The future gestures for the strengthening of communities that for too long have been left behind or left out completely. Carbon emissions reductions are just one measure of global progress on climate change. Also significant are measures of national and individual health, prosperity, and wellbeing. How can changemakers, innovators and bureaucrats, build a low-carbon economy that is competitive, resilient, and fair?
The COVID-19 portal has ushered into being a future that necessitates an overall strengthening of environmental and health protections. More specifically, it has unearthed the urgent need for new laws that make central the appraisal of the cumulative impacts faced by persons living in environmentally overburdened communities. Environmental justice and economic justice are paired.
Executive Order 14008 directs all federal agencies of the United States of America to work toward “environmental justice for all”, and to improve the lives of communities deeply affected by toxic pollution and climate change. Factories and manufacturers who discharge their waste into waterways that flow through disadvantaged communities will come under closer scrutiny.
In the Rose Garden, ahead of signing this Executive Order, President Joe Biden announced that the Executive Order is about the health of communities and the wellbeing of each individual. The new Executive Order makes spatial inequality visible. The executive directive states that organizations shall make achieving environmental justice a critical component of their missions, by shaping projects, policies and interventions to address the disproportionately high and adverse human health, ecological, climate-enmeshed and other cumulative impacts on overlooked populations. It further takes into account the enduring economic problems that are loosely coupled to such impacts.
President Joe Biden signed Executive Order 14008 as part of his commitment to environmental justice. But a signed executive order needs a delivery vehicle. To this end, he has created the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council (IAC). The Order tasks the IAC with formulating a plan that addresses “current and historic environmental injustice” using a consultative process. It also requires the IAC to formulate precise performance metrics that can ensure accountability and to “publish an annual public performance scorecard” on the operation of the plan.
At the heart of this Executive Order is the notion that communities, towns, and cities are crucibles of conflict. What we can no longer easily overlook is the idea that villages, towns, and cities constitute a “corps politique” through which we have the opportunity to rebuild, not just the community, or the city, but relationships and ourselves. The production of public space involves the careful positioning of wildflower parks, the sidewalks, roads spaces between the buildings, railway stations, civic buildings, libraries, synagogues, churches, masajids, mandirs, water fountains, schools, hospitals, amphitheaters, hotels, banks, velodromes, arboreta, aquatic centres, and botanic gardens. To revisit the idea of “the city” is to contemplate the urban as a process.
Processes are more fundamental than things. Processes are always mediated through the things they make and dissolve. Understanding this is to return to the level of social processes as being fundamental to the construction of the things that contain them. The community must be understood as the production of all sorts of liberatory and emancipatory possibilities which they themselves are capable of producing.
Many cities and towns display visibly planned periods of segregation that amount to systematic disinvestment which have been made possible through inequitable policies and practices. Some of these include gentrification. In other instances, it encompasses exclusionary zoning which can displace the tax base to suburbia, leading to disinvestment in schools and other services, and deterioration of many, once-vibrant inner-city communities.
Disinvestment has contributed to unhealthy air, with many rivers frothing with residues and toxins that require treatment ahead of discharge from factories, fewer hospitals, jobs with poor work conditions, and overcrowded living in favelas. These factors have disproportionate contributing effects on life on the margins. Reducing carbon footprint is not outside of spatial inequality.
Air pollution is a widespread problem and especially harmful to minority communities living in the shade of factories and along the fence line of industrial parks. Identifying zones that are heavily affected by local pollution and by climate hazards can empower planners to target these zones with support. Environmental justice is economic justice. Zeroing out greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050 is necessary to circumvent the worst impacts of climate change.
But getting there will not be linear or easy. Decarbonizing operations is straightforward. But decarbonizing the supply chain is not. This creates a domino effect across the corporate world. The highly-anticipated Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report grounded in years of work by hundreds of scientists during the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Cycle, reiterates that every increment of warming births more unseasonable weather. Two critical focal points of the report are climate justice and climate-resilient development.
Best practices are no longer markers. There are only “Next Practices”. With this in mind, it behoves us to design forward-leaning policy measures and to mobilize sufficient finance, for communities to decrease or prevent the usage of carbon-intensive consumption methods. The greatest gains in well-being can only be realized by prioritizing climate risk reduction, and strengthening communities that for too long have been left behind, and left out completely.