By Michael Kadish, Renee Sharp and Nicole Steele, Founding Partners, Insight Power Partners
As 2020 careens to its eventual close, among the numerous profound challenges we’ve keenly felt this year are two global crises, the COVID-19 pandemic and the severe present day impact of climate change. These challenges have more in common than you would think at first glance. Addressing the changing climate, much like overcoming this pandemic, requires multi-pronged solutions at local, national and international levels. They both also demonstrate that a fractured and uncoordinated response is inadequate to address this type of problem.
Most critically, our policies to address both issues must be designed with attention to the glaring inequities in our society in order to be effective and fair. In each crisis we stand at a crossroads. Our current path to recovery has not only failed to avoid the worst outcomes, but without carefully crafted policies in place, the current recovery could actually serve to worsen the growing inequality in our society.
Continuing to operate under a business-as-usual approach means the impacts of both crises will continue to vary significantly based on income and race in the United States. Look no further than COVID-19 mortality rates among African Americans at more than twice that of whites, or the hospitalization rate of the Latinx community at nearly five-times higher than whites.
Frontline communities, from the South Bronx to South LA, already live with existing inequality on a range of issues from healthcare access to locally emitted pollution. They are more vulnerable to the challenges posed by a pandemic or a climate event. It’s part of why we see those elevated COVID-19 mortality and hospitalization rates among many minority communities and why we expect to see even higher childhood asthma rates in low-income communities of color faced with smoke from far away forest fires. The crisis exacerbates the challenges already being endured.
Disparities also happen because in climate terms, the preferred adaptation strategy is not a possibility. For example, many people have service industry jobs or have been deemed “essential workers” and have no feasible options to work from home. How many families living near the poverty line can afford to run an air conditioning unit and a HEPA filter every minute of every day of the now annual three-month forest fire season? It is also expected that as the climate worsens, those who can easily adapt by relocating to more climate friendly locales will do so. This expected climate migration will leave behind climate stressed frontline communities, now with even fewer local resources to address increasingly greater challenges including rising sea levels, more extreme weather patterns and unbreathable air from ever more massive wildfires. There is already a growing resource disparity available to avoid the worst consequences of inaction in response to both the pandemic and climate change. Most certainly, there is a fundamental injustice in watching some people ignore science, knowing that they have the resources to try to avoid the worst consequences of their own inaction.
But this story is not yet written. Frontline communities do not have to be left abandoned to the inevitable fires, floods and extreme heat. In fact, there’s a better way, one that builds up local economies and creates jobs while supporting healthy communities by investing in infrastructure that improves local air and water quality. Our climate solutions can and must focus on helping vulnerable communities successfully adapt to the new reality by prioritizing sustainable investments that create training opportunities and pathways into new high-quality green jobs and lifelong careers. Local community-scale solar and storage microgrids, community cooling centers and cleaner local electrified transportation should be the first among a host of options that can change things for the better today and for the future. In addition, we should build up the sustainability of communities including Detroit, Cleveland, Rochester and others that will likely be called upon to welcome Americans as they eventually relocate to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Smart climate adaptation strategies that focus on frontline communities can also help efficiently achieve broader mitigation goals meant to prevent the planet temperature from rising too high. For example “cash for clunkers” programs, that have been targeted in some states for lower income areas, incentivize drivers of the most polluting vehicles to switch to cleaner cars. This provides multiple benefits: reducing local tailpipe pollution by removing thousands of the worst polluting vehicles, saving gas money for struggling families and stimulating the U.S. auto industry. Moreover, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions from upgrading from a 1990s Chevy Blazer to a new Chevy Volt are greater than the modest GHG improvements wealthier people enjoyed when they leveraged tax credits for switching from their fuel efficient luxury cars to new Teslas.
Climate solutions can provide a multitude of benefits simultaneously, so when we replace locally polluting urban power plants with distributed clean energy and storage, we not only reduce GHG pollution but also improve everyday baseline local air quality and therefore the public health of the most vulnerable populations, all while providing an increasingly important community resilience resource.
There’s also great hope in innovation. Embracing new technologies from vaccines and medicines to energy storage and electric vehicles will be critical to our success in addressing each crisis. Good ideas come from many different places across our nation or world. We should commit to deploying these technologies early in frontline communities so that adoption isn’t a matter of resources, but of need. To succeed at defeating the pandemic and addressing climate change, frontline communities must be at the forefront of solutions, services, products and policies. They cannot be an afterthought. Let’s learn from these lessons, work together, and effectively take on climate change in a way that reflects our best values.
Michael Kadish, Renee Sharp and Nicole Steele are Founding Partners of Insight Power Partners, working to advance thoughtful climate solutions, job creation and healthy communities around the United States and the world.