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Climate action is a social and equity issue, expanded

Image from VT Digger.

VAHC’s Coordinator, Erhard Mahnke, recently published a commentary piece in VTDigger in support of H.439, a weatherization bill in the Vermont House of Representatives. The bill would use a $.02 increase on the fuel tax – resulting in an average increase of $15 per year for Vermonters – to provide nearly $5 million in low-income weatherization support.

While the original piece covered a lot of ground, the comments section made clear that there are some points that merit further discussion. This blog post will expand on some of those points, which we left uncited for brevity’s sake.

The first point – that we have about 11 years to enact meaningful change towards fixing the climate crisis – comes from a United Nations study about the impending effects of climate changes on our world. The study finds that “global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 to reach ‘net zero’ around 2050.” Failing to do so would eventually push the world past the 1.5 degrees Celsius increase threshold for “manageable” amounts of environmental change. The 12 years prescribed in the report – now 11, as it was published last year – was figured by the emissions guidelines necessary to cap temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Regardless of whether we are able to meet the 1.5 degree threshold, it is important to note that devastating climate events like floods, wildfires, and hurricanes that were previously considered one-in-a-millennia events are now occurring much more frequently. The increase in frequency is now a feature, not a fluke, of our weather – and we need to have policies in place for when these events happen that support all members of our communities.

Another point of clarification in the article is that low-income people will have to bear the brunt of climate change’s devastation – both in their ability to effectively protect themselves against disaster and in the frequency with which these events will affect them. Take for example the fact that fewer than 40% of Americans have enough money to cover a $1,000 emergency expense. Evacuating an area in anticipation for a climate event is expensive, and is not necessarily an option low-income families can readily take given the time and money associated with evacuating (gas, finding a place to stay, etc.). While removing oneself from the path of destruction is a way to prevent disasters from harming your family, evacuation is not always an option for low-income families.

Finally, low-income people often live in areas that have a higher likelihood of catastrophic weather events or more frequently bear the brunt of the consequences. They also live in homes that lack the features that act as a buffer for the aftereffects of a weather event. In California, for example, wildfire smoke posed a threat to air quality. While higher-income households could afford to buy air filters, these protections were much harder to come by in lower-income homes. People may not be able to afford the air purifiers necessary to make their homes habitable.

This problem is made worse by the fact that, in addition to dealing with the aftermath of severe weather events, low-income people must also deal with the fact that disaster relief funds from agencies like FEMA or HUD often flow towards higher-income areas, and leave low-income neighborhoods behind. Hurricane Harvey is a good example of the distribution of federal aid: families that own their owns often receive more aid in dollars than families that rent. In this way, disaster relief efforts have the potential to exacerbate inequities in a given area.

We don’t need to look far to demonstrate the necessity for innovations that can alleviate the pressures of climate change – Vermont is still recovering from Tropical Storm Irene, which struck nearly 8 years ago. Investments in programs like weatherization will allow our communities to become more resilient as these events occur more frequently than ever before.

Further reading:

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