Happy Earth Day, Everyone!

If we care about equity, we need to make rapid progress on climate change

Equity needs to be defined by substantive outcomes, not vacuous rhetoric and elaborate process.

Ultimately equity is about outcomes, not merely process. The demonstrable results a decade or two from now have to be measurably more equitable and just than what we have today.

The overriding priority for Earth Day is taking serious action to blunt climate change. But while there’s a growing, though still far from universal, agreement that climate change is real, there’s a problem.  Many advocates are making claims about equity an obstacle to taking decisive action to reduce greenhouse gases.  Change is always hard, especially for the powerless and disadvantaged.  But we have to find ways to save the planet, while buffering the impact on the hardest hit. Somewhat ironically, our experience with Coronavirus shows how we can tackle these twin objectives by tackling them separately and simultaneously, rather than insisting that they somehow be combined and that one be subordinated to another.

Case in point:  Last year, Portland voters considered (and rejected) a multi-billion dollar ballot measure that was a typical example example of a process that nominally simulates equity, but which does nothing to address climate change.  It has the trappings of inclusion–a process that has seats at the table for youth and people of color/frontline communities, and has the rhetoric of equity.  It has also  gone through a stilted and misleading exercise of classifying projects as equitable based on whether they happen to be near neighborhoods with high concentrations of low income people or people of color.  On this criteria, the original construction of I-5, which plowed through the middle of the region’s largest African American community would have been scored as “highly equitable.”  The cumulative result of a proposed $4 billion expenditure does nothing to reduce climate change–generating by the staff’s own estimates a five one-hundredths of one percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.  By failing in its primary task–to reduce GHGs–the result is inequitable, because the continued march of climate change will bear most heavily on low income populations.

Equity has to be about more than proximity, about glowing rhetoric, and about enervating involvement processes.

From a hyperlocal perspective, the most equitable solution might seem to be to spare frontline communities from having to do anything or bear any burden. If each local planning effort prioritizes insulating its frontline community from burden or cost, above taking effective action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, then collectively we’ll make no progress in solving our shared, global climate crisis.  As Alon Levy has persuasively argued, putting “rebuilding trust” ahead of taking action on the street is a self-defeating strategy

There’s an emerging mentality among left-wing urban planners in the US called “trust before streets.” It’s a terrible idea that should disappear, a culmination of about 50 or 60 years of learned helplessness in the American public sector. . . . The correct way forward is to think in terms of state capacity first, and in particular about using the state to enact tangible change, which includes providing better public transportation and remaking streets to be safer to people who are not driving. Trust follows – in fact, among low-trust people, seeing the state provide meaningful tangible change is what can create trust, and not endless public meetings in which an untrusted state professes its commitment to social justice.

And that will be the most inequitable outcome of all, because as everyone has stipulated, the frontline communities will bear the brunt of the costs associated with climate disruption.

Our community can’t do anything effective to reduce GHGs because it would have a disproportionate impact on our frontline communities.  Somebody else, somewhere else, ought to bear the burden of solving this problem.

But that risks being a recipe for universal inaction, or a prescription for performative but largely ineffectual policies.  When asked to come up with an example of Portland’s future climate policies, the city’s planning director highlighted a potential future mandate for electric car charging in new multi-family buildings, ignoring that a disappearingly small fraction of low income people live in new apartments, can afford electric cars, or even own cars, and that parking mandates have been shown to drive up housing costs, reduce affordability, and encourage sprawl and car-dependent development.

Equity advocates make a powerful, persuasive and true case that the effects of climate change are disproportionately felt by the poor and people of color.

In an important sense, if you’ve got enough income, you are likely to be able to escape, avoid or mitigate many of the personal negative effects of climate change. You can move to a state or neighborhood that is far from rising seas, or wildfires, or unbearable heat. Its always been the case that people with more income use it to buy nicer places to live, which is the main reason why you find nicer parks, more tree cover, lower crime and better air quality in high income neighborhoods.  Neighborhoods that don’t offer those amenities lose people who have the income to move elsewhere.  The result is that low income people end up in housing that is less pleasant, has fewer natural amenities, has higher crime, and is more likely to induce asthma–and is more vulnerable to climate change.

Things we do to reduce global levels of pollution have disproportionate benefits for the poor.  Consider eliminating lead from gasoline.  There’s an increasingly impressive body of evidence that points to the serious cognitive and behavioral effects of lead air pollution. When the federal government phased out lead as a gasoline additive in the 1980s, it had measurable effects on the school achievement and crime levels in cities around the nation, and particularly benefited kids in low income neighborhoods.  It was an inherently equitable strategy.

Yet banning lead also produced a regressive increase in the price of gasoline.  Oil companies used lead as an “anti-knock” additive because it was cheaper than blending higher octane fuels that didn’t cause pre-ignition (knocking).  Estimates are that banning lead probably drove up fuel prices about two cents a gallon or so, and as we all know, a price increase is regressive, because it bears more heavily on the poor than the rich.  But would anyone argue that it would have been more equitable, especially to the poor, to keep lead in fuel so that gas would continue to be cheap?

Those who are most vulnerable are the poor, especially the globally poor, who lack the resources to adapt or escape the effects of climate change.  A world in which we fail to slow or reverse climate change is a world that is in every meaningful sense more inequitable than the one we live in today.

There’s an important logical implication from these facts:  Strategies to reduce climate change are inherently equitable.  Some rich people may be indifferent between a world that is 2 degrees centigrade warmer than today; hundreds of millions of poor people aren’t–they will be inescapably worse off.

Helping victims is a separate tasks from innovating solutions

We have to distinguish the fundamentally different tasks of finding solutions and easing the burden of victims.  While the globally poor and communities of color are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, that fact doesn’t imbue them with any special wisdom about the solution to the problem.

Here’s an analogous situation we’ve all lived through.  Consider the coronavirus (Covid-19).  It disproportionately affects people in infected locations, and like most viruses, is especially dangerous to the elderly and those with fragile lungs and immune systems. Yet the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines did not  emerge from the personal knowledge and experience of those victims. Nothing about being a victim necessarily qualifies one to design a solution.

In fact, many of the immediate steps we need to take to minimize the spread and severity of coronavirus impinge directly on the well-being of victims.  We quarantine them.  And for the most part people in quarantine understand and agree that the personal discomfort and risk that quarantine poses for them is more than outweighed by the social good of limiting the spread of the disease. But surely no one believes that the optimal decision about whether to quarantine the passengers and crew of a cruise ship for an additional two-weeks will most optimally be made by a vote of those on-board.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t prioritize and generously aid victims. The pandemic provides another lesson about separate tasks of helping innocent victims while aggressively pursuing solutions. The US government has approved multiple trillion dollar aid packages, including a range of direct payments, forgivable business loans, extended unemployment insurance and other measures, recognizing that no one should be forced to bear the costs and dislocation caused by the need to fight the pandemic by throttling large parts of the economy.  But these efforts were independent of the effort to develop vaccines and promote social distancing.

Harking back to our example of lead in gasoline:  It’s unclear whether focus groups addressing chronically low achievement and high crime rates in urban neighborhoods in the United States in the 1970s would have identified reducing the lead content of gasoline as a high priority strategy.  For complex global problems, victimhood isn’t a substitute for science.

The key criterion for judging climate strategies has to be whether they are effective. An ineffectual strategy arrived at by a “just” process does not advance the cause of equity.

Climate change is not somehow the unique product of the continuing inequities in our society. While there’s little doubt that racism and poverty amplify and concentrate the negative effects of climate change, it is also true that vibrant, highly equal social democracies like those of Western Europe face exactly the same technical, organizational and economic challenges that the US does in fashioning and implementing climate change policies. Even in a world with a perfectly equitable distribution of income and and absence of racism, we would face the same challenge of figuring out how to reduce the level of carbon in the atmosphere.

None of this is to gainsay that we shouldn’t be sensitive to the negative effects of strategies implemented to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the poor. That’s why economists overwhelmingly favor some version of the carbon tax-and-dividend or cap-and-dividend approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A well constructed carbon tax would provide a direct method of compensating vulnerable populations who bear a disproportionate share of the impact of climate change. And unlike piecemeal and performative steps, would provide the scale of resources needed to meaningful mitigate the burdens of solving this shared global problem.