Climate Justice: Beyond Green Elitism

In the wake of Washington's retreat from climate action, cities like Boston are blazing new trials.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Climate Justice: Beyond Green Elitism

June 15, 2017

President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord—and by extension, global leadership on climate—makes clear that the fight against climate change will be driven by local action for the foreseeable future. Since the announcement, 298 Climate Mayors across the country, including Boston’s own Mayor Marty Walsh, have come together to set local standards and push ambitious new carbon reduction goals. Any successful effort to mitigate climate change will require major local leadership, as urban areas account for only 1% of the land on earth, yet are responsible for more than 60% of carbon emissions.

But effective local action on climate change will also require changing how we talk about why climate change matters. Too often, the conversation is marked by green elitism, focusing on ways to expand electric vehicles for those who can afford the luxury, or sea-level rise projections based on a 100-year timeframe. These issues are important, but don’t come close to being urgent for families worrying about making the next rent payment or struggling to care for young kids and aging parents. This framing also ignores the reality that climate change is here now and disproportionately impacting underserved communities.

Although unabated climate change will become disastrous in the long term, we don’t need to look to the next decade to see the impacts of climate crisis. The growing global scarcity of clean, safe drinking water is already creating environmental refugees, and droughts have been linked to violence in the Middle East and North Africa. Here in the U.S. coastal cities are already suffering from increased storm water flooding—particularly in low-income neighborhoods—not to mention high profile natural disasters from hurricanes to rampant wildfires out west.

At home and abroad, underserved communities are hit hardest and face the greatest barriers in adapting to climate impacts. For these communities to be heard, we must expand and diversify the ranks of who is involved in climate advocacy.

In other words, cities have a responsibility not just to tackle climate change in the face of federal inaction, but to reframe the need for action under the more urgent and inclusive umbrella of climate justice.

From food justice to healthy housing and work, climate change is impacting America’s poor. Food deserts will only expand as prices rise. More frequent flooding exacerbates waterborne illnesses and mold for families living in poor housing conditions. Extreme heat creates health risks for our elderly, youth, residents with medical conditions, and those who work outdoors.

Tackling these serious challenges from a climate justice perspective will trigger opportunity and economic development in our most underserved communities. Expanding affordable transportation access through public transit, cycling, and pedestrian infrastructure reduces car dependency and emissions while directly improving job prospects and economic mobility. Green jobs are growing twelve times faster than the overall economy; these on-site positions cannot be outsourced and often pay above-average wages.

In Boston, we are taking the lead on building resiliency. Mayor Walsh’s Imagine Boston 2030 plan adds climate action into a citywide strategic vision. Initiatives like Greenovate Boston and the work of Boston’s first Chief Resiliency Officer have brought a data-driven, community-focused approach to climate conversations. On the City Council, we are pushing to exercise bulk purchasing power on behalf of residents and small businesses to set a higher percentage of renewable energy sourcing through Community Choice Energy, working to reduce the carbon footprint of municipal buildings, and more. We will continue our advocacy for concrete and immediate action to fight climate change. But most of all, we must listen.

Progress on civil rights and economic opportunity is inextricably linked with climate change. Addressing the disparate impacts of climate change requires consciously addressing the underlying social, racial and economic inequalities embedded in our city, together as a community.

The call to a new generation of leaders is to listen to communities and work together in linking our resiliency planning to improving opportunities and quality of life for all. My office has begun a new process to understand how Boston can do better, opening a dialogue with climate justice and community-based organizations around the city. We are examining what has been accomplished to date, and are asking what Boston can do to better address the challenges we know are coming. As with everything we do in city government, this must be an open, transparent, and community-led effort.

Cities will be the leaders of this fight for climate justice, and we owe it to our constituents–and the world–to get it right.

Michelle Wu is President of the Boston City Council.


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