If we don’t confront climate change, we won’t end poverty,”concluded Dr. Jim Yong Kim.  No truer words have been spoken by a World Bank President.  But, given the relationship between climate change and poverty, he just could have easily said: “If we don’t confront poverty, we cannot tackle climate change.”

Last month’s IPCC report and this week’s National Climate Assessment (NCA) are resounding warnings for our nation and the globe.  We can no longer ignore the scientific evidence that shows that we all are headed toward catastrophe if we do not address climate change.

But to truly address climate change, we need to understand how our past and current policies have reinforced climate change and inequity and the implications for our work.  If we don’t, we will abandon innovators who can shape the very solutions we need. 

Though climate change does not itself discriminate, its impacts do.  From Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy to rising sea levels in the Pacific Islands, the most vulnerable populations are often impacted first and the hardest.  Most often these communities are low-income and people of color – lacking the resources, infrastructure, and policies to support community-driven resiliency.   In order to deal with this fact, we need to understand:

  • Inequity energizes climate change.  It is no coincidence that dirty energy profits, while environmental justice (EJ) communities suffer.  Over 11 billion dollars in federal subsidies prop up a dying traditional energy industry which relies on limited resources.  A lack of participatory processes and poor land-use policies enable big oil to site refineries in marginalized communities from Richmond, CA to the Gulf Coast.  Past mineral rights policies support big coal’s ability to extract resources and wealth from rural Kentucky and tribal communities of the Navajo.  Yet, for every oil spill, refinery explosion, and collapsing mine – communities bear the burden. Bad air, poor health outcomes, low life expectancies and potential economic disaster continuous plague these communities as dirty energy becomes more and more unstable.
  • Inequity feeds climate change.  Family farmers are losing their land, 30 million Americans lack access to healthy foods, and 16 million children go to bed hungry every night – problems for all of us, but highest among Black, Latino and Tribal communities.  And our current food polices support a food system that fails to produce and distribute to solve these problems.  Instead, we support large-scale agriculture industries that rely on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), pesticides and minimum wage labor – owning 83% of the food system, reaping over 5 billion in subsidies and producing one-fifth of our emissions, while failing to support good jobs or healthy communities.
  • Inequity drives climate change.  As my colleague Dennis Chin wrote last week, “In many cities that had public transit systems, streetcar lines and other forms of public transit were dismantled to accommodate private vehicles, which boomed in numbers as the federal government subsidized highways”.  Many of us rely on cars to drive to our jobs, grocery stores, and doctor’s appointments rather than using sustainable transportation systems.  Cars and light duty vehicles make up 60% of our emissions annually.

Despite the looming threat of disaster, as detailed by the IPCC and NCA, and the gross inequity that drives this potential disaster, climate change provides a real opportunity for us to put into practice a more racially equitable and sustainable society and economy.   At CSI, we have been working to identify the types of policies and actions that we need to do just that.

Over the last five years, we have focused on three critical areas where inequity drives climate change – energy, transit, and food – and have been working with, and learning from, low-income communities and communities of color about their innovative ideas, policy challenges, and solutions.  Through our relationships and partnerships, it is very clear: if we want to address climate change effectively, we need to be investing in these very communities that are suffering from inequity.

In efforts to support community innovations, CSI calls a number of policy solutions including:

  • Energy Investment Districts (EIDs) as way to enables communities, particularly communities of color, to develop local renewable energy generation and energy efficiency programs that are accountable to the community and produce healthier neighborhoods, reduce energy costs, create good jobs, build the local economy, and combat climate change.
  • Development of local regional food hubs by supporting fair and equitable procurement practices  and financing policies that connect urban and rural communities together in a network to provide healthy foods to all communities, support family farmers to grow healthy foods and prioritize sustainable and environmental friendly farming practices.
  • Increase regional funding and strengthen planning practices in public transit to ensure that those who rely on transit can better access jobs, schools, healthcare, healthy food and retail and to  build regional systems that no longer rely on car ownership as the sole means of transportation.

Climate change is a global, national, and local problem requiring global, national and local solutions.  We must think strategically to get this right.  Place-based investments and local and regional policies that support indigenous and grassroots leaders, innovating on ways to fight climate change while building-up their local economies and communities, are an effective and essential entry point.   

Yet, communities cannot do it alone, they must be supported to scale out and make an impact.  We need good local, state, and national policy to make this happen.

We cannot wait. We must act.  Now and tomorrow.