Equity in Adaptation

What is Equity in Adaptation?

Equitable adaptation ensures that adaptation efforts do not unfairly advantage some populations over others. It recognizes that climate change is a risk multiplier, disproportionately affecting already vulnerable people and areas, such as those with lower incomes; substandard housing; poor access to health care, transportation, or healthy food; the elderly and disabled; communities of color; the underinsured; and those living in environmentally degraded areas. The resilience and adaptability of such populations has often been eroded by lack of investment and a historic legacy of racism, classism, and segregation, leaving them more vulnerable to climate-related risks such as displacement, economic and social disruption, and loss of access to goods and services. Equitable adaptation focuses on adaptation efforts that reduce climate risks to underserved populations, thus contributing to a more just, equitable, and resilient society.

How does Equitable Adaptation Policy work?

  • Use accounting methods that account for equity and environmental justice. Traditional benefit-cost and cost-effectiveness analyses do not adequately address equity and environmental justice. Although useful, they should not be the sole economic analysis informing planning and decision making. For example, multi-criteria analysis can allow stakeholders’ concerns to be explicitly incorporated into decision making, making visible the relative weight given to those concerns relative to other concerns such as direct costs. Equity and distribution analysis is another approach that focuses on how proposed alternatives affect underserved individuals, households, and neighborhoods, as well as who will bear the costs and who will benefit. For example, Asheville, North Carolina combined climate impact maps and maps of vulnerable populations to prioritize where to take action. Using a social-welfare-equivalent discount rate rather than a finance-equivalent discount rate to evaluate actions provides a clearer approach to incorporating ethical considerations into decision making.
  • Prioritize vulnerable and underserved communities for adaptation funding and action, especially those that provide the triple win of mitigation, adaptation, and reducing inequities. For example, expanding access to rooftop and community solar energy projects, increasing building efficiency standards for low-income housing, and supporting energy efficiency upgrades for low-income housing and households can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, decrease vulnerability to heat waves and cold snaps, and reduce “energy poverty.”
  • Actively identify and engage vulnerable and underserved communities as part of adaptation planning and implementation. This should happen early in the process of developing policies, strategies, and projects and be sustained throughout decision making and implementation. Outreach and engagement should be culturally sensitive and make use of multiple modalities such as written, spoken, and graphical approaches. Be deliberate about who gets to define risks and benefits.
  • Reduce cumulative impacts and address existing stressors. This may include reducing current and legacy pollutant levels; increasing the availability of local, fresh, and healthy food; improving access to health care; and increasing the resilience of community infrastructure. Certain stressors, such as water (access and affordability) and energy (affordability), may become increasingly worse under climate change and could be prioritized for action.
  • Where relevant, support and incorporate traditional land and water management approaches into adaptation projections.

Key design considerations

How will adaptation equity and environmental justice be incorporated into federal policies, strategies, and projects? Should the focus be on adaptation-specific actions across agencies? On all actions across agencies?

To what extent should robust and authentic community participation be mandated vs. encouraged? How can the quality of engagement be evaluated?

Who gets to define climate risk and resilience? How if at all should multiple views of risk and resilience be incorporated into policies, strategies, and projects?

What pre-existing vulnerabilities should be addressed as part of equitable adaptation? How can we avoid mislabeling actions to reduce pre-existing conditions that are not climate ready as adaptation?

U.S. Experience

EPA’s Urban Waters Program (https://www.epa.gov/urbanwaters) takes a multi-pronged approach to increasing community-based restoration of urban waters, with a particular focus on underserved communities. The program aims for environmental, community, and economic benefits. It has multiple grant programs, including one specifically targeting environmental justice, as well as a robust online Learning Network.

The 2014 Principles, Requirements, and Guidelines (PR&G) for federal investments in water resources mandate that alternatives be evaluated relative to their contributions to the federal objective and guiding principles, including environmental justice. There must be full disclosure of tradeoffs and a documented rationale for selecting the preferred alternative given the tradeoffs. Each agency is required to update its procedure as needed to apply the new PR&G to their agency-specific missions. The 2017 USDA manual on how to analyze federal investments in water resources is a good example of this. (https://www.ocio.usda.gov/sites/default/files/docs/2012/DM9500-013_final.pdf).

The EPA’s Climate Ready Estuaries program funded the development and testing of COAST (Coastal Adaptation to Sea level rise Tool), which provides spatially explicit accounting and visualization of climate risks and adaptation costs and benefits, down to the level of real estate parcels. The ability of stakeholders to visualize how climate change would affect places with which they were familiar and to see which parcels would benefit from different adaptation options promoted specific and informed debates about equity and fairness. https://www.cascobayestuary.org/publication/coast-action-2012-projects-maine-new-hampshire/

Additional Resources

Equitable and Just National Climate Program: https://ajustclimate.org/

Georgetown Climate Center’s Equitable Adaptation Legal and Policy Toolkit (to be released late July 2020): https://www.georgetownclimate.org/articles/equitable-adaptation-toolkit-about.html

Tribal Climate Change Project: https://tribalclimate.uoregon.edu/

U.S. Climate and Health Alliance: https://usclimateandhealthalliance.org/

Accent Image - Leaf 4