Why climate change action cannot succeed without social equity

social equity for Sustainability

People-centric planning for Sustainability

Over 120 cities and counties in California have a climate action plan either completed or in the pipeline.  As cities develop these plans and initiatives to address climate change, it is important to emphasize that social equity is integrated within environmental policies. The vulnerabilities, resilience and sustainability of the human ecosystem are as much determined by diversity and inter-dependence as its natural counterpart. As Pope Francis said in Laudato Sí, “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

Sustainability is framed as a three-legged stool consisting of the three ‘E’s: environment, economy and equity. However, the third leg, social and economic equity, is often the weakest.

Environmental plans often ignore social issues

U.S. cities have historically ignored equity goals as part of their climate and sustainability plans, and even when they do, treat equity as a secondary or tertiary issue. A recent study of Climate Action Plans from a sample of 28 medium and large cities (including an earlier version of San Diego’s plan), found that although there is an emerging trend of addressing equity, it was lost among other environmental and economic priorities.

For example, San Diego’s adopted climate plan laudably has enforceable greenhouse gas emissions goals. There is a chapter on “Social Equity and Job Creation.” However, there are no enforceable standards on equity beyond those already in place. The climate action plan acknowledges that there is a need to prioritize programs and actions that reduce emissions in impacted communities, though, nonchalantly states that the city cannot change the underlying socio-economic factors of disadvantaged populations.

For communities that have been disproportionately impacted, this is like treating the symptom (concentrated emissions) and ignoring the cause (poverty and race).

It is no wonder then, that climate plans often sit on planners’ proverbial shelves gathering dust, or displayed on flashy websites as marketing gimmicks. Research by Adam Milliard-Ball from the University of California, Santa Cruz of municipal climate planning in California found little evidence of causal impacts of these plans. Here is an excerpt from the study:

“If the motivation for climate planning is primarily to compare favorably to neighboring cities, to showcase a city’s existing efforts, and to defuse political pressure to do more on climate change, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is limited evidence that planning has a causal impact. The climate plan becomes more of a marketing device than a template for action, helping a city to gain a (probably deserved) ‘green’ reputation for action that predated or occurred independently of climate planning.”

The absence of social equity as an integral element of sustainability also surprised researchers James Svara (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Tanya Watt (Arizona State University) and Katherine Takai (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). They used data on one the most comprehensive survey of over two thousand local governments in the U.S., followed by a more detailed survey of 300 selected governments, and then case studies of nine of them. This study, published by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development last year, found that although there was an extensive range of activities related to social equity, most local governments did not organize and resource these activities in a manner that placed a high priority on social equity as a part of sustainability. For example, requirements for contractors to pay a living wage were used by less than a quarter of the detailed surveys, and the numbers fell even further down on other job quality measures.

No justice, no sustainability

It is just too trendy to be sustainable. So trendy that it is easy to bury structural socio-economic imbalances beneath a pile of corporate-consultant hogwash. So who needs community organizing when we can engineer precise interventions for environmental control?

This question was answered in the fall of 1982, when 6,000 truckloads of dirt with toxic polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) headed to a poor and predominantly black part of North Carolina, in Warren County. The community revolted, with demonstrations and arrests. A subsequent report by the U.S. General Accounting Office would find that the majority population in three of four communities of the southeastern United States where hazardous waste landfills were located was black. The people of Warren County lost, and toxic waste got dumped in their backyard, but despite this loss, sparked the birth of the environmental justice movement nationally.

In an earlier article, I have argued that community empowerment is a necessary condition for sustainability. This is because empowerment balances out the forces that make our world unsustainable. I will further argue that sustainability itself can distribute justice, creating a benevolent reinforcing cycle between empowerment, engagement and equity. For example, sustainable modes of commuting like transit, walking and biking promote social movements through increased social interactions in the public domain. And consequently, these social movements both use and politically support these modes.

Therefore, activists in the environmental movement ought to deeply engage their social and economic justice counterparts on fighting pollution and climate change. An environmental justice advocate, Angela Park, notes that climate change still suffers from the perception, and arguably the reality, that it is a movement led by and designed for the interests of the white, upper-middle class. Meaningful change will take an active and inclusive social movement. Pope Francis puts it thus:

“The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation.”

Putting the three ‘E’s back together

California cities have a long way to go on implementing climate change policies. The range of policies include coastal adaptation, renewable energy generation, forest conservation, waste disposal, building rail-lines and reducing auto pollution. The requirements adopted by the state of California are helpful in providing clear standards, for example, on greenhouse gas reductions, but there many more blanks to fill at a local level.

Here are three strategies for integrating equity within climate actions plans:

  • Establish enforceable thresholds for equity issues such as poverty/income, affordable housing, transportation/transit, and targeted socio-economic benefits.
  • Integrate equity in the administration and implementation of all environmental plans, policies and regulations throughout city departments.
  • Institutionalize diversity in terms of both leadership, as well as in outreach among stakeholders.

After a decades-long struggle, the environmental movement is succeeding in creating global currency on issues such as climate change and natural resource protection. However, the stock of political currency is even more unpredictable than Vegas gambling chips. This currency needs to be invested in systemic change that tilts the balance of power towards long-term social equity. The dividends of a robust social movement will continue to pay with better sustainable policies advocated by future generations.

Profile photo of Murtaza H. Baxamusa, Ph.D., AICP About Murtaza H. Baxamusa, Ph.D., AICP

Murtaza H. Baxamusa, Ph.D., AICP is a certified planner, writer and thinker. He develops affordable housing for the San Diego Building Trades Family Housing Corporation, and teaches urban planning at the University of Southern California (USC). He has over 12 years' experience in economic development and sustainable urban planning, and has previously worked for the USC Center for Economic Development as well as the Center on Policy Initiatives. He has doctoral and master’s degrees in Planning from USC, and a bachelor’s degree with honors from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.  He serves on several nonprofit boards, including Civic San Diego, the San Diego City-County Reinvestment Taskforce and the Middle Class Taxpayers Association. He received the Ruby Award for Outstanding Advocate from the San Diego Housing Federation in 2012, as well as the John Lyons Memorial Fellowship, an honor that was read into the Congressional Record of the 112th Congress. The City of San Diego proclaimed June 17, 2008 to be “Dr. Murtaza H. Baxamusa Day” in recognition of his contributions to the city. He is a home-owner in Bay Park, and lives with his wife and two daughters.

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  1. […] Environmental and economic sustainability are typically well-accounted for in these plans, but as San Diego UrbDeZine writes, social sustainability, is often an afterthought. However, marginalized communities face a high […]

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