In 2015, It Takes Roots convened a delegation of climate justice leaders to participate in mobilizations at the COP21 in Paris and proclaimed “It Takes Roots to Weather the Storm.” When I first heard this statement, I was struck by the vivid imagery it evoked. I envisioned a tree with roots that, despite a powerful rainstorm, swirled, connected, and clenched with fortitude into the depths of its rich soil. I imagined branches growing and the emergence of leaves bearing fresh fruit.
I see these roots as representing the cooperative networks, social fabric, and human relationships that ground us firmly in the soil of our diverse communities. In the face of climate change, how do our community roots support neighborhoods — not only to withstand immediate disruption, but to thrive, sustain our cultures, and provide for future generations?
As a grassroots, environmental justice organization, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) is addressing climate change through base building, civic engagement, and policy advocacy. The communities we organize, low-income Asian American immigrant and refugee communities in California, are uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Therefore, our approach to resilience bridges mitigation and adaptation, with the aim of simultaneously addressing the risks from climate change alongside the inequalities embedded in our current systems that marginalize low-income communities of color.
Emergency response must reach communities in their language
Since the 1980s, Richmond has been a home to many Southeast Asian refugees who were uprooted from their homelands by the Vietnam War. Our members live on the fence line of the Chevron Refinery and suffer from contaminated air, soil, and water due to their close proximity to industrial sites and toxic hazards. A major chemical explosion in March 1999 at the Chevron Refinery revealed Contra Costa County’s inadequate emergency response system, as monolingual residents were poorly informed of emergency safety procedures. In response to this, the Laotian Organizing Project launched and won a historic campaign that pushed the health department to implement a multilingual emergency phone-alert system.
This campaign is a lesson about the importance of accessible and targeted early warning systems to alert residents of predicted extreme weather events. This is particularly important for immigrant and refugee communities with limited English proficiency as well as communities living in proximity to industrial facilities, where coastal flooding and other climate disasters could exacerbate toxic releases and air pollution.
Housing justice is climate justice
In addition to organizing in Richmond, APEN works with low-income Chinese immigrants in Oakland. Oakland’s Chinatown, like many immigrant communities, is a historic neighborhood offering essential services like health clinics, schools, and grocery stores in culturally and linguistically relevant ways. These institutions not only preserve Chinese traditions and practices, but keep immigrant families deeply rooted in a thriving, culturally rich community.
The growing crisis of housing unaffordability and homelessness is closely connected to climate vulnerability. Rising housing costs and displacement threaten to tear apart the social fabric of communities like Chinatown, making it more difficult to ensure that our communities have accessible emergency resources like health care, evacuation shelters, and transportation during a climate disaster. For this reason, our climate justice activism centers strategies like renter protections ordinances and anti-displacement in statewide policies.
Community microgrids promote energy democracy
Low-income communities have a higher energy burden, and thus are more vulnerable to fluctuating energy prices and increased energy needs due to climate change. Power outages can leave the lights out when electricity needs are crucial, particularly for those that rely on medical equipment and families with young children. In light of these impacts, we are pushing for prioritization of critical facilities that serve our communities with emerging clean energy technologies like energy efficiency, solar, and storage.
Recently, APEN proposed a community microgrid project in Chinatown to strengthen a local school and health clinic’s ability to serve as emergency support facilities and offer services to the linguistically isolated families in the community. The accompanying economic savings and community ownership from these investments can root community organizations and institutions that contribute to the social fabric of the neighborhood.
In his encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis notes that “We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” In order to address this intersectional crisis, then, scientists must acknowledge the underlying social inequities faced by disadvantaged communities and approach climate solutions through a lens of community development, public health, and social justice. As part of the UCS Science Network Mentor Program, I am working on a project that analyzes climate vulnerability tools that integrate climate impacts and socioeconomic factors. Leading with values like trust, empowerment, and cooperation, researchers can equitably partner with grassroots advocates to advance our knowledge about community resilience. Centering these principles in our collective work will support meaningful policy and pave the way towards deeper systemic change.