I recently attended the first nationwide meeting on climate change adaptation, called the National Adaptation Forum, in Denver, Colo. This was a meeting of people from diverse backgrounds, all working on the same global issue — how to plan for and respond to the accelerating and inevitable impacts of climate change. There were sessions on biodiversity, water resources, tribal lands, coastal areas, social equity issues, infrastructure, coastal property rights and many other topics.
I attended a powerful session on social equity and an eye-opening session on impacts to Native American tribes. Here is what I learned:
Social equity — Climate change is expected to greatly increase the frequency of severe storms like hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. While hurricanes are blind to race and income level, lower-income populations and people of color are disproportionately affected because they often live in more vulnerable areas, have lower-quality construction, don't have sufficient transportation for evacuation and have a long history of distrust of authority so they are less likely to receive help.
These storms and other natural disasters act to increase the division between races and income levels. They exacerbate already volatile social equity issues and bring to the surface long histories of racism and discrimination. Women with children are often impacted most from both the storm and the violence that occurs afterwards.
Tribes — Climate change is already severely impacting Native American tribes. The Hopi and Navajo, for example, have lost large tracts of land to desertification from climate change. The Pointe-au-Chien, Swinomish and other coastal tribes are losing extensive amounts of reservation lands to sea level rise.
Native villages in Alaska, heavily reliant on subsistence hunting and foraging that have supported native people for thousands of years, are having to turn to packaged foods, which cost more and lead to diabetes and other health problems. Many people have compared climate change to yet another trail of tears, as native people lose the already inadequate amounts of land and resources they have jurisdiction over. The impacts to many tribes are happening now, not 40-80 years in the future. And they are expected to get worse over time.
Climate change is already hitting the most vulnerable populations the hardest, and widening the divide between haves and have nots. It is exacerbating centuries of injustices and prejudice that many people have endured.
I see climate change as an opportunity to relate to one another in new ways. Ways that acknowledge and take responsibility for the wrongs that have been done to so many people.
We cannot tackle climate change if we continue to think of it as an environmental problem that upper-class white people can legislate their way out of. It needs to be tackled at the local community level, in a way that increases trust, communication and understanding of our shared history. And in a way that increases opportunity, resilience and power among the powerless. And in a way that forces the fossil fuels industry to pay the real cost of their pollution directly to those most affected.
The Citizens Climate Lobby offers a powerful solution for reducing emissions over time. Their fee-and-dividend approach returns a fee on fossil fuels to the American people, thereby leveling the playing field with renewable energy and preventing inordinate impacts of rising fuel prices on lower-income families. In addition to fee and dividend, however, we need to work across race and income lines to create leadership on climate change that stems from all walks of life.
With collaborative and inclusive leadership on the issue, and an agenda that addresses the injustices of the past, we can ensure that our response to climate change results in greater equity and power distribution, rather than greater impacts to those who can least afford them.
Marni Koopman, Ph.D., is a climate change scientist and wildlife biologist for the Geos Institute. She lives in Ashland.