Transformative Climate Action Is Possible — if Polluters Stay Away
By Patti Lynn
2018 was a groundbreaking year in the public conversation about climate change. Last February, The New York Times reported that a record percentage of Americans now believe that climate change is caused by humans, and there was a 20 percentage point rise in "the number of Americans who say they worry 'a great deal' about climate change."
That was before the release of two reports in the fall by scientists commissioned by the United Nations and the U.S. federal government. Both reports painted a dire picture of the coming climate catastrophe and a clear timeline. They warned that if we don't take drastic action to cut emissions globally, we will face global catastrophic effects of climate change. According to the U.N., we have about a decade. That's no time at all.
So it makes sense that at the very end of 2018, even as global greenhouse gas emissions rose alarmingly, two bold plans for climate action took hold of the public imagination: the international People's Demands for Climate Justice, and in the U.S., the Green New Deal. But in order to move these plans from visions to actual policies that are just and effective, we must address the largest obstacle that lies between today's status quo and a livable future for all: the influence of the fossil fuel industry on climate policy.
Demand for Bold Action Takes Hold
Both the People's Demands and the Green New Deal offer possibilities for bold, visionary and just climate solutions. The People's Demands call for keeping fossil fuels in the ground globally, advancing people-first solutions at the U.N., and providing resources to countries and communities that have done the least to cause climate change—and which are currently bearing the brunt of its effects.
The Green New Deal resolution introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey envisions a rapid drawdown of greenhouse gas emissions, the creation of millions of well-paying jobs, and the advancement of equity and justice for communities on the front line of climate change.
In the U.S., the Green New Deal has taken hold of the progressive imagination. Globally, the People's Demands have become a rallying cry for hundreds of thousands of people and hundreds of organizations, including at the last U.N. climate treaty talks.
This growing call for action can't be underestimated. We need great social and economic change to fully and justly solve the climate crisis, and no change on this scale happens without public engagement fueling the political will to create such changes. But we also must be clear-eyed about what stands in the way of achieving such transformative change.
Big Polluters, Big Obstacles
Certainly, for the Green New Deal—U.S. politics being what they are—the path from a visionary platform to actual policy is deeply fraught. But perhaps the biggest obstacle to the Green New Deal becoming the transformative set of policies we need it to be is the influence of the fossil fuel industry and other polluting industries.
As David Roberts at Vox points out: "If the [Green New Deal] looks like it has any chance of becoming a reality, it will face a giant right-wing smear campaign, coordinated across conservative media, think tanks, and politicians, funded by effectively unlimited fossil fuel wealth." Indeed, fossil fuel wealth and influence has, for half a century, stymied necessary climate action at every level of policymaking—from the U.N. to national policy to state legislation. To succeed in moving both the Green New Deal and the People's Demands from vision to action requires that we effectively counter the fossil fuel and other industries as they bring to bear their full arsenal of money and influence.
This is not to say that the supporters of the Green New Deal have entirely neglected to address the influence of the fossil fuel industry. Proponents have been vocal about excluding members of Congress who have received money from fossil fuel PACs from shaping the plan, which is a good first step. But if it is to live up to its boldest visions, the Green New Deal will need to do far more to safeguard against the influence of big polluters and other industries seeking to profit from our most basic needs.
For one thing, influence peddling by polluting industries doesn't just come in the form of campaign contributions by fossil fuel PACs to members of Congress. In fact, corporate PAC donations are no longer the most important nor significant route of influence.
Increasingly, corporations wield their influence in a myriad of other ways: from positioning themselves as necessary "stakeholders" in policymaking, to establishing think tanks and front groups to sway public opinion, to selling "public-private partnerships" as a way to muscle their way into policymaking and actual control of public resources. If the champions of the Green New Deal are serious about making a true shift, they must create an impenetrable firewall between industry and policymaking.
Even at the nascent stages, there are warning signs. The Indigenous Environmental Network has highlighted several important ways in which the Green New Deal resolution falls short of getting to the root of the problem, allowing "industries and governments to continue causing harm to Indigenous communities."
Among other concerns, they point out that the "net-zero greenhouse gas emissions" goal of the Green New Deal opens the door to carbon-pricing schemes, which give Big Polluters the opportunity "to continue the business-as-usual practices of extraction, transport and combustion" under a green-washed guise. Instead, the goal must be to keep fossil fuels in the ground and end subsidies and tax breaks to fossil fuel corporations.
There is also concern regarding industries beyond Big Polluters. Clean water and infrastructure are mentioned throughout the resolution. When it comes to our water infrastructure, the private water industry has long jockeyed to co-opt public funding for profit. It employs a sophisticated PR and political machine to get government infrastructure funds—and too often leaves residents worse off than before, as they are forced to face rate hikes, poor water quality and worker layoffs. We can expect this machine is already rolling to cash in on the Green New Deal.
A Global Mandate to Kick Big Polluters Out
For the Green New Deal to succeed in effectively addressing the threats of climate change, those leading the charge must resist the enormous pressure to consider the fossil fuel industry as "stakeholders." These are the entities that brought us into this crisis. They cannot be the ones to get us out.
Rather, we must follow the leadership of, and be in deep conversations with, communities currently on the front lines of climate change, who have been developing true and just solutions, as pointed out in a recent letter on the Green New Deal to Representative Ocasio-Cortez and other members of Congress. This includes Indigenous communities, communities of color and low-income communities in the U.S. and around the world. After all, climate change is a global problem. No single country, no matter how visionary, can solve it alone.
This is why the People's Demands were collectively developed by, and rooted in, climate justice organizations and people's movements around the world. At the heart of these demands is a recognition that big polluters are the primary cause of the lack of progress on international and national climate solutions.
For decades, using every weapon in their arsenal, big polluters have prevented the U.N. climate treaty from facilitating bold climate action—from a smear campaign targeting the scientists of an early U.N. climate report, to putting industry representatives on delegations, to all-out sponsoring the talks, and much more.
Therefore, ending big polluters' influence on the U.N. climate treaty process and advancing a conflict-of-interest policy is a core component of the People's Demands. Such a policy, text or mechanism would protect global climate policy from obstruction by Big Polluters and would urge governments to begin insulating policymaking from industry influence.
Having this kind of directive at the international level provides significant resources, leverage and political will to do the same at the national level. We've seen that with the World Health Organization's global tobacco treaty (formally known as the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control), which safeguards public health policymaking from the influence of the tobacco industry. Since the adoption of the treaty in 2003, countries around the world have implemented policies keeping the tobacco industry away from the policymaking table. This has, in turn, enabled the implementation of lifesaving tobacco control measures, like graphic health warnings, bans on advertising and tobacco taxes.
To be sure, the specifics of climate change and the tobacco epidemic differ greatly, and the fossil fuel industry is more powerful than the tobacco industry. Nevertheless, successfully kicking big polluters out of the U.N. climate treaty process could pave the way for countries around the world—including the U.S.—to adopt strong firewalls between the fossil fuel industry and climate policymaking. Doing so will also give the Green New Deal the best shot at succeeding.
If 2018 was the year when many people in the Global North finally woke up to the existential danger posed by climate change, 2019 just might be the year that politicians around the world heed the call for visionary climate action—and begin the process of disentangling climate policymaking from the clutches of corporate capture. This just might be the only way we achieve the swift and massive change we need.
Patti Lynn is the executive director of Corporate Accountability.
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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.