More than a third of Cleveland’s residents live in poverty. The region also has a history of racial discrimination, which continues to be reflected in housing, education, healthcare, food security and other areas.
Now add climate change impacts to the list of problems disproportionately affecting people of color and lower-income residents of Cleveland.
Vulnerable populations are likely to suffer the worst impacts of climate change, according to environmental justice advocates. Yet they also “are generally the people least responsible,” said Brooks Berndt, environmental justice minister for the United Church of Christ, headquartered in Cleveland.
Take air conditioners, which offer comfort and safety from the extreme heat that’s expected to become more common in northeast Ohio. They account for about 6 percent of an average home’s energy use, so if a home’s electricity comes from fossil fuels, they add to greenhouse gas emissions. Many people in the area’s low-income and minority neighborhoods don’t have air conditioners, said environmental justice advocate Jocelyn Travis of the Sierra Club’s Ohio chapter. And families who have air conditioners are often unable to afford higher and higher electric bills.
“The minority community is very stressed right now,” Travis said. As a result, vulnerable groups will face higher risks for heat-related illnesses, respiratory ailments and circulatory problems. Racial disparities already exist in the rates for some diseases, including asthma.
Against this backdrop, new and ongoing work to help the greater Cleveland area become more resilient in the face of climate change can also address ongoing social justice problems, according to advocates, planners and local leaders.
“I think there’s a moral obligation to deal with this,” said Mike Foley, Director of the Department of Sustainability for Cuyahoga County. Indeed, he added, “We’ve got a bigger obligation as a dense urban county to be a leader in the Midwest.”
Here are four ways in which advocates say Cleveland could become more climate resilient and promote social justice.
Extreme heat is often worse in areas with high percentages of vulnerable populations, notes Timon McPhearson, an urban ecologist at the New School in New York City. In recent studies, he and his colleagues found that a combination of low-rise architecture, lots of paved spaces, and sparse trees and shrubs made heat islands more likely. Although conditions vary between cities, those same features characterize some of Cuyahoga County’s poorest neighborhoods.
To some extent, the urban landscape also reflects continuing segregation among ethnic groups, said environmental social scientist Juan Declet-Barreto at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Neighborhoods with high percentages of Hispanics and people without a high school diploma were among Cleveland’s hottest areas, he and colleagues reported in an American Meteorological Society journal in late 2016. And existing vegetation was less likely to provide relief from the heat.
More tree planting is already on the to-do list for city planners and organizations working to boost the Cleveland area’s resilience to climate change. In Declet-Barreto’s view, those efforts can best promote social equity if they target vulnerable “ecologically deprived” neighborhoods.
Weatherizing and energy efficiency
“We want more and more homes to be weatherized,” said Matt Gray, Cleveland’s Director of Sustainability. “We do have a large low-income population, and that makes a huge difference for them.”
Weatherization and other energy efficiency measures can make homes more comfortable year round. That’s helpful for pretty much everyone, but especially for low-income people. “It really has a significant impact on grid reliability and also on people’s ability to pay their electric bills,” said urban planner Nick Rajkovich at the University of Buffalo.
His comments are in line with a report released this week by the Environmental Defense Fund on the benefits of energy efficiency for low-income families. “Targeted energy efficiency measures can reduce low-income families’ economic burden — a burden that more often encumbers people of color — by reducing utility bills by hundreds of dollars each year,” the report said.
Make renewable energy more accessible
County plans also call for adding wind and solar energy to the local grid, plus developing a downtown microgrid that can work in “island mode” if an extreme storm or other event knocks out power from the rest of the grid.
Those and other efforts should also make renewable energy more accessible and affordable for vulnerable groups, said Mike Foley, Director of the Department of Sustainability for Cuyahoga County. “We have to think through how to mitigate and adapt to climate change in a way that recognizes that the personal economics of people play a role in how someone can be green.”
“We represent 1.3 million people in Cuyahoga County,” Foley continued. “It shouldn’t just be about your net worth whether you can contribute or react to the problems that climate change creates for us. “
That outlook meshes with that of civil rights advocates seeking greater access to clean energy for low-income people and people of color.
“Underserved communities cannot be left behind in a clean energy transition,” NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said last month when that organization announced a new solar energy initiative. “Clean energy is a fundamental civil right which must be available to all, within the framework of a just transition.”
Not all steps to deal with climate change call for advanced technology. The top recommendation from Cleveland Neighborhood Progress and other groups calls for “community engagement and education efforts, based on neighbors talking with neighbors in lively, fun, and productive ways.”
Connections that result from those efforts can encourage neighbors to check on each other when heat waves, storms or other problems occur. Thanks to that kind of “social capital,” Chicago’s low-income Auburn Gresham neighborhood had a lower mortality rate during a severe 1995 heat wave than some more affluent areas.
A willingness to cooperate within the community could potentially strengthen neighborhoods in other ways as well. Although there are different views, some research suggests stronger social ties can help people feel safer and reduce gun violence. And “environmental justice includes safety,” said Kent Whitley, environmental justice chair for the Cleveland Branch NAACP.
Low-income people and minority groups in Northeast Ohio continue to face serious issues, and resilience planning isn’t a panacea for those problems. “There’s a lot of structural racism and certainly deep poverty in most of these neighborhoods,” said Rajkovich. “It’s not something that’s an easy fix by any stretch of the imagination.”
Note: Kathiann M. Kowalski was a 2017 Fellow in the Resilience Fellowship Program at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. This is the second in a two-part series on resilience planning in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County, Ohio. Part one explored how planners have come to see clean energy as a tool for preparing for climate change impacts.