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The Best Laid Plans are not Enough for Climate Action

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It was great to see six sessions at RSA 2023 in Ljubljana as part of a theme on Climate Change, Energy & Environmental Sustainability. Several other sessions were focused on sustainability as well. Many of the papers presented technical analyses of supporting blue or green economy initiatives. While these are much needed, we also need to focus on the politics of implementation of climate action and advancing greater equity as part of the process. My recent experience in analyzing urban climate action and commitment to equity and climate justice illustrates why. In 2022, I published an article in the Journal of the American Planning Association that examined five cities that updated their climate action plans to focus on equity and justice: Austin, Texas; Baltimore, Maryland; Cleveland, Ohio; Portland, Oregon; and Providence, Rhode Island.


Equity and urban climate action plans

Noting that equity has not been a focus of urban climate action plans in many places, I examined the extent to which each of the three elements of justice—procedural, distributive, and recognition—were incorporated by these five cities.

Shared decision-making authority was high in all five cities—all empowered residents of historically disadvantaged communities to collaborate with city planners to establish the goals of the plan (procedural equity/justice). The city planning teams spent a considerable amount of time recruiting residents to participate in planning committees and paid them for their time.

Distributional equity—how   benefits and burdens of climate action are allocated among different groups or historically vulnerable neighborhoods—can only be accurately assessed in implementation, but one can evaluate the extent to which the climate equity plan identifies metrics. A key finding here was that most of the cities saved equity metrics for a workplan or “roadmap” that is produced after the climate equity plan.

Recognition is defined several ways, but I defined it as acknowledgement—recognizing the historical context that created inequalities in the first place.  For example, the Austin Climate Equity Plan begins with a statement of how climate change is linked to “a long history of inequality and injustice perpetuated by legacies of colonialism and slavery, based on the exploitation of people, land, and nature.” Climate action, then, needs to be about undoing that harm, which all five cities stated as a goal.


Moving from plans to action

The five plans are exemplary. The problem is that cities have limited ability to act. Climate equity/justice plans are only as effective as a city’s ability to implement them. Take Austin—the Republican-dominated state legislature has preempted cities from taking many types of action that would enhance equity. This June, the legislature went so far as blocking cities from prohibiting engines (cars, mowers, etc.) that use gasoline and from changing their charters to consider climate change in purchasing and decision making. The legislature also limited the ability of cities to regulate labor, natural resources, and other ways cities could address climate change. Environmental justice bills that were proposed were ignored.

And while Providence was planning for climate justice, the state of Rhode Island approved a $180 million National Grid liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility on the industrial waterfront of Providence—an environmental justice community. Opponents pointed out that it would increase the state’s dependence on dirty shale gas obtained by hydraulic fracturing and lock in carbon emissions for the life of the facility. The Rhode Island Department of Health and several environmental and community organizations criticized the proposal, but then Governor Gina Raimundo (now Secretary of Commerce in the Biden administration) ignored their complaints. We see that city and state officials will almost always choose economic concerns over environmental or equity ones. That is the challenge of climate equity/justice planning. The bottom line is that research on the technical and planning aspects of climate action has to be grounded in analysis of the politics that will ultimately determine what gets done.



Joan Fitzgerald is a Professor in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University.  Her last book (2020), Greenovation: Urban Leadership on Climate Change, was published by Oxford University Press.  She is co-authoring a new book, Cities and the Struggle for Climate Change, also with Oxford. 


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