Dec 28, 2020

Making sure climate solutions don’t make more problems

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The technology that could help us survive is not being evenly distributed.

We’ve been looking at how technology can help us adapt to climate change as part of our series “How We Survive.” One big problem is the technology that could help us survive is not being evenly distributed.

Environmental justice is the idea that the effects of climate change are disproportionately felt in poor countries, poor communities, and often by people of color. 

So building resilience can’t only be about one home, one tribal chapter, one town at a time. Melissa Roberts is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit American Flood Coalition. She says some people and communities will be able to pay to lift their homes or take other measures to avoid floodwaters. “And those with the least means who are often in harm’s way already won’t be able to do those things,” Roberts said. “That’s just not a system that makes our community or country resilient. And that just is not fair.”

In fact, Roberts said, when it comes to flooding in particular, sometimes adaptation can make things better for one place and worse for another. “Water often has to go somewhere. So when one community builds a levee next to a river that can overtop and flood the community, that levee will prevent the water from coming into the community it’s protecting. But once it gets pushed back from that community, it can actually rebound and make the flooding worse in surrounding communities that don’t have levees.” 

This idea that wealthier communities create adaptation measures that can actually hurt other, poorer towns? Jalonne White-Newsome says this is not a new problem. She works with water systems at the Kresge Foundation. “You can look over the past decades and see that it is the same communities, the same folks that continue to get the short end of the stick.”

She said that systemic inequality simply won’t work for climate adaptation because even if some people move away or some towns pay for resilience measures and expect the people left behind to deal with the changing climate, “ultimately this is going to be an even larger burden on society and an even larger burden on the economic line of many of these communities. Because you’re going to have to pay for it eventually.”

President-elect Joe Biden has made environmental justice a major element of the climate policies he’s proposing. In fact, his pick for head of the Environmental Protection Agency created an environmental justice and equity board in North Carolina back in 2018.

Of course, the type of systemic change that Roberts and White-Newsome are calling for takes policy, awareness and the participation of business. And big tech companies are starting to make resilience and adaptation part of their portfolios. You can learn more about that in our hourlong climate special. Listen and read here.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer