Keeping inequalities in mind as we adapt to a changing climate

November 16, 2018

Dear Changemakers,

While firefighters this week struggle to contain devastating wildfires in California, on the other side of the country, Florida Panhandle communities pulverized last month by Hurricane Michael continue to recover from its destruction. Such increasingly frequent climate events make clear how vigilant we must remain in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and more. And for me, they equally elevate how critical it is for leaders to help communities adapt to the consequences of our changing climate—and to do so without further exacerbating inequalities in traditionally underresourced settings.

This is the unique perspective that Urban brings to the climate change debate. We are determining what evidence-based strategies local leaders need to help their communities withstand the impacts of climate events without disproportionately hurting already-struggling families and neighborhoods. Our approach was part of a recent Bank of America discussion on resilient cities that I had the pleasure of joining with Jeff Goodell, author of The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World; Dan Lashof from the World Resources Institute; and Mahesh Ramanujam of the US Green Building Council; among others. Even as these leaders are being mindful of addressing people’s impact on the climate, they are looking at the importance of climate adaptation. And I continue to learn from them.

What I know is that it’s clear that if left unabated, increasingly powerful shifts in our climate—massive storms, unprecedented flooding, frequent fires—will continue to physically transform all regions throughout the US. And communities need to prepare. But, for instance, while building resilience to rising sea levels by elevating roads and installing flood water pumps might be the approach taken by Miami Beach, I am more worried about how families in low-lying areas in the less affluent Homestead and Opa-locka communities prepare for the impact of “sunny day flooding.”

Urban is imagining a more inclusive and optimistic future than the dire effects of global climate change may project. Under the leadership of senior fellow Carlos Martín and his team, we envision preparations that provide a range of options for different communities and households depending on their historical assets and their desires for their own life outcomes and social cohesion. That could mean they take one of these actions:

  • Defend. Shield themselves against climate’s effects with an appropriate combination of major infrastructure and land planning.
  • Accommodate. Minimize the impacts of climate events by expanding social and financial tools like improved property insurance or through physical interventions such as wetlands conservation and building elevations.
  • Retreat. Relocate en masse away from the riskiest effects of climate change.
  • Do nothing. Prepare to recover from the effects using the current kit of disaster preparations and recovery tools.

In all cases, individual communities must have agency in making decisions about where, how, and how much to adapt to weather impacts. And local leaders must consider long-term social and economic stressors as they work to ensure that all families, regardless of their zip code, can be prepared for the chronic and acute environmental effects of our changing climate.

I’m excited about this expanding—and timely—area of work for Urban and hope you’ll stay tuned as we share what we learn.

Warmly,
Sarah

The entire Urban Institute family mourns the death of Terrence Laughlin, an Urban trustee and Bank of America vice chairman and head of Global Wealth and Investment Management. Terry was instrumental in organizing the resilient cities event, in which I participated. More important, Urban has benefited greatly from his board service. It was a privilege to have Terry as a colleague and a champion of our work.