Black communities and other people of color are disproportionately exposed to the impacts of climate change and also tend to have fewer financial and healthcare resources to prepare for and respond to these impacts. Adapting to climate change without an explicit focus on racial justice can further reinforce inequalities; hence, building systemic resilience to climate change must include investment in communities that are on the frontlines of climate impacts, including Black communities.
For the Local and Regional Government Alliance on Race & Equity, “racial equity means that race can’t be used to predict success, and we have successful systems and structure that work for all.” Equity means that different groups are provided with the resources they need to address their distinct challenges, acknowledging that these will not necessarily be equal. Thus, adaptation must include equity in every step of the process, from risk assessment and decision-making to planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Key elements of equitable adaptation include conducting vulnerability assessments that account for place-based vulnerabilities, integrating consideration of social and cultural value within budgeting decisions, involving frontline communities in the decision-making from the start, and investing in the resources and policies these communities need to thrive. While by no means exhaustive, this article highlights the importance of racial equity for several phases in the climate adaptation process and shares some emerging best practices.
Risk and Vulnerability Assessment
The first step in the climate adaptation process is identifying risk exposure and vulnerability. Climate risk is not based solely on exposure to climate hazards like floods and extreme heat, but also on vulnerability, driven by a community’s specific characteristics. Vulnerability is shaped by the sensitivity of a given population and its adaptive capacity. Thus, the impact of a climate hazard, such as a storm or drought, will depend upon the resources and sensitivities of exposed communities.
Adaptive capacity is multifaceted, including both tangible resources such as access to transportation, air conditioning and green spaces and intangible elements such as social capital. Effective risk and vulnerability assessments explore these characteristics of a community, to identify how risks may manifest, and serve as the foundation for determining what adaptation measures are needed. For example, members of low-income communities with low vehicle ownership and greater dependence on public transportation will be less likely to be able to evacuate during an extreme event, experience longer-term impacts if subway stations are flooded or damaged, and be more likely to face economic hardship if they cannot get to work or lose their jobs. For extreme heat, communities with more urban green spaces, widespread access to air conditioning, or access to public cooling centers such as libraries, are likely to be less vulnerable than communities in dense urban centers with little greenery and/or those without access to safe public cooling centers.
Social capital is built through regular interaction, shared values or culture, and human connections, which build trust and lead individuals to look out for one another. In some cases, high social capital has increased communities’ resilience, helping to counterbalance a lack of tangible resources. For example, during Chicago’s deadly 1995 heat wave, while Black communities were hit hardest, the Black community of Auburn Gresham stood out with lower death rates than Chicago’s most affluent neighborhoods. The distinguishing factor was the way Auburn Gresham’s infrastructure was conducive to building social capital—its sidewalks and restaurants promoted opportunities to get to know each other and interact. Assessing the social elements of adaptive capacity in climate vulnerability assessments is critical to understanding a community’s needs and ensuring that adaptation efforts build on and leverage existing social capital.
Sensitivity refers to the characteristics of individuals and communities that affect how a climate hazard may impact them. For example, Black communities often have high sensitivity to climate hazards, due to preexisting health conditions, which are driven by disproportionate exposure to environmental toxins. Likewise, agricultural communities are particularly sensitive to water stress due to the water-intensive nature of agricultural activities, with those that lack financial resources and political influence likely to experience the greatest impacts. Engaging with a community to assess its exposure to physical climate hazards, the resources it has to respond, and its residents’ particular sensitivities lays the groundwork for equitable adaptation.
A climate risk assessment centered on concerns for social equity can inform an equitable planning and budgeting process. Traditional cost benefit analysis can undervalue the needs of low-income communities or communities of color, due to its emphasis on ensuring adaptation costs do not exceed property values. While this approach is often used to determine the best locations for adaptation investment, it can perpetuate inequitable distribution of impacts and investment. For example, in Cedar Rapids, IA, a flood mitigation study found that a region on the Cedar River’s West Bank did not qualify for investments in flood barriers due to relatively low property values. However, hundreds of these homes were destroyed by flooding in 2008. Policy makers can integrate a consideration for equity and improve the longer-term return on investment by replacing the current cost benefit analysis to account for vulnerability and longer-term community impacts and savings, rather than only up-front economic impacts.
The distribution of disaster recovery funds will dictate the resources available for community rebuilding and, in many instances, Black communities do not receive the funds they need. For example, after Hurricane Harvey, Taylor Landing, TX received $1.3 million in recovery funds—about $60,000 per affected resident. Taylor Landing is a town of 228, which had a median household income of about $69,000 in 2017 and, according to the Census, had no Black residents. Meanwhile, nearby Port Arthur, a town of 54,000 residents, with a median household income of $32,000 and a population that was over a third Black, received $4.1 million from the same funding—about $84 per affected resident. This inequitable distribution of funds is due to an unrepresentative regional fund allocation system. The members of the council that distributes the funds disproportionately represent the region’s smaller, primarily white towns, rather than the region’s largest cities, including Port Arthur. Moreover, the Small Business Administration approves disaster loan applications from primarily white communities at almost twice the rate that it does for applications from majority Black communities. This discrepancy is largely because disaster loan applications are based on credit scores, which are typically lower for minority populations and are more likely to remain low if these communities lack the resources to recover. This exemplifies the need for Black communities most exposed to climate impacts to be represented in decisions about resource allocation to support climate resilience and for reconsidering financing structures.
Acknowledging that many Black communities face compounding challenges due to a historic lack of investment in their communities, investing in these communities, and reducing the loss and costs that come with repeated impacts are important steps in ending this cycle. This calls for a restructuring of federal disaster response funding processes, moving beyond rigid frameworks based on home value and including advisory committees composed of members of the frontline communities. Financial institutions also have an opportunity to increase the flow of financial capital to Black communities. Strategies can include building advisory offerings meant to foster financial literacy and savings, shifting to key performance indicators focused on client financial health rather than promoting indebtedness and creating new models to reach those typically excluded. For example, accepting proof of current employment instead of requiring credit history to allow individuals to begin building credit would help those typically unable to access capital begin to obtain financing. Building equity in budgeting and promoting equitable lending practices would play a role in breaking the cycle of disenfranchisement.
Integrating Equity into Adaptation
Maladaptation and the Need for Change
There are many different types of adaptation measures, including structural measures, land-use policies and capacity-building. The impacts and efficacy of any adaptation measure is highly context-dependent. One common point of failure is the exclusion of certain stakeholders or when planners, consultants, and policy-makers make their own judgements of what is important and may ignore important characteristics of the community. In this case, there is often high potential for maladaptation, or unintended consequences that end up perpetuating existing social inequities by increasing the exposure of those who are already on the frontline.
For example, levees and other flood barriers often worsen downstream flooding as they force the water through a narrower channel, so there is more volume to inundate surrounding areas that do not have flood protection. The cost benefit calculations discussed above drive these engineering decisions and lead to protection for more affluent communities while nearby low-income towns endure the consequences. Likewise, while increasing flood insurance premiums may help provide incentives to move from flood-prone areas, for those who cannot afford to leave it also leads to increased affordability challenges and potentially the decision to forgo flood insurance, compounding challenges when flooding does occur.
As governments begin to invest in adaptation measures, there is a risk of climate gentrification, or the pricing out of Black residents and low-income communities. For example, in Norfolk, VA, part of the sea level rise strategy is to demolish several public housing units, replacing them with mixed-income buildings and transforming the rest of this exposed area into a green space that can absorb floodwater. The city provides some assistance and vouchers for relocation, but the burden largely falls on the low-income residents. In some cases, their only options are to live farther away from the city center, paying more money for gas to commute to work and making the daily efforts of providing for their families even more challenging.
Many factors influence the efficacy of adaptation outcomes, including whether or not the adaptation is responsive to the community’s needs. For example, if a new cooling center is built, but residents lack transportation or feel uncomfortable meeting in public spaces with few amenities, the cooling center will do little good. Likewise, evacuating ahead of hurricanes saves lives and warning systems can help prompt more thorough evacuations. However, residents that are not informed about the importance of evacuations or those who do not trust public authorities are unlikely to heed evacuation warnings, particularly if evacuations are challenging due to resource and transportation constraints. The long history of racism and exclusionary government programs have weakened trust of public authorities in some communities. Creating adaptation strategies that are truly equitable and effective requires understanding the community’s needs and tailoring a climate response that can be fully embraced by the community at risk.
Policy makers must start exploring alternatives to adaptation guidelines that perpetuate inequity, such as the Army Corps of Engineers’ sole use of property value metrics when assessing which communities get flood protection, or waterfront adaptation that leads to climate gentrification. Some cities including those in the Bay Area, Atlanta and Chicago have started developing Land Trusts to ensure that affordable housing is available in the long-term, even as areas increase in value. The Land Trusts permanently own the land, but allow low-income families to enter into long-term leases and to build equity on the homes. When the time comes to move, the family sells to another qualifying low-income family and a resale formula is used to determine the amount, providing profit for the family that is selling while keeping the home affordable for other low-income families. This is one example of ways that innovative policies can foster equity alongside climate adaptation.
Engagement and Representation
Community engagement should be integrated into all steps of the adaptation process. This engagement can be broken down into three forms: outreach, consultation and deliberation. Outreach is the one-way, information sharing that comes from informing the community about climate risks or adaptation efforts, and consultation involves soliciting community feedback on draft plans and decisions. While this is important, it is essential that community engagement doesn’t just occur in the middle or end of the process, but rather is a central component from the beginning. Having community members present during the decision-making process will help identify what the community really needs. Equitable representation of community members, in terms of demographics and socioeconomic status is essential.
Another important outcome of intentional community engagement is transparent, two-way trust-building. Understanding the language, scientific literacy and culture of a community helps to build trust, and ultimately, to reduce vulnerability as a result of more successful and inclusive adaptation efforts.
Building Upon Existing Capacity
As discussed above, social capital is an important component of resilience and shared culture is one element of social capital. It is often the case that strong bonds exist in communities of color based on shared culture. While many Black communities and other communities of color lack financial capital and, thus, often do not have financial resources to build resilience, their social capital provides a solid foundation from which to build equitable, cohesive adaptation plans. Funneling resources through existing networks such as local religious groups and community cultural centers helps bolster this social capital while also allowing the organizations most informed regarding a community’s needs and trusted by its population to lead adaptation.
One example of adaptation rooted in community engagement and trust building is Baltimore’s Make a Plan, Build a Kit, Help Each Other program centered around residents sharing their stories and discussing the impacts of climate change, while working with local experts to develop preparedness plans. It is important to meet communities where they are, framing adaptation efforts around ensuring that communities have the social resources needed to prepare for climate hazards and acknowledging the wealth of insight and experience the community has to provide.
Equitable climate adaptation involves identifying areas that are on the frontlines of climate change and what they need to prepare for climate impacts. It also involves considering the implications of policy and ensuring that a disproportionate burden is not placed on frontline communities. Investing in equitable adaptation is one essential tool for addressing the disproportionate impacts of climate change on Black communities and other people of color. For too long, planning decisions have excluded communities of color, with long-term negative impacts. While more recent adaption efforts have sought to end this vicious cycle by creating a more inclusive environment for planning, communities of color still lack the political clout and funding to move projects forward. Opportunities to build partnerships with (or within) these communities, identify new funding and development models that directly address decades of exclusion, and reduce repeated loss by helping those most exposed confront climate change, must be embraced and advanced.