Democrats Want to Fight Climate Change by Closing the ‘Digital Divide’
By Maddie Stone
One of the starkest inequalities exposed by the coronavirus pandemic is the difference between the digital haves and have-nots. Those with a fast internet connection are more able to work and learn remotely, stay in touch with loved ones, and access critical services like telemedicine. For the millions of Americans who live in an internet dead zone, fully participating in society in the age of social distancing has become difficult if not impossible.
But if the pandemic has laid bare America's so-called "digital divide," climate change will only worsen the inequality that stems from it. As the weather grows more extreme and unpredictable, wealthy urban communities with faster, more reliable internet access will have an easier time responding to and recovering from disasters, while rural and low-income Americans — already especially vulnerable to the impacts of a warming climate — could be left in the dark.
Unless, that is, we can bring everyone's internet up to speed, which is what Democratic lawmakers on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis are now hoping to do.
Buried in a sweeping, 538-page climate change plan the committee released last month is a call to expand and modernize the nation's telecommunications infrastructure in order to prepare it, and vulnerable communities around the country, for future extreme weather events and climate disruptions. The plan calls for increasing broadband internet access nationwide with the goal of getting everyone connected, updating the country's 911 emergency call systems, and ensuring cellular communications providers are able to keep their networks up and running amid hurricane force winds and raging wildfires. This plan isn't the first to point out that America's internet infrastructure is in dire need of an upgrade, but it is unusual to see lawmakers frame better internet access as an important step toward building climate resilience.
To Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at the moderate public policy think tank Third Way, this framing makes perfect sense. "You've got to build resilience into communities but also people," Kessler said. "And you can't do this without people having broadband and being connected digitally."
While the internet is often described as a great equalizer, access to the web has never been equal. High-income people have faster internet access than low-income people, urban residents are more connected than rural ones, and whiter counties are more likely to have broadband than counties with more Black and brown residents. And we're not just talking about a few digital stragglers being left behind: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates that more than 18 million Americans lack access to fast broadband, which the agency defines as a 25 megabits per second download speed and 3 megabits per second upload speed. Monica Anderson, who studies the digital divide at Pew Research Center, says that many more Americans do have broadband access in their area but don't subscribe because it's too expensive. "What we see time and again is the cost is prohibitive," Anderson said.
A lack of broadband reduces opportunities for people in the best of times, but it can be crippling in wake of a disaster, making it difficult or impossible to apply for aid or access recovery resources. Puerto Ricans experienced this in the aftermath of 2017's Hurricane Maria, which battered the island's telecommunications infrastructure and left many residents with terminally slow broadband more than a year after the storm had passed. Three years later, with a global pandemic moving vast swaths of the economy online for the foreseeable future, internet-impoverished communities around the country are feeling a similar strain.
To some extent, mobile networks have helped bridge the broadband gap in recent years. More than 80 percent of Americans now own a smartphone, with similar rates of ownership among Black, white, and Hispanic Americans. Nearly 40 percent of Americans access the internet primarily from a phone. As far as disaster resilience goes, this surge in mobile adoption is good news: Our phones allow us to receive emergency alerts and evacuation orders quickly, and first responders rely on them to coordinate on the fly. Of the 240 million 911 calls made every year, more than 80 percent come from a wireless device, per the FCC.
But in the age of climate change, mobile networks are becoming more vulnerable. The cell towers, cables, and antennas underpinning them weren't always built to withstand worsening fires and storms, a vulnerability that Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T have all acknowledged in recent climate change disclosures filed with the CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project). And when these networks go down — as nearly 500 cell towers did during California's Camp and Woolsey fires in 2018, according to the new House climate change plan — it can create huge challenges for emergency response.
"Everything from search-and-rescue efforts to sending out warnings to getting people directions to shelters is facilitated through various telecommunications and internet," said Samantha Montano, an assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy. "We're pretty reliant on them."
Democrats' new climate plan seeks to address many of the problems created by unequal and unreliable internet access in order to build a more climate-hardy web and society.
To help bring about universal broadband access, the plan recommends boosting investment in FCC programs like the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, a $20 billion fund earmarked for broadband infrastructure deployments across rural America. It also calls for increased investment in programs like the FCC's Lifeline, which offers government-subsidized broadband to low-income Americans, and it recommends mandating that internet service providers suspend service shutoffs for 60 days in wake of declared emergencies. Broadband improvements should be prioritized in underserved communities that are "experiencing or are likely to experience disproportionate environmental and climate change impacts," per the plan.
As far as mobile networks go, House Democrats recommend that Congress authorize states to set disaster resilience requirements for wireless providers as part of their terms of service. They also recommend boosting federal investments in Next Generation 911, a long-running effort to modernize America's 911 emergency call systems and connect thousands of individually operating systems. Finally, the plan calls for the FCC to work with wireless providers to ensure their networks don't go offline during disasters for reasons unrelated to equipment failure, citing Verizon's infamous throttling of data to California firefighters as they were fighting the Mendocino Complex Fire in 2018.
Kessler of Third Way said that Democrats' climate plan lays out "the right ideas" for bridging the digital divide. "You want to be able to get the technology out there, the infrastructure out there, and you need to make sure people can pay for it," he said.
The call for hardening our internet infrastructure is especially salient to Paul Barford, a computer scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In 2018, Barford and two colleagues published a study highlighting the vulnerability of America's fiber cables to sea level rise, and he's currently investigating how wildfires threaten mobile networks. In both cases, he says, it's clear that the telecommunications infrastructure deployed today was designed with historical extreme conditions in mind — and that has to change.
"We're living in a world of climate change," he said. "And if the intention is to make this new infrastructure that will serve the population for many years to come, then it is simply not feasible to deploy it without considering the potential effects of climate change, which include, of course, rising seas, severe weather, floods, and wildfires."
Whether the House climate plan's recommendations become law remains to be seen. Many of the specific ideas in the plan have already been introduced to Congress in various bills, including the LIFT America Act, which would infuse Next Generation 911 with an extra $12 billion in funding, and the WIRED Act, which would authorize states to regulate wireless companies' infrastructure.
Perhaps most significantly, House Democrats recently passed an infrastructure bill that would invest $80 billion in broadband deployment around the country overseen by a new Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth. The bill would mandate a minimum speed standard of 100/100 megabits per second for federally funded internet projects, a speed stipulation that can only be met with high-speed fiber optics, says Ernesto Omar Falcon, a senior legal counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties nonprofit. Currently, Falcon estimates that about a third of Americans have access to this advanced internet infrastructure, with a larger swath of the country accessing the web via older, slower, DSL copper or cable lines. "It would connect anyone who doesn't have internet to a 21st century line," Falcon said. "That's a huge deal."
The infrastructure bill seems unlikely to move forward in a Republican-controlled Senate. But the urgency of getting everyone a fast, resilient internet connection isn't going anywhere. In fact, the idea that internet access is a basic right seems to be gaining traction every day, even making an appearance last week in presumed Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's new infrastructure plan. With the pandemic continuing to transform how we work, live, and interact with one another, and with climate change necessitating even larger transformations in the future, our need to be connected digitally is only becoming greater.
"I think every day the pressure mounts, because the problem is not going away," Falcon said. "It's really going to come down to what we want the recovery to look like. And which of the problems COVID-19 has presented us with do we want to solve."
This story originally appeared in Grist and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
- 20 Sustainable Solutions for Information Technology and Education ... ›
- Is Telecommuting Good for the Planet? - EcoWatch ›
A rare yellow penguin has been photographed for what is believed to be the first time.
- World-Renowned Photographer Documents Most Remote ... ›
- This Penguin Colony Has Fallen by 77% on Antarctic Islands ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Stuart Braun
We spend 90% of our time in the buildings where we live and work, shop and conduct business, in the structures that keep us warm in winter and cool in summer.
But immense energy is required to source and manufacture building materials, to power construction sites, to maintain and renew the built environment. In 2019, building operations and construction activities together accounted for 38% of global energy-related CO2 emissions, the highest level ever recorded.
- Could IKEA's New Tiny House Help Fight the Climate Crisis ... ›
- Los Angeles City-Owned Buildings to Go 100% Carbon Free ... ›
- New Jersey Will Be First State to Require Building Permits to ... ›
By Eric Tate and Christopher Emrich
Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.