Social equity, a concept also known as environmental justice, is the fair treatment and involvement of all people and communities—regardless of race, gender, national origin, or income level—in the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.
Social equity addresses issues of unequal distribution of resources such as clean air, water, housing, and public space. In climate adaptation, the higher vulnerability and risk of damage from storms for some populations is an issue of social equity. Additionally, the exclusion of people or groups from full participation in making decisions about climate adaptation based on their income, neighborhood, or social status is a social equity issue.
Environmental conditions and the availability of economic opportunities both contribute to a neighborhood’s ability to deal with climate-related events and disasters.
During the devastating 1995 heat wave in Chicago, several low-income neighborhoods that lacked air conditioning experienced some of the highest rates of mortality in the city. In contrast, Auburn Gresham—also a low-income neighborhood without air conditioning—reported lower mortality than some of the more affluent communities.
The difference that mattered was in the level of neighborhood interaction, a measure sometimes referred to as social capital. In Auburn Gresham, sidewalks, stores, adequate housing, and community organizations had nurtured a community where residents knew one another and checked on the elderly, sick, and vulnerable. Where community interaction was lacking, however, vulnerable people remained isolated.
Improving environmental conditions and economic opportunities can promote social interactions and build relationships that increase resilience during crises.
Addressing a range of concerns
In places where marginalized groups face increased risk from storms, flooding, or other climate-related events, local groups can raise awareness and nurture grassroots efforts by advocating for improvement across a range of issues.
An example comes from the community of Galena Park, Texas—a refinery town along the Houston Ship Channel—where a large minority community with low socioeconomic levels was dealing with issues of poor air quality. The community also had other issues, such as limited of access to medical care, few options for purchasing fresh foods, and limited access to bus service in and out of town. Advocacy groups recognized they wouldn't be able to attract and sustain a grassroots effort to improve conditions if they focused only air quality. They could, however, be effective if they connected their efforts with solutions for other issues in the community.
Environmental organizations are recognizing the value of spending sufficient time and resources in building and supporting local grassroots groups. Bundling efforts to build climate resilience with other solutions and co-benefits is one strategy to promote social equity.
In response to its vulnerability to extreme climate events, as well as ongoing social issues, New York City has initiated a sustainable development plan to advance the city’s growth and resiliency. The plan aims to improve the city’s physical infrastructure, economy, and quality of life while reducing its contributions to climate change and enhancing its resilience to climate change impacts.
The effort incorporates social justice by acknowledging the need to assist lower-income communities if they are to participate fully, so that the plan can succeed. The New York City plan has prompted other cities, municipalities, and local communities to adopt similar strategies to integrate social equity into policy.
Building on diverse efforts and initiatives such as those described above, people are beginning to incorporate measures and enact policies that can move communities toward social equity in climate adaptation. Past and current responses to impacts of short-term climate variability and extreme events can serve as a starting point for reducing vulnerability to longer-term impacts of climate change for all communities.
- American Society of Landscape Architects, 2016: Professional Practice Networks: Environmental Justice. Accessed August 2016.
- Burton, I., E. Malone, and S. Huq, 2004: Adaptation Policy Frameworks for Climate Change: Developing Strategies, Policies and Measures. B. Lim and E. Spanger-Siegfried, Eds., United Nations Development Programme. Cambridge University Press, 248 pp.
- Goldfarb, B., 2013: An Advocate in Pursuit of Environmental Justice at EPA. Yale Environment 360, accessed August 2016.
- GreenBiz, 2015: New York City’s plan to fuse sustainability, social equity and resilience. SustainableBusiness, accessed August 2016.
- Island Press and The Kresge Foundation, 2015: Resilience Defined. In Bounce Forward: Urban Resilience in the Era of Climate Change, 11–18.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2016: Environmental Justice. Accessed August 2016.