UEP Alum Nina Schlegel: We Need a Justice Framework for Urban Climate Action

Recent UEP alum Christina Schlegel, MA ’17, spent last summer as a fellow in Boston City Council President Michelle Wu’s office. According to Wu, Nina was selected from a pool of 70 applicants for her proposal to analyze the City of Boston’s climate resiliency plans from a climate justice and equity perspective.

Nina spent ten weeks in our office, poring over hundreds of pages of city documents, researching other municipal plans, and speaking with City departments, community advocates, and residents. Nina became a beloved member of our team, and she taught us so much about how Boston could continue improving our outreach and planning for the future,” writes Wu in an email announcing the final climate justice report that was released by the City in early February. 

Below, Nina explains the results and necessity of this work – how cities like Boston can, and should, do more to take proactive measures against climate change that prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized urban residents. 

A version of the piece will also be published by The BEAM.

Cities exert an enormous and often overlooked impact on our world. Cities currently represent 78 percent of worldwide energy demand and emit 60 percent of global carbon emissions[1] – the driving forces of anthropocentric climate change. A little more than half the world’s population currently lives in an urban area. By 2050 it will be over two-thirds.[2] Cities globally are already being negatively affected by higher seas, intensifying heat waves, prolonged droughts, dwindling freshwater, stronger storms, and extreme precipitation events. And as such, cities are fast becoming critical players in climate adaptation and mitigation not only for their own benefit, but are also key to reaching larger regional, national and international goals to slow down the runaway train of climate change.

City residents must already contend with rising housing prices and gentrification, unequal access to employment opportunities and public amenities, overburdened and underfunded public transportation, unaddressed environmental hazards, and at times, legacies of institutional racism and xenophobia. When it comes to the impacts of climate change, residents and neighborhoods have different adaptive capacities based on existing levels of socioeconomic vulnerability. Routinely marginalized populations include people of color, the poor, women, children, the elderly, disabled individuals, immigrants and renters. Vulnerability can also manifest as a lack of access or opportunity: economic opportunity, lack of political power, and lack of access to public and private amenities such as financial resources or public transportation. Climate change has ominously been called an “instigator of corrosive disadvantage” because it creates and reinforces these patterns of vulnerability.[3]

In their mad rush to act on climate change, cities must consciously consider the ways in which municipal plans and projects can unintentionally sustain – or even exacerbate – the inequalities already present in their political and economic structures and social fabric. How nebulous concepts such as justice and equity are operationalized is critical to determining what actions will be taken, how, and for whom – and will ultimately affect the long-term viability and sustainability of our cities. The broad goal of the climate justice movement is to reverse these systemic and institutionalized patterns by intentionally fostering ecologically sustainable projects and policies that prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized residents. This is a tall and politically uncomfortable task for governments where issue areas like economic growth, real estate development, and housing prices are the pressing concerns du jour – (noted anthropologist David Harvey recently lamented that we are not building cities in which to live, but cities in which to invest) – and where climate change itself may be seen as merely an underfunded “issue area”.

Rapid, large scale development is in vogue, but it is not possible for cities to simply build their way out of the unequal impacts of climate change. Across the United States, cities are beginning to shift towards an approach to climate action that cuts across historical issue silos. Seattle, Portland and Boulder have all recently implemented equity frameworks – meaning that existing social, economic and environmental inequities must be considered in the design and rollout of adaptation and mitigation measures.

On the East Coast, Boston’s approach to climate change has evolved significantly from plans focused on emissions reductions to neighborhood-based development and adaptation measures that seek to mitigate a variety of climate impacts. Boston is already feeling the effects of a changing climate. Since 1991, the city has experienced 21 extreme weather events that triggered either federal or state disaster declarations. The area has seen nine inches of sea level rise over the twentieth century, and climate predictions threaten to reclaim a third of the city’s land over the next 80 years. A 2013 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked Boston 8th on a list of global cities expected to suffer economic damages from coastal flooding.

Cities can – and should – do more. A 2017 research project in Boston sought out community feedback in order to propose policy recommendations using a restorative, climate justice framework. The interviews spotlighted a broad community desire that any future actions taken seriously consider questions fundamental to climate justice. How are adaptation and mitigation solutions created? What do they look like in practice, and what problems or inequities do they address? How are they evaluated, and by whom? Who created them… and who are they for?

In the context of the research conducted in Boston, seven principles for urban climate justice emerged. First, climate justice requires proactive efforts to build greater trust and two-way communication between the city, its departments, and the community. Second, climate justice requires that a city institutionalize better cross-departmental communication, a movement away from historical norms of operating in planning and policy silos. Third, cities have shown their commitment to climate justice by meeting communities “where they are”. This means providing resources (funding, technical support, translation services, and educational materials) at a time and in a form that is appropriate for the community.

Fourth, communication and trust are fundamental to climate justice, and cities can strengthen local trust through regular updates on city activities that are easily accessible, understandable, and encourage engagement. Fifth, equitable access to decision-making can be created through long-term partnerships between the city and local organizations that offer opportunities for funded and formalized engagement. Sixth, effective local action tends to happen when there is a robust network of grassroots organizations and activists: a city that helps grow the power and collaboration potential of its grassroots is thereby building both local and citywide resilience. Finally, community-informed metrics for evaluating progress are necessary for measuring the broader, qualitative impacts of projects and policies.

Let there be no doubt that embracing a climate justice approach is a daunting task for any government. Climate justice demands more than “checking off a participation box.” It is a commitment to engagement and partnership that is open to all, where benefits are shared equitably, and past harm is recognized and addressed proactively. Climate justice is not only about climate change. More fundamentally, it is about growing community power, health and prosperity so we can weather any storm the future may bring.

Read the full report for the City of Boston here: http://michelleforboston.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/CJ-Report.pdf

[1] “Climate Change,” UN Habitat, February 20, 2018, accessible at https://unhabitat.org/urban-themes/climate-change/.

[2] “How to Fix It: Cities,” National Geographic, February 18, 2018, accessible at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/climate-change/how-to-fix-it/cities.html.

[3] David Schlosberg, “Climate Justice and Capabilities: A Framework for Adaptation Policy,” Special Section: Safeguarding Fairness in Global Climate Governance, Ethics and International Affairs, Vol. 26, No. 4 (2012), 457.