The fight against climate change may be taking a striking new turn under the Biden administration. The White House is calling climate action a form of environmental justice, part of a campaign to address economic and racial inequity.
It's bringing new attention and, potentially, a flood of cash to low-tech approaches to climate action that directly benefit low-income neighborhoods. They include aid for home renovations and upgrades to city transportation infrastructure, including buses.
"The environmental justice community, and many of our Black and brown communities, have identified the connection between climate change and their own community infrastructure. They can't be disconnected," says Cecilia Martinez, senior director for environmental justice at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Yet this shift in focus has its roots far from Washington, says Matt Gray, formerly chief of sustainability in Cleveland. "What we're seeing now at a national level has bubbled up from the cities for a good six, seven years," says Gray, now senior vice president of programs at the Student Conservation Association, which runs environmental volunteer programs. "A lot of cities have come to realize that climate action and climate justice are one and the same."
Among those cities is Cleveland. A few years ago, it explicitly linked climate policy and social equity. The story of how it developed this new approach helps explain what "climate justice" means in practice.
Gray says he thinks that it offers lessons to other cities — and to the Biden administration. For Cleveland, the White House's infrastructure proposals offer the biggest opportunity in years to advance its goals for both equity and climate change. "It's a sea change," says Mike Foley, director of sustainability for Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland. "There's actually resources now to do some of this stuff, which is a real game changer."
Climate change in the "green city on a blue lake"
Cleveland is tied with Detroit for the highest level of poverty among America's large cities. Its population has been declining for a half-century. Amid these challenges, it adopted a "climate action plan" with ambitious targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The "green city on a blue lake," as the city's boosters like to describe it, recently set a goal of relying completely on renewable energy by 2050.
Cleveland adopted its first climate plan in 2013, and Gray says it was similar to those of most other cities at the time. These "version 1" plans were a kind of accounting exercise, calculating each city's greenhouse emissions and laying out technical paths toward reducing them.
But in 2018, city officials scrapped the old plan and launched an effort to come up with a new one, this time with a focus on social and racial equity.
It was, in part, a response to critics such as Kimberly Foreman, executive director of Environmental Health Watch. Foreman says that the discussions of climate policy have long been disconnected from low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. "It was a little elitist, right?" she says. "Or heavily focused on technology. Which is not getting down to the grassroots, or getting down to the people who are most impacted."
For climate-focused officials such as Gray, there was another, more practical reason for the plan's revision. "It was hard to get climate to the top of the agenda because of all these other major challenges, which do deserve a lot of attention," he says.
City officials began their climate policy reboot with a series of community meetings. According to Bianca Butts, then with the nonprofit group Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, the meetings opened with questions seemingly unrelated to climate: "What are you concerned about in your neighborhood? Right here in West Park? Right here in Hough?"
It was Butts' job to connect those neighborhood concerns to climate-relevant action. "Before we started these conversations, I was absolutely fearful that our message wasn't going to land," she recalls.
Cindy Mumford, in the Hough neighborhood, liked it. "The way that they presented it, I thought, was brilliant," she says, "that we had a voice into climate control, bettering our community as a whole."
Hough, like many neighborhoods in Cleveland, could use some help. A century ago, its streets were lined with four- or five-story brick apartment buildings and stately Victorians. Today, many of those buildings have disappeared, replaced by empty lots covered with grass. Many that remain are in disrepair.
"It is a neighborhood that was devastated by what I can only call tenement housing," Mumford's neighbor Deborah Lewis says as the two women lead a walking tour of Hough in the rain.
One destructive force was redlining, when lenders refused to finance home purchases in neighborhoods where Black people lived. A map of Cleveland that the federally backed Home Owners' Loan Corp. released in 1940, purporting to show mortgage lending risk, showed Hough in red, labeled a high-risk area. The accompanying description explains that Black people were moving into the area.
In the following decades, property owners stopped investing in Hough. Some stopped maintaining their buildings. "Left the buildings abandoned," Mumford says, walking down 73rd Street past newer homes that have replaced some of those apartments. "For years! For years, we were plagued by these eyesores."
The disinvestment and decay happened in many parts of Cleveland. The city's population has fallen by more than half over the past 70 years, from 900,000 to just under 400,000.
Mumford attended the city's climate workshop looking for ways to revitalize her neighborhood, and she got excited about the potential of "community solar." Such projects allow people to buy a share in a larger solar project.
Mumford and Lewis now are working with several organizations in Cleveland, gathering support and financing to get it off the ground. Dozens of their neighbors have signed up to participate. They see the project delivering clean energy, jobs during the construction phase, and ownership of a valuable asset. "It increases the interest in the neighborhood. And it increases the interest of people being in the neighborhood," Lewis says.
At other neighborhood climate meetings, people talked about widespread health problems such as asthma and the challenges of big utility bills, about the need for more trees, green spaces and a better bus system.
SeMia Bray, co-facilitator of a recently founded group in Cleveland called Black Environmental Leaders, attended some meetings to make sure that it wasn't just experts talking to one another, with residents watching from the sidelines. "I was relieved," she says. "I was encouraged that people did not feel hopeless. They came to the table, unfiltered, and said what they believed to be the needs within their community."
Three things rose to the top of Cleveland's climate action priorities: housing, transit and trees.
Nationwide, homes are responsible for about a fifth of the country's greenhouse emissions, because of fossil fuels burned to power home heating, cooling and cooking. Energy bills are a greater burden in Cleveland's poorest neighborhoods, in part because many homes lack energy-saving insulation or modern, efficient appliances. Renovating those homes can solve many problems at once: removing lead and fixing other health hazards while cutting fossil fuel use.
"I feel like that's our lowest hanging fruit and also the way to have the largest impact in disinvested communities, communities that are struggling," says Tony Reames, director of the Urban Energy Justice Lab at the University of Michigan.
Better public transportation, including more frequent bus service, shared bikes and neighborhood planning that makes places more walkable, can level life's playing field for people who lack cars or can't drive. "Transit is the crux of opportunity," Reames says. It offers access to jobs, health care and recreation.
A dense and well-maintained tree canopy, meanwhile, can help provide cooling shade as well as cleaner air. That's increasingly helpful in a warmer climate, with more frequent heat waves, and it offers lifesaving benefits in low-income neighborhoods where many homes lack air conditioning.
Neighborhoods where people of color predominate, or where many earn less than the poverty line, are much more likely to experience hotter temperatures, according to a recent study. Other studies have found that such neighborhoods have fewer trees, on average, which is likely part of the reason.
In Cleveland, some of those disparities go back to the history of redlining, says Sandra Albro, director of community partnerships for Holden Forests & Gardens, a prominent local arboretum. "If you drive across the eastern border of Cleveland, into Cleveland Heights or Shaker Heights, you'll go from about 20% tree canopy to 40%," Albro says. "That's where the redline border was."
Yet Cleveland, like many cities, lacks the resources to build all this new infrastructure. City officials say that in the past, they've looked in vain for help from state and federal governments. Ohio's Republican-controlled state government, in particular, has provided little funding for transit and has blocked efforts to promote expansion of wind and solar power.
"It's like we're going uphill, going against the wind," Bray says. "We're trying to get to large-scale carbon reduction, but there's this wind of state regulation, there's this hill of not enough resources."
Gray, the city's former sustainability chief, says that "the only way to get to scale for cities like Cleveland, I feel, is through a lot of federal support."
There's now a glimmer of hope that federal support might materialize. The Biden administration's infrastructure proposal, which it's calling the American Jobs Plan, echoes Cleveland's climate priorities. That package, which requires approval from Congress, includes more than $200 billion to build or retrofit homes; $85 billion for public transit, along with another $20 billion for transportation projects that would specifically help disadvantaged communities; and $100 billion for clean energy.
"We plan to retrofit 2 million homes and commercial buildings. This is about meeting the moment, folks!" Gina McCarthy, Biden's top climate adviser, said at a recent meeting on energy-efficient buildings.
There's no guarantee as yet that money will flow to their city. Republicans in Congress included little of this funding in their version of an infrastructure package. McCarthy has worried publicly that the administration might be forced to drop some climate-related spending in order to get an infrastructure bill through Congress. Officials in Cleveland, however, still sound thrilled.
"To have support, to implement some of the things we all know we need to do, is fantastic," says Jason Wood, Cleveland's current chief of sustainability. "We have spent a big chunk of the last decade-plus preparing ourselves to take advantage of the moment."
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