Climate Justice: Why Vulnerable Communities Need Resilience Investments

July 9, 2015 | 3:28 pm
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

Today the White House announced a series of actions targeted at building climate resilience among vulnerable communities, including low-income, tribal, and some communities of color. This is a welcome step, and one that the environmental justice community has been asking for ever since President announced his Climate Action Plan two years ago.

Communities facing a disproportionate burden of climate impacts

We know certain communities face a disproportionate burden of climate impacts. Some may be more exposed to risks, suffer from preexisting health conditions, or have fewer resources to prepare for and recover from adverse events. Climate change impacts may be layered on to the many other challenges and injustices with which they have long had to contend.

Extreme weather events shine a harsh light on how these realities play out. For example, studies conducted in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy show that low-income and minority families in the New York-New Jersey area were among the worst affected and continue to face significant challenges in recovering from that storm, particularly related to housing needs. African American communities in Louisiana and Mississippi faced an outsized impact from Hurricane Katrina. From the lower 9th Ward in New Orleans to the Turkey Creek section of Gulfport, communities hard hit by Katrina and Rita are still struggling to recover. Tribal communities suffering from the impacts of wildfires, floods and extreme storms also need help.

As the risks of climate change grow, coastal communities threatened by sea level rise and worsening storm surge, inland communities hit by drought, extreme precipitation and wildfires, and urban centers affected by heat waves, all need help to prepare and protect themselves.

Administration actions to enhance resilience for vulnerable communities

There’s a lot to like in today’s announcement: more direct engagement with communities through a Resilience AmeriCorps Pilot Program, Tribal Preparedness Grants worth $11.8 million, and joint efforts with major Foundations (Rockefeller and Kresge among others) and key agencies (NOAA, HUD, DOI, DOE, and the EPA among others).

Here are four things that really stood out for me:

Social vulnerability index for the coastal United States. Click to enlarge.

  • An effort to develop regional sea-level rise and climate information. Having good science-based information and data, in a format that’s useful for local communities, is critical to helping them understand their risks and make better choices for their future. In all our work on climate change, this is one of the top requests we hear from communities and decision makers. According to the announcement: Federal agencies will work with the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) and the National Ocean Council (NOC) to develop, for the first time ever, a set of sea-level rise scenarios out to 2100 that combine national coverage with regional specificity, and that address not just sea-level rise itself, but also the associated coastal flood hazards that create risks for communities. This effort will launch in 2016, with an initial focus on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.
  • Developing tools to identify socioeconomic vulnerabilities. The impacts of climate change are not just a function of physical risk factors; they also depend on the socioeconomiccontext within which climate-related events happen. Many people just don’t have the money or the private means to get out of the way of extreme events, for example – a reality we saw tragically unfold as Katrina bore down on the Gulf shore almost ten years ago. A mapping tool recently released by the EPA, Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool (EJSCREEN), helps identify communities that may be more vulnerable to environmental pollution for socioeconomic reasons. Extending this mapping tool by combining the socioeconomic information with the regional climate risk information that is being developed would be a useful next step. Other examples include a recent EPA report that uses the socioeconomic vulnerability index (SoVI) to map vulnerable communities along the coasts (see figure).
  • Making climate-smart Federal investments. The Office of Management and Budget has issued guidance directing all Federal agencies to consider climate change in their Fiscal Year 2017 budget requests. Aligning federal government policies and investments in the direction of climate resilience will help protect people and property – and it’s a smart use of taxpayer dollars. More attention will be needed across agencies to ensure that this guidance is operationalized effectively across the full breadth of federal government activities.
  • Launching a Resilience AmeriCorps Pilot Program. This exciting program will recruit, train and deploy AmeriCorps members to help vulnerable communities with developing and implementing climate resilience plans. The pilot phase will take place in up to 12 communities in 2015. The added capacity is critical and, if scaled up and done well, can be a huge opportunity for creating an inclusive, trust-based process that responds to the needs identified by communities.

What else is needed?

As we plan for greater resilience, it’s vital for vulnerable communities to have a direct voice in shaping their future. A robust, inclusive stakeholder process, matched by equitable access to funding and resources is the measure by which our efforts should be judged.

Although the announcement today was heartening, the level of funding associated with it is extremely modest – in the millions of dollars. This is a small down payment on what will ultimately be needed to boost resilience nationwide, with special attention given to the most vulnerable communities. Congress needs to step up and designate a National Resilience Fund, perhaps paid for through a price on carbon, to help prepare and protect communities.