In recent days, the nation watched in horror as an unprecedented winter storm wreaked havoc on Texas’s energy infrastructure, leaving residents without power in sub-freezing temperatures for days on end. We later learned that the state came within a hair’s breadth of a truly catastrophic failure that could have put parts of the grid in the dark for months.
The most effective method of minimizing the impacts of climate change on human wellbeing is ensuring that everyone’s basic needs are met. And presently, our cities have a very long way to go toward meeting this end.
The human impacts of the crisis were devastating: News outlets reported dozens of deaths resulting from the inescapable freezing temperatures, including that of an eleven-year-old boy. This crisis revealed the stunning ill-preparedness of the state’s energy grid, and an approach to energy policy that prioritized avoiding regulatory burdenabove all else.
But the profound impact that the disaster wrought on the most vulnerable illuminated another important lesson about resilience to the impacts of climate change. As is always the case in such disasters, the storm took the greatest toll on people at the margins: A disproportionate number of those that perished were homeless or elderly, and the eleven-year-old was the son of poor Honduran immigrants, living in a forty-year-old, poorly insulated trailer.
These are the people that a social safety net should catch, people who should have access to robust government programs that reduce the precariousness of their daily existence. In the face of increasingly frequent and intense dangerous weather events—whether “once-in-a-century” hurricanes, wildfires, or winter storms—efforts to adapt to these impacts and build community resilience must center around meeting people’s basic needs.
Cities have stepped into the leadership void over the past two decades, as it has become increasingly clear that a federal response to climate change was, at best, meek and, at worst, disastrously harmful.
Most major U.S. cities now have climate adaptation plans, which seek to address the impacts of climate change that the city is likely to experience in the coming decades. These plans tend to hinge on infrastructural upgrades: cities like New York and Miami prioritize seawalls and green infrastructure to guard against hurricane tides; cities in the Midwest focus on robust infrastructure for green energy and stormwater control to cope with increasingly intense rainfall; many western cities include plans to minimize wildfire risk.
Across the board, nearly all of these plans—at least ostensibly—consider the social dimensions of vulnerability as well, noting that the most vulnerable neighborhoods are generally the poorest and usually predominantly non-white, recognizing that structural injustices produce a very different set of vulnerabilities for poor and wealthy communities.
But while these efforts are undoubtedly important, these plans tend to miss a critical point: The most effective method of minimizing the impacts of climate change on human wellbeing is ensuring that everyone’s basic needs are met. And presently, our cities have a very long way to go toward meeting this end.
Last year, the Coalition for the Homeless Houston counted more than 3,500homeless people in Harris County, 1,500 of whom were not living in shelters. Living utterly exposed to the whims of extreme weather events, houseless individuals, unsurprisingly, were disproportionately more likely to be harmed by heat waves, air pollution, and flood events.
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And these impacts are compounded by the fact that climate change is driving up homelessness. The elderly, including many people who live alone on a fixed income, are similarly disproportionately vulnerable to these impacts.
Rather than viewing climate change as a wholly novel threat, we must understand it as a force that magnifies existing stresses brought about by grievous wealth inequality, institutional racism, and an eviscerated social safety net—the products of racial capitalism.
Mitigating these impacts requires treating these social ills with the urgency they deserve; it means we must attend to the structural injustices that immiserate so much of this country.True climate adaptation is Medicare for all, housing for all, a guaranteed living wage, robust unemployment and disability insurance—not quite as sexy as massive sea walls, but very effective at keeping people alive.
There are grave dangers in advancing a climate adaptation agenda that is not guided by these principles, an agenda that focuses primarily on employing technocratic fixes to preserve the status quo and ensure continued economic growth. Such an approach may result in a localized version of what Christian Parenti describes as the politics of the armed lifeboat: a response to climate change in which the wealthy insulate themselves, and the world’s poor are left to bear the brunt of the impacts.
This is not to say that city-level climate adaptation plans all miss the mark. In recent years, several cities have used climate action planning as an opportunity to address these core issues.Chicago’s resilience plan, for example, lays out a strategy to expand affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods, and Providence’s plan aims to permanently end all utility shut offs, ensuring that the city’s residents are never without water or heat.
But even the most radical proposals are not nearly sufficient, and are often so watered down that they merely gesture at progressive policies. Case in point: Oakland’s draft climate action plan, released last spring, included a commitment to making public transit free for low-income residents by 2030, and all residents by 2040. In the final version, however, this commitment has simply disappeared. Oh, and Providence’s target date to end utility shut offs? 2040.
Most of these plans thus fail utterly to meet the scale of the crisis with a commensurate response. Climate adaptation planning should focus first and foremost on advancing programs that provide basic services to the most marginalized, ensuring that everyone has food on the table, adequate access to medical services, and a safe place to sleep.
This proposition is not radical. In fact, it should be blindingly obvious that community resilience requires that everyone be able to survive all of life’s shocks and stresses, regardless of whether they relate to climate change. But in the United States, with our threadbare safety net, the implication of this premise is a call for transformational progressive politics. To mitigate the impacts of future catastrophes like that which struck Texas in February, we need a drastic expansion of government programs to meet everyone’s basic needs.
To adequately prepare for the accelerating catastrophe, we must reject purely technocratic solutions and reenvision adaptation as an opportunity to ensure that all of our neighbors have the resources that they need to thrive.