Climate Equity: Building Resilience for Communities on the Frontlines of Climate Change

, Policy Director and Lead Economist, Climate & Energy | November 19, 2015, 8:51 am EDT
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This post is a part of a series on Communities on the Front Lines of Climate Change

From Dorchester, Maryland to Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, sea level rise and the growing risks of flooding and inundation are a clear and present threat. Today the Union of Concerned Scientists released a new report, Surviving and Thriving in the Face of Rising Seas, which calls attention to the need for more resources and greater policy attention to help protect and prepare communities on the front lines of climate change. The report focuses on communities that face additional challenges because of socioeconomic disparities.

Identifying climate equity hotspots

Many coastal communities already face tidal flooding and damage from storm surges, and these impacts are projected to worsen with rising seas. However, people in some communities experience a disproportionate burden of these impacts. For example, communities with high numbers of elderly, very young, or low-income residents, or residents with ill health, may have fewer resources to prepare for disasters or a limited ability to relocate to safety.

The UCS report describes an approach that can help identify communities that face conditions that heighten their vulnerability to harm. This research was informed by discussions at a climate equity convening, hosted by the NAACP and UCS a year ago. The Climate Equity Tool we have developed uses a combination of climate and socioeconomic risk indicators. We tested the tool using data from 35 counties in nine states along the East and Gulf Coasts and created a climate risk indicator using sea level rise and tidal flooding projections for 2045 for each county.

We used sea level rise projections based on NOAA’s Intermediate-High scenario and localized to each tide gauge by Climate Central to incorporate local variation.

Sea level rise projections for 2045 for the 35 counties analyzed. We used sea level rise projections based on NOAA’s Intermediate-High scenario and localized to each tide gauge by Climate Central to incorporate local variation.

The socioeconomic risk indicator is constructed from four underlying variables at the county-level: poverty, per capita income, educational attainment, and share of minority population. In each case the indicator for a county is constructed relative to the rest of the counties in our sample.

Finally we show the joint risks, across climate and socioeconomic dimensions, faced by a county.

Counties that are climate equity hotspots can be identified by analyzing their joint climate and socioeconomic risks, and warrant further investigation into potential exposure risks for specific communities within them. Even counties that rank relatively low will still experience some risk. Additionally, within counties there may be significant variation in risks which may be captured by future research using sub-county-level data.

County-level Joint Relative Climate and Socioeconomic Risks. Counties that are climate equity hotspots can be identified by analyzing their joint climate and socioeconomic risks, and warrant further investigation into potential exposure risks for specific communities within them. Even counties that rank relatively low will still experience some risk. Additionally, within counties there may be significant variation in risks which may be captured by future research using sub-county-level data. Note that ten of the counties in our sample did not have tidal flooding projections due to data limitations.

Communities on the front lines of climate change

Our report also features case studies from Dorchester, Maryland; Charleston, SC; Hialeah and Opa-locka, FL; Gulfport, MS; and Plaquemines Parish, LA. The stories of people who live in these places highlight the striking challenges they face, and the ways in which they are trying to respond.

Christine Miller Hesed, at the University of Maryland Department of Anthropology, has focused her research on African American communities on the eastern shore of Maryland, who are particularly at risk from flooding. She explains:

“The vulnerability of African American communities on the Eastern Shore is exacerbated by their longtime social and political isolation. In the past these communities have been largely self-sufficient in responding to periodic flooding; however, the increased frequency and magnitude of flooding events along with the outmigration and aging within these communities means that they must now look for assistance from the techno-bureaucratic world of policymaking and regulation with which they have little experience in navigating.

Derrick Evans, from the Turkey Creek community in Gulfport, MS says,

“Gulfport is a giant textbook of incompatible land use.” But, he says, “The Turkey Creek watershed is very important. . . . [We need to] get the wetlands off the development table.”

And in Plaquemines Parish, LA Reverend Tyrone Edwards, pastor of the Phoenix Zion Travelers Baptist Church, speaks to opportunities to do better:

We found out that disasters and coastal restoration are big money. It’s more about giving contracts to some people than protecting [Louisianans/people in Plaquemines Parish]. Oftentimes, the work is overpriced [and too much spent on overhead and subcontracts]. If more of the money were used correctly, we could have more projects done. .. . It is key that local people are employed in the coastal restoration projects. That’s one way to work towards making communities whole.”

Each case study in the report also includes a map showing the location’s present-day exposure to storm surge inundation from different categories of hurricanes, based on NOAA’s SLOSH model.

Building a more equitable framework for climate resilience

Community engagement

Plaquemines Parish residents speak with a FEMA representative about their concerns for their communities’ future as they recover from Hurricane Katrina. Photo: FEMA

The reality is that today we have no real national policy on climate resilience, although the Obama administration is working to make this a multi-agency priority. For the most part current efforts are proceeding through a patchwork of existing federal and state policies that touch on various issues related to the effects of sea level rise. Here’s how we can do better:

  •  The first thing, of course, is that we need to start planning for the future based on facts: i.e. based on what the science shows is coming our way, and in the context of socioeconomic realities that exist today. Federal, state, and local adaptation planning should be informed by the best-available, actionable climate science, data and tools, and must be developed in consultation with local stakeholders. This will require dedicated funding and technical assistance.
  • Federal and state policymakers should use a climate equity approach to target funding and resources to communities most at risk. This includes funding from federal programs, often allocated by state decision makers, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program and disaster aid programs, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) Community Development Block Grant Program, and the Department of Transportation’s Public Transportation Emergency Relief Program.
  • Congress needs to step up and help protect and prepare communities by scaling up the level of funding available for preparedness and disaster relief.
  • And finally we have to work to cut global carbon emissions to limit the pace and magnitude of climate change, else our efforts to build resilience will be quickly overwhelmed.

Rising to the challenge

The decades ahead will be increasingly defined by climate change, and our response to it.

As a nation, we have to ensure that fairness and equity are an integral part of our climate solutions.

You can also read a blog post in Spanish from Ramón Bueno, a co-author on the UCS report (which is also available in Spanish). Stay tuned for further installments in a blog series, Communities on the Front Lines of Climate Change, featuring posts from people who live, work, or do research in places affected by sea level rise.


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