As the waves rolled over New Jersey, New York, and much of the Atlantic seaboard during Hurricane Sandy last fall, climate scientists’ austere graphs predicting severe climate impacts suddenly popped to life. While we don’t know whether that particular hurricane was “caused” by climate change, we do know that climate scientists predict intensifying hurricanes, heat waves, and wildfires, as well as more extreme precipitation (in some areas) and droughts (in other areas), and, of course, the slow march of rising sea levels and the accompanying retreat of shorelines.
The impacts of climate change do not fall equally. That is obvious on a global level, where low-lying countries, like Bangladesh and small island states, face inundation, while poor equatorial countries face devastating heat and droughts. It is less obvious, but still true in the United States, where poor and marginalized communities without sufficient financial and social resources will face significant challenges adapting to the changing climate. While catastrophes appear to affect everyone equally, they are much harder on those who lack the resources to prepare and to cope.
In an article entitled "Domestic Climate Change Adaptation and Equity" (free SSRN registration required), recently published in the Environmental Law Institute’s Environmental Law Reporter, I detail the equity implications of a wide range of existing and anticipated climate impacts. For example, Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the challenges poor families face in finding shelter and new housing after floods destroy their homes. Poor families are also less likely to have money to prepare for storms and wildfires, buy hazard insurance, or have the resources to relocate to less risky areas, where a persistent lack of affordable housing limits the mobility of vulnerable populations. The “urban heat island effect” increases inner-city temperatures several degrees more than in outlying areas, with adverse impacts on those poor and elderly who lack air conditioning (or the money to run it). Resources for medical care and underlying health conditions strongly impact the public health consequences of climate change. The list goes on.
Of course, reducing greenhouse gas emissions (“climate mitigation,” as it is known) is essential if we are to contain future harm. But, given locked-in increases in atmospheric greenhouse gas levels, preparing for and adapting to climate impacts is an urgent priority. Policy-makers at the local, regional, state, and federal level are struggling to determine how to parlay existing authorities and develop new measures to avoid future calamity. Because the severity of climate impacts is so strongly determined by socioeconomic as well as physical variables, adaptation policies must address social as well as physical factors.
In the article, and in a shorter version of it published in Sustainable Development Law & Policy called "Seven Principles for Equitable Adaptation" (free SSRN registration required), I argue that policy-makers at all levels of government, whether considering the use of existing authorities or developing new ones, should attend to seven key principles and themes. These principles are intended to improve substantive outcomes for disadvantaged communities, foster inclusive and empowering participatory mechanisms, and address the deeper social and institutional forces that create and perpetuate systemic disparities. The principles are:
These recently published articles make clear that climate change impacts could exacerbate existing inequalities and cause severe hardships for the nation’s most vulnerable populations – hardships that are not just of intrinsic concern, but also destabilizing to the larger community. The seven principles provide policymakers with guideposts for achieving more equitable adaptation.
Read "Seven Principles for Equitable Adaptation: Domestic Climate Change Adaptation and Equity," as published in Sustainable Development Law & Policy; and "Domestic Climate Change Adaptation and Equity" (free SSRN registration required), as published in the Environmental Law Institute’s Environmental Law Reporter.