We see it again and again in our news feeds. Climate chaos disproportionately hurts the most vulnerable in society. Flooding, whether in New York or Thunder Bay, tends to be worse in low-lying areas occupied by low-income families, who are least likely to have insurance to help them recover. Low-income families are also more likely to live in un-air-conditioned homes in areas with poor air quality, which helps explain why they experience the highest mortality rates when heat waves strike.
At the same time, inequality makes it harder to fight climate change, partly because it corrodes the social trust we need to work together for the common good. Climate tools like carbon pricing often make it more expensive to heat homes and tank up vehicles, which could be particularly burdensome for poor families.
Canadian carbon pricing is better designed than that. About 70% of families get more back from federal climate rebates than the fuel charges they pay. But we’re still rather stuck. Canada’s climate pollution remains stubbornly high, with the worst reduction record in the G7. And inequality is just as high as it was 50 years ago.
Canadians have not engaged very productively with the debate about whether the climate crisis and inequality are competing causes in a zero-sum game. But our neighbours to the south are showing us that bold public policy can improve them both at the same time.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s Justice40 initiative promises that at least 40% of the benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy will flow to disadvantaged communities. This would be a major shift from past approaches. As the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council notes, front-line communities are routinely left behind in the competition for government funding, because of bias, inertia and a lack of capacity. Even if there is no racial bias, organizations that are well resourced with people, technology, know-how and connections are better able to obtain government funding than those most in need.
In the hope of changing this trend, this summer the White House directed 21 federal government programs to immediately start enhancing benefits for disadvantaged communities. Each agency must define “benefits” and “disadvantaged communities” for its programs, including flood mitigation assistance, lead hazard reduction, and loans and grants to farmers for renewable energy and energy efficiency. Each program is tasked with conducting meaningful community engagement, evaluating the distributional effects of their programs, and deciding how to modify them.
Inequality makes it harder to fight climate change, partly because it corrodes the social trust we need to work together for the common good.
At the same time, five U.S. non-profits got together to help front-line communities apply for the new federal money. In August, their Justice40 Accelerator gave $25,000 plus guidance to each of 52 environmental-justice-focused community organizations, so they’ll have staff, computers and know-how to apply when Justice40 grants are available.
Inequality in Canada is not as extreme as it is in the U.S. Measured by the Gini coefficient, Canadian inequality is roughly the same as it was 50 years ago. Still, many Canadians say they can’t worry about the climate breaking down in 20 years if they can’t make the rent in three weeks, particularly if they don’t see how climate policies will benefit them. A version of Justice40 in Canada could help build public support for climate action and increase our ability to withstand the worst effects of climate breakdown.
The good news is that many climate policies would be of particular benefit to disadvantaged communities. For example, Vancouver is focusing on energy retrofits of low-income and social housing to reduce fossil fuel use, climate pollution and operating costs while creating good green jobs and supporting local businesses. Typically, these buildings are cheaply built and poorly maintained, expensive to heat and uncomfortable to live in. Fixing them would boost the clean economy while giving residents more comfort and dignity.
Low-income residents also live in the dirtiest air and would benefit the most if it were cleaned up. What makes their air so dirty? Fumes from gas- and diesel-powered vehicles, especially older cars and trucks. A generous cash-for-clunkers program can get these vehicles scrapped. A 2009 U.S. program was so popular it ran through its $1 billion of funding in weeks.
Plus, it’s easy now to provide better ways to get around. Halifax is planning electric buses on dedicated lanes to reduce climate, toxic and noise pollution. Low-income and disabled residents are particularly dependent on good transit and benefit the most from not having to own a car. Dedicated transit lanes are the cheapest, fastest way to improve speed, service and reliability. Halifax Transit expects to save $24,000 a year per electric bus on operating costs because they require less maintenance and use no gas. The city also anticipates that its plan will reduce congestion and servicing costs while increasing property tax revenue.
Better transit, in turn, improves the case for eliminating requirements for developers to build parking in their buildings, as Buffalo and Edmonton have done. This makes housing less expensive and facilitates smaller-scale developments in walkable locations. This can also reduce the amount of concrete used in development, as underground parking lots require a lot of the material, which has a heavy carbon footprint.
Then there is urban greening. Low-income communities tend to live in heat islands with few trees. Tree planting helps to improve mental health, sequester carbon, catch rainwater, clean the air and cool the surrounding area. In the U.S., a new tree-planting project aims to help combat climate change, boost well-being and support economically disadvantaged areas. Tazo, a tea company owned by consumer products group Unilever, and the U.S. conservation organization American Forests have partnered to bring “Tree Equity” and urban forestry jobs to low-income areas in five American cities.
These examples show that considering inequality when choosing climate policies can improve environmental justice while protecting the more stable climate upon which all of us depend. Doing both at once may not be easy, but we’ve run out of time to leave either goal behind. Those demanding justice now won’t wait until the climate crisis is solved, and climate action can’t wait because reckless burning of fossil fuels will soon push the goal to limit warming to 1.5°C (i.e. a stable climate) out of reach. Lucky for us – we can do both.
Dianne Saxe is an environmental lawyer, a former environmental commissioner of Ontario, and the deputy leader of the Ontario Green Party.