3 barriers holding equitable cities back

By Lauren Hepler for GreenBiz

In the grand scheme of pressing issues facing residents of U.S. cities — scarce affordable housing, high health care costs, anxiety about immigration status or racial tension, to name a few — warnings about the long-term consequences of climate change can, understandably, take a back seat.

Missing all too often from the discussion about why climate justice still matters, explained Shalanda Baker of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, is how these concerns stand to compound one another if the environment keeps getting more volatile.

"We have all these changes that need to be made yesterday," said Baker, an associate law professor and director of the university's Energy Justice Program, in a panel discussion Thursday at the VERGE Hawaii conference this week in Honolulu. "It will absolutely cement the inequality."

Although "equity," "inclusion" and various forms of "stakeholder engagement" are all front and center in myriad public, private and NGO-led climate advocacy efforts, many in the field argue that a void remains when it comes to input from marginalized communities.

“We have all these changes that need to be made yesterday. It will absolutely cement the inequality." 

From baffling jargon to insular bureaucratic processes to a sometimes-convoluted economic case for participation in new initiatives, the barriers that can prevent ordinary people from weighing in on issues such as proposed clean energy projects are varied.

With the seat-at-the-table concept already well worn, climate justice advocates including Vien Truong, director of Oakland-based nonprofit Green For All, contend that it will take a more fundamental shift in when, where and how people are asked to participate in conversations about how to build cities for the future.

"What does it look like for us to begin to move the table to the communities?" Truong said.

1. Accounting for community

Whether it's a city planning meeting or a civic climate task force, one of the dull-but-crucial elements of many public processes — and a growing number of corporate social responsibility efforts — is defining who is encompassed by the term "community."

For purposes of official engagement, this inherently broad group is too often distilled into a sample — "this representative group," explained Rose McKinney-James, managing principal of the consultancy McKinney-James Associates.

"The reality is that most people who are impacted by those decisions are not involved," McKinney-James said in a conference panel discussion Thursday.

For examples of what can work, Truong pointed to groundwork laid for former President Barack Obama's now-politically-tenuous Clean Power Plan.

The federal framework to limit fossil fuel emissions included unprecedented stipulations for community involvement. In states such as Kentucky (PDF), that translated to diverse groups working on housing, transportation, labor and other issues to rally different types of residents for joint conversations and planning efforts.

2. Overhauling engagement

Community engagement has long been a buzzy concept for both city officials and corporate social responsibility managers.

The problem: Building a public website or planning a public meeting is no guarantee of meaningful interaction with people who stand to be impacted by a given proposal.

"Why should people engage?" Truong said, even assuming obstacles such as language translations, transit accessibility and even time are accounted for. "First, it’s communicating why this matters."

In Las Vegas, McKinney-James pointed to hospitality and casino giant MGM as an example of a company asking employees to help identify ways for the company to engage on sustainability issues that may be outside the purview of executives.

Still, Truong said, being relatable isn't something environmental groups — often cast by opponents as "energy elitists" — have always been able to achieve as effectively as their counterparts in high-emission industries.

"Coal companies — they pass out backpacks right before school starts," Truong said. "The threat is there, but also the opportunity is there."

3. Explaining energy justice

Laying out the real-world implications of climate change is a struggle with many audiences. Add in local development politics and the inherently complicated nature of renewable energy in many locales, and conversations about how to address climate concerns can get murky.

"Many people don’t have the vocabulary to even engage," Baker said of the quirks that can accompany discussions with electric utilities in particular. "For a lot of people, just turning on the lights is enough."

Still, from rooftop solar on rental housing to electric carsharing in low-income neighborhoods, pilot projects are underway that stand to make a broader impact than stereotypically niche clean energy projects.

When it comes to policy, too, Truong said businesses and other third-party groups have an outsized opportunity to weigh in on proposals with broad potential impact, such as revived talk of a nationwide carbon tax in the United States.

"It’s more important than ever for businesses to step forward," Truong said.

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