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Climate chaos worsens inequality, but climate policies shouldn’t

Canadians have not engaged very productively with the debate about whether the climate crisis and inequality are competing causes in a zero-sum game. But bold public policy can improve them both at the same time. See my article in Corporate Knights. Or keep reading here:

The climate crisis and inequality – are they competing causes in a zero-sum game? Or can the climate crisis trigger public policies that improve them both? What is the place of “environmental justice” in designing climate action?

Canadians have not engaged very productively with this debate. Conservative politicians tend to simply argue that climate action increases the cost of living for the poor, and therefore that climate action should be weakened or delayed (even though climate chaos disproportionately hurts the most vulnerable). Ontario’s cap and trade system, and the federal carbon price backstop, both increased the cost of energy across-the-board without specific attention to environmental justice. (Although most low income families probably come out ahead after the federal climate refund).

Some US Democrats have become more ambitious. President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative promises that at least 40 percent of the benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy will flow to disadvantaged communities. This would be a major change. As the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council notes, frontline communities are routinely left behind in the competition for government funding, due to bias, inertia and lack of capacity. Even if there is no bias, organizations that are well-resourced with people, technology, knowhow and connections are better able to obtain government funding than those most in need.

Can this be changed? This summer, the White House Office of Management and Budget, the Council on Environmental Quality, and the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy directed 21 federal government programs to immediately start enhancing benefits for disadvantaged communities. Each agency must define “benefits” and “disadvantaged communities” for its program, including

Each program must identify disadvantaged communities, conduct meaningful community engagement, evaluate the distributional effects of their programs, and decide how to modify them.

At the same time, five US nonprofits got together to help front line communities apply for the new federal money. In August, their Justice40 Accelerator gave $25,000 plus guidance to each of 52 environmental justice–focused community organizations, so they’ll have staff, computers and knowhow to apply when Justice40 grants are available.

Inequality is not as extreme in Canada as it is in the US, but many people feel excluded and left behind. And many people say they cannot worry about climate breakdown in 20 years if they cannot make the rent in three weeks. Would some version of Justice40 in Canada help build public support for climate action, and increase our ability to withstand climate breakdown?

The good news is that many climate actions here would be of particular benefit to disadvantaged communities. For example, energy retrofits of low-income and social housing slash fossil fuel use, climate pollution and operating costs, while creating good careers, supporting local businesses and giving residents more comfort and dignity. Most of these buildings are cheaply built and poorly maintained, expensive to heat and uncomfortable to live in. Fixing them would be a great investment.

What else? Low-income residents live in the dirtiest air, and would benefit the most from cleaning it up. What makes their air so dirty? Fumes from fossil fueled vehicles, especially older cars and trucks. A generous cash-for-clunkers program can get these vehicles scrapped. A 2009 US program was so popular that it ran through its $1 billion of funding in weeks.

Plus, it’s easy now to provide better ways to get around. Halifax is planning electric buses on dedicated bus lanes to reduce climate, toxic and noise pollution. Low-income and disabled residents are particularly dependent on good transit, and benefit the most from not having to own a car. Dedicated lanes are the cheapest, fastest way to improve transit speed, service and reliability. Halifax expects to save $24,000/ year per electric bus, while reducing congestion, reducing servicing costs and increasing property tax revenue.

Better transit, in turn, improves the case for eliminating parking requirements, as Buffalo and Edmonton have done. This makes housing less expensive, facilitates small-scale infill in walkable locations, and can slash concrete use, with its heavy carbon footprint.

Then there are community gardens, which improve equitable access to healthy food, reduce food costs, food waste and food transportation emissions, build community cohesion, and improve mental health. The plants also sequester carbon, catch rainwater, clean the air, and cool the area around them.

As these examples show, taking the climate crisis seriously can improve environmental justice while protecting the more stable climate upon which all of us depend. Doing both of these things at once may not be easy. But it is going to be worth it.

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