Last Thursday, I attended a talk on climate optimism which featured discussions on Chris Turner’s new book “How To Be A Climate Optimist: Blueprints For A Better World
.” and his approach to climate action. While his approach emphasizes the importance of technological advancements to overcome climate challenges, it lacks the recognition that climate change is also deeply tied to inequities, injustice, and underlying systems of oppression.
Turner’s approach to climate action seemed to separate climate change from deep-rooted inequities prevalent in society. In Turner’s words, climate change “is complicated enough” without bringing in systemic oppression that causes inequity and injustice. Turner’s perspective seems to ignore the reality that equity-deserving communities are disproportionately impacted by climate change and silo climate change away from its sociocultural impacts. While his penchant for separating the two may simplify the creation and marketing of technological innovations, climate change cannot be isolated from social inequities and injustice. Wealthy western nations are responsible for most carbon emissions, while the world’s most vulnerable countries suffer the worst of climate catastrophes.
In an urban setting, connecting the dots where low-income communities reside, especially Black and Indigenous communities, with climate change-related impacts such as urban heat islands, tree canopy, and access to air conditioning reveals an often-ignored reality of how these equity-deserving groups being disproportionately impacted.
Bringing Equity into Climate Action Conversations for a Just Transition
In the pursuit of effective climate action, it is crucial to constantly evaluate whether these efforts are exacerbating inequality or causing harm to marginalized communities that deserve equitable treatment. For example, the switch from fossil-fuel-powered vehicles to electric single-passenger vehicles (EVs) is a crucial climate action to decrease carbon emissions. However, EV adoption is inequitable in our society because of its steep prices. Even with EV availability in the market, equity-deserving groups largely rely on fossil fuel-powered cars, negatively impacting the health of their communities. Incentives and tax credits should be designed to alleviate the financial strain of climate change-related transitions and allow for an equal distribution of resources.
As Turner mentions, there are public health benefits of many climate actions, such as pandemic-era space reclamation for pedestrians that transformed into a complete re-envisioning of a streetscape in Banff to create living streets similar to woonerfs. What Turner’s approach lacks is a dedicated application of an equity lens to these co-benefits. Investment in infrastructure and advancing green development standards should benefit all communities, especially those who have traditionally been marginalized, segregated to urban areas with little or no green space, or lack capital. By recognizing that the starting point of climate action is unequal, we can create effective solutions that benefit all communities, especially traditionally marginalized communities. Technology without equity considerations cannot solve the climate crisis because it does not fix the root inequalities that an equity lens brings to light.
Clean Air Partnership has developed a resource hub to support municipal staff in applying an equity lens to various climate actions, including active transportation, green development standards, low-carbon energy planning, growth management, and land use. Check out the resource hub here.
By Heather Prest, Planning Intern