A More Precise Definition of Climate Justice

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Tompkins Weekly 6-9-21

By Luis Aguirre Torres

It was the night before what was meant to be one of the most important dates of my professional life. I was expected at the White House at 9 a.m., where I was going to be recognized as Champion of Change for my work on climate justice in Latin America. We were about to shed an important light on a matter that had remained hidden in plain sight for many years.

I was standing outside the hotel when I was suddenly arrested for suspicious behavior. Somebody complained about “someone fitting my description” lingering outside the hotel. I was cuffed, arrested and interviewed for several hours.

I was standing at the intersection of climate and social justice, a 12-hour lesson on race relations in America. I had been working for many years on climate justice, which was the only reason I was standing there. But I had been a minority for much longer, and that was the reason I was no longer standing.

Luis Aguirre Torres. Photo provided.

Sometimes, minorities are uncomfortably visible (to some), and sometimes, they are comfortably invisible (to others). One is an issue of social justice and the other an issue of climate justice. It is the latter that, for now, occupies my mind.

We would like to think we have come a long way, but the truth is that we have not. We would like to, though, so much so that the president of the United States has made a point of it at every opportunity, using phrases like “climate justice is at the very core of the federal government’s climate change policy.”

In fact, on Jan. 27, the president officially announced Justice40, an initiative meant to deliver 40% “of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities.”

Well, that is all good, except for the fact that we do not know what is really meant by “overall benefits,” “relevant” and, perhaps more importantly, “disadvantaged communities.”

This issue is not new; in politics, the lack of precision is not uncommon. This is done so meaning can be extracted from context as convenient.

Also on Jan. 27, the Center for American Progress convened environmental and climate justice advocates to identify different actions the federal government should consider within the context of Justice40. Together, they identified the values and benefits that the initiative should deliver, divided into four groups: healthy communities and pollution reduction; climate justice and resilience; just transition; and allowing communities to speak for themselves.

A key recommendation made was to better identify disadvantaged and environmental justice communities. Specifically, they recommended that the White House include pollution burden and exposure, health and socioeconomic indicators. They recommended extending protections against compounding carbon emissions while also considering “those not currently overburdened with pollution but that because of race and income are more vulnerable to becoming overburdened.”

I would add that it must be extended to those who because of race, income, level of education, English language proficiency, cultural differences, historical inequities, homeownership, financial inclusion and access to health and unemployment benefits may be more susceptible to the adverse effects of climate change. That is, we should consider all that makes life in America more difficult for some groups.

The problem, as Kenneth Prewitt of Columbia University points out, is that when gathering information to properly identify such groups, we encounter operational issues, partisan interference and deliberate disruption.

Gathering data in this country is a political act, just as much as governing is. We gather data in a way that makes future assessments reflect the effectiveness of some programs. The problem is that for smaller communities that rely on state or federal data to make local policy decisions, politically driven data gathering will do nothing to advance social, climate and environmental justice at the local level. If anything, it sets it back.

New York is currently working on this issue. The Climate Justice Working Group, in its advisory role to the Climate Action Council, is trying to identify how to deliver on the promise of directing resources “in a manner designed to ensure that disadvantaged communities receive at least 35%, with the goal of 40%, of overall benefits.”

While the work is ongoing, a proper definition of climate justice community is, as of this moment, lacking. Perhaps more importantly, meaningful metrics of progress are still to be identified.

Massachusetts, on the other hand, just went ahead and did it. According to Senate Bill 2995, the state is considering both environmental and socio-economic factors in the definition of environmental justice population, including household income, percentage of minorities, lack of English language proficiency, percentage of minorities in well-off neighborhoods, allowing also for partial designations in some of them.

In my opinion, this is just a good start as the definition remains insufficient and needs to be further expanded.

In New York, the definition of climate justice communities still needs to be more specific and allow for greater contextualization. This is particularly true in places like Ithaca, which offer dramatic contrasts with some of the surrounding communities, and where the census information is skewed by a disproportionate student population and by the difference in household income and homeownership and where minorities have been gentrified out of the city, despite it being the only place of potential employment for most of them.

My job as director of sustainability for the city of Ithaca is to work with the community in the implementation of the Ithaca Green New Deal, which includes the goal of “ensuring benefits are shared among all local communities to reduce historical social and economic inequities.”

That is, we need to make sure that climate justice is at the core of everything we do to guarantee a just transition to a new carbon-free economy. However, we have a problem: we do not have precise enough data to properly identify climate justice communities. It does not mean we are not doing it; it just means we could do better if we had more precise data.

I believe we cannot continue to rely on inadequate or insufficient data to identify those communities historically affected by the rapid changes in the economy. If we were to continue doing that, there is a risk of never being able to deliver on the Green New Deal promise.

Instead, I believe we may continue to perpetuate climate injustice, never accounting for the historical inequities and inequality that make some communities more vulnerable. That is, minorities as well as other disadvantaged communities would continue to remain invisible (to some) and unable to be part of the transformation.

Perhaps, we should take matters into our own hands and decide, while relying on local data, what indicators better identify environmental and climate justice communities in Tompkins County. That way, we could account for the right environmental and socio-economic indicators that better describe those in our community who are or can become overburdened by the effects of climate change.

Following my arrest, I was still able to make my appointment at the White House. Upon arriving, somebody asked me how my trip was going, to which I responded: it is about to get better.

Luis Aguirre Torres is the Director of Sustainability for the City of Ithaca.

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