Thursday, October 21, 2021

Letting Go of 2˚ C, Letting Go of Race?: What does climate justice mean at 4˚ C?

Given the “existential threat to democratic governance” posed by a sober assessment of continued global climate warming, J.B. Ruhl and Robin Kundis Craig, in their provocative article 4˚C,  posit the need for a reframing of established approaches to climate adaptation.  Beyond the “Three Rs” of resist, resilience, and retreat, Ruhl & Craig suggest the urgent need for redesign, a process of radical transformation that may require “letting go” of closely held beliefs, expectations, and goals.  Facing a future where “human suffering is likely to increase dramatically,” the authors urge us to “ask uncomfortable questions” and consider even the most politically unpopular measures in order to preserve democracy through the cascade of change to come.  For Ruhl & Craig, necessary measures might include community relocation and “repurposing public lands for new human settlements.”  Could the same dramatic changes in a 4˚C world also require letting go of race and ethnicity as central constructs for pursuing climate justice?

For Ruhl & Craig, equity remains a fundamental principle for the redesign process.  They stipulate that any successful redesign must maintain “opportunities and support for individuals and communities that otherwise face significant risks of being ignored, overrun, forgotten, left behind, or otherwise further marginalized.”  In the United States, historically “marginalized” communities are often communities of color, including Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian-Pacific Islander communities.  Recognition of the disproportionate impacts of environmental pollution on communities of color gave rise to a movement for “environmental justice” that took hold more than thirty years ago and remains as strong as ever today. 

Unlike the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the Environmental Movement of the 1970s, the movement for environmental justice has never produced national legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Clean Water Act of 1972.  Consequently, environmental justice has remained a largely grassroots movement, driven by community organizations and increasingly reflected in state legislation.

In the absence of national legislation, communities and scholars have long endeavored to define “environmental justice.”  According to the most common definition, maintained by the U.S. EPA and adopted by many states,

Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.

One key element of this definition, embraced almost universally by state law and policy, is the application to “all people.”  For the Bush/Cheney EPA, “all people” rejected a conception of environmental justice as a program of affirmative action with racial preferences.  Perhaps unwittingly, “all people” also opened the door to an inclusive conception of environmental justice as a program intended to protect all people—all of them—to include children, the elderly, the homeless, the undocumented, and LGBTQ communities. 

In the last two decades, the movement for environmental justice has inspired allied “justice” movements, such as “food justice,” “energy justice,” and “climate justice.”  As with environmental justice, climate justice has been the subject of numerous efforts to define it.   According to one simple definition, “[c]limate justice can be defined generally as addressing the disproportionate burden of climate change impacts on poor and marginalized communities.” Other scholars have submitted that “[a]s an extension of environmental justice, climate justice is understood to focus on ‘equal rights and opportunities [for] every individual to seek a high quality of life under the impacts of global climate change.’”

This inclusive conception of climate justice as applicable to “every individual” presents particular challenges for the 4˚C future.  How do we pursue a “high quality of life” and keep “every individual” safe from the impacts of a new climate regime that human civilization has never seen?  Climate models abound, but climbing past 2˚C and the tipping points of nonlinear change, how will we know what to look for, much less how to mitigate the worst impacts?

            While acknowledging the “no-analog future,” we can usefully examine experiences of the past and present to locate specific examples of disproportionate impacts from climate change, identify underlying causes for these impacts, and eliminate or mitigate such disparities in the future.  For example –

  • In 2005, Hurricane Katrina (and the anemic FEMA response) resulted in infamously disproportionate impacts among the Black population of New Orleans. Race discrimination operated systemically to place Black people in harm’s way and acted implicitly to frustrate recovery efforts. But in terms of keeping people safe, Black and white, more lives might have been saved immediately by concentrating rescue operations on elderly people, the population most likely to have impaired mobility.    
  • In 2017, in the wake of Hurricane Maria, studies indicated that the two strongest indicators for mortality among hurricane victims were diabetes and heart disease. While federal regulations often define Puerto Ricans as “minorities,” a focus on such “minority” status would not allow federal responders to direct resources toward those individuals in Puerto Rico most likely in need of immediate, lifesaving care after Hurricane Maria. 
  • In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in particularly devastating impacts on Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. The coronavirus itself did not discriminate by race, but researchers identified important conditions that made some racial and ethnic sub-populations more vulnerable than others.  Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, for example, found a strong correlation between COVID-19 death rates and air pollution, with poor air quality more likely found in urban environments with communities of color.  Another study by UCLA revealed that the Latino death rate from COVID in California was nearly six times higher than for Non-Hispanic whites, due to factors including lower salaries, less health insurance, larger households, and greater exposure to the public as “essential workers.” 
  • In late June 2021, the unprecedented heat wave experienced in the Pacific Northwest, with all-time high temperatures in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, resulted in strongly disparate impacts upon the elderly. According to one preliminary report, excessive heat—including a temperature of 116˚F on June 28—was directly responsible for 54 deaths in the Portland metro area.  Of these deaths, 81.5 percent were people ages 60 or older.  According to the report, “Lack of air conditioning was a key driver in mortality.  Whereas about 80 percent of people in the Portland area have some level of air conditioning in their homes …, none of those who died had central air, and only eight people had a portable air conditioning unit in their home.”

Significantly, and defying traditional notions about climate justice, the preliminary report found that recorded deaths from the extreme heat in Portland were 92 percent white as well as 63 percent male.  While these findings surely reflect the particular demographics of Portland, Oregon, they may also remind us that race and ethnicity will not always predict, and help us prevent, all the worst impacts from climate change, particularly in the 4˚C future (which in some ways is already here with 116˚F in Portland, Oregon). 

A different approach may be grounded in vulnerability theory, pioneered by scholars including Martha Albertson Fineman.  Vulnerability theory looks beyond suspect classes, such as race, to understand why certain groups or individuals may be more susceptible than others to particular impacts in certain circumstances.  Vulnerability theory has only recently received consideration in the context of environmental justice, and it remains ripe for exploration in the context of climate justice.  Through vulnerability theory, we may understand why white males experienced greater mortality from the 2021 heat wave in the Pacific Northwest or why Latinos may suffer most with increasing heat year after year in the Southwest.  Investigating climate justice through the lens of vulnerability theory leads necessarily to heavily contextual inquiries, eschewing generalizations and replacing suppositions with careful observations, analyses, and recommended actions. 

One timely example may be illustrative.  In certain regions, families commonly pass down real property from one generation to the next with minimal documentation of title.  In the Deep South, “heirs property” often reflects the Jim Crow area, when Black people were excluded from the legal system.  Today, this system of property ownership has left many homeowners (including many people of color) more vulnerable to disasters following climate-related events such as hurricanes.  After the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ida in August 2021, FEMA finally announced a change in agency policy, allowing disaster survivors alternate forms of documentation to establish home ownership.  This welcome change in FEMA policy addresses a vulnerability factor grounded in historic race discrimination but persisting in new needs to prove property ownership.

So will keeping people safe in the 4˚C world require letting go of race?  Given our history in the United States, including the racist histories we have only begun to acknowledge, the answer must be “no,” we cannot let go of race.  To survive and thrive in the “no-analog future” will take everything we’ve got.  We will need artists, economists, engineers, lawyers, historians, and health professionals, as well as governance on all levels, the private sector, and community organizations.  No one person needs to do it all.  But we will still need some people to keep an eye on race to continue remedying mistakes of the past and help us avoid mistakes in our future.   As Ruhl & Craig observe in conclusion, “We can do better to prepare the nation for the path to 4˚C.”  Preparing for that future may require letting go of some old notions and modes of inquiry, but may also require holding onto some lessons from the past.

- Clifford J. Villa, Ronald & Susan Friedman Professor of Law, University of New Mexico School of Law.

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