Dealing with climate change with justice and equity

We need to rethink our economy from the ground up

IN THIS EPOCH we are living in, accelerating climate change is causing  severe weather events to happen more frequently and with greater force. This includes extreme heat, which is dangerous, even deadly. Heat waves currently kill hundreds of Americans every summer and send tens of thousands more to the emergency room. The Boston Metro area currently experiences about a dozen days over 90 degrees every summer. By 2100, the city could get 90 days above 90 degrees, making it feel more like Birmingham, Alabama according to a report by WBUR. We are currently experiencing a heatwave in the greater Boston area and it is important to understand that this will be the new norm, requiring  us to  adapt to these climate related changes.
Human induced climate change is not a new phenomenon, as the planet has warmed about 1.1 degrees Celsius since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. While this does not sound like a big number, it already puts humanity outside the window of temperatures that encloses all of recorded history. The climate crisis represents an urgent and existential threat to civilization and in 2018,  the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report indicating that humanity must drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions  45 percent by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2050 if the world is to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, considered to be the most warming we could tolerate without endangering the continued existence of humans on this planet.
The failures and injustices of our economy and our actions on climate are linked and addressing climate change will require the rethinking of our economy from the ground up. We will need to address the fundamental challenges of overcoming wage and wealth inequality, expanding jobs, promoting environmental justice, improving food access and public health, promoting the rights of women and immigrants, and defending low income communities and communities of color. Achieving the goal of limiting warming to 1.5° C will protect millions of people from losing their homes to extreme weather and sea level rise, assist the many Massachusetts coastal communities that are already being damaged, reduce the portion of the world’s population experiencing water scarcity by 50%; save hundreds of millions of people in frontline communities from climate-related poverty; impede catastrophic storm and wildfire damage; and will prevent the extinction of many of the world’s insects, plants, birds, and other animals.
To be clear, the report told us at that time that the world had 12 years to curb emissions (now 9), but it does not mean that a sudden apocalypse will happen if we fail. However, failure sets us on a path towards 2 degrees of warming or more, which could happen between 2040 and 2050. It may not seem that much of a difference but at 2 degrees of global temperature, the report estimates that 153 million more people would die of air pollution than in a world warmed by 1.5 degrees.
In the urban setting, heat affects our residents disproportionately, because those with means avail themselves of trees and air conditioners, and those relegated to the denser, poorer parts of town, are left without adequate protection. As documented by Cambridge’s climate vulnerability assessment, tree canopy cover is lowest in the densest parts of the city, where most low-income tenants and Black and Brown community members reside. Climate justice requires us to address these inequities intentionally, by mitigating the dangers of heat stress while at the same time ensuring that the energy bills of low-income tenants and residents are decreased, not increased! This can be done by ensuring adequate tree canopy cover, financial assistance to make energy efficiency upgrades to existing buildings, investing in community solar with the resulting electricity discounts going specifically to low-income tenants, and by providing residents who need it with air conditioning.
We must at all times center justice and equity as we heed the dire warnings of the IPCC report and strive to prevent additional future catastrophic warming. We call on all those willing and able, to join the cause, and organize for a just and sustainable future.

Rev. Vernon K. Walker is the program manager at Communities Responding to Extreme Weather and Quinton Zondervan is a Cambridge city councillor and  climate activist.