice at the federal, state, and local levels in the United States. Some national organizations to be familiar with include the Indigenous Environmental Network, WE ACT for Environmental Justice, NAACP, GreenLatinos, EarthJustice, The Sunrise Movement, and the Climate Justice Alliance. Besides these organizations, though, be sure to search for initiatives in your area to get connected with the climate justice movement locally.
This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard U.S. Country Manager Christina Cilento