No Longer Negotiable: Climate, Equity and Health Together

How do we build a future that is sustainable, equitable and healthy? The solution lies in recognizing that these three characteristics are fully intertwined; we can’t achieve one without the other two. Urban Green Council’s 2021 conference, Climate, Equity and Health: No More False Choices, took a critical look at the status quo that has often pitted these outcomes against each other rather than embrace all three. Over two keynote addresses and two panel discussions, experts described the policies and building design strategies most necessary to secure a sustainable, equitable and healthy future for all. 

WRONG VOICES, WRONG CHOICES

The first keynote speaker was Peggy Shepard, Executive Director of We Act for Environmental Justice and member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. “We begin today’s conference with a mandate: no more false choices,” Shepard asserted. To achieve this mandate, however, we must acknowledge that false choices are choices—patterns we choose to perpetuate and injustices we choose to ignore. Shepard stressed that we are at a crossroads, and must make many crucial decisions and investments to respond to the climate crisis. In doing so, “We have to ground our climate policy solutions in the understanding that climate change and exposure to pollution does not harm all communities equally.” 

As we tackle today’s pressing climate problems—extreme heat, energy insecurity, housing affordability, air and water pollution—justice must be a part of how we frame objectives and outcomes. Furthermore, the people best suited to create solutions are those who are most affected by these problems. Frontline communities deserve an equal say in environmental decision-making and the opportunity to make choices for themselves. As Shepard said in closing, “We have the challenge and opportunity to expand democratic space for all our voices to be heard and incorporated into solutions that work for all of us.”

DESIGNING FOR INDOOR HEALTH 

The second keynote speaker was Dr. Joseph Allen, an acclaimed expert and author on indoor air quality research and the Director of the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.  Dr. Allen began by highlighting the often-overlooked importance of indoor air: we spend 90 percent of our time indoors, and the air we breathe has a dramatic impact on our health, from disease avoidance to cognitive performance. The problem is that standards for building ventilation have not been designed to optimize human health, and many buildings (especially in disadvantaged communities) don’t even meet these standards! In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, “The need to put health front and center in how we design and operate buildings is finally reaching every organization.” Echoing Shepard’s call for inclusive decision-making, Dr. Allen noted that “it’s very rare that public health has had a seat at the table for design charrettes around buildings.” This needs to change so we can get smarter about how, when and where to create efficient ventilation systems that don’t sacrifice public health. 

CHANGING POLICY PRIORITIES 

With equity and public health top of mind, the first panel examined the ways climate policies can strive for both. Moderator Janet Joseph of NYSERDA contended that “we cannot afford to treat energy and climate policy separate and isolated from our broader policy and social equity goals.” The panelists echoed this sentiment in their descriptions of policies already underway. 

Chris Coll, Director of NYSERDA’s Energy Affordability and Equity Program, outlined the groundbreaking goals of New York State’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA). The law requires that 35 to 40 percent of clean energy and efficiency benefits go to disadvantaged communities, and that these communities have a say in how the law is implemented. Maritza Silva-Farrell, Executive Director of ALIGN, reiterated this point, saying, “We have to have funding and make sure the city is moving to swift implementation with the project driven by community groups on the ground.” As one of the most aggressive climate policies for any major economy in the world, the CLCPA is leading the way on environmental justice and even informing policy development at the federal level. It is also a testament to the power of community-level organizing, as NY State Climate Action Council member Raya Salter reminded us that “this landmark climate law and these justice provisions…really did come from grassroots advocacy.” 

At the city level, Adriana Espinoza of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Climate and Sustainability described NYC’s effort to assess environmental equity and community engagement through a new report, Environmental Justice For All. The end goal of the report is to create a comprehensive plan that ensures “environmental justice communities’ priorities are uplifted, considered and adopted” at every step of the way. Underscoring the urgency of this effort, Espinoza stated that “we cannot wait until an emergency situation to understand our vulnerabilities and disparities. We have to do that groundwork ahead of time to enable immediate action in times of crisis.”

DRIVING BUILDING PERFORMANCE FOR ALL 

Moderated by Bomee Jung of Topsight Advisors, the final panel of the day explored disparities across our housing stock and strategies to address them. Similar to the ventilation standards referenced earlier, Rory Christian, President of Concentric Consulting Group, LLC, noted that “the housing and energy policies in place don’t prioritize public health at a local level.” This is an issue of housing equity, as study after study demonstrates that low-income households are often under-insulated, not air conditioned, located in polluted areas and are more prone to mold growth and a host of other building performance issues. 

Carolyn Olson of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene kicked off the session with a closer look at extreme heat. “In NYC on average, 10 people die from heat stroke each year. But another hundred die from extreme heat worsening their pre-existing health conditions.” A disproportionate number of residents in low-income communities don’t have air conditioning compared to their wealthier neighbors. On top of that, low-income residents have to spend a larger share of their income on energy as is. As Olson remarked, “Access to air conditioning is key,” but, “we need to make sure the burden doesn’t end up sitting on the shoulders of communities already overburdened.”

The lens of environmental justice calls us to remember that these disparities didn’t happen by accident. Donnel Baird, Founder and CEO of BlocPower, elaborated on this point in describing the long history of redlining and disinvestment that has prevented some building owners from making necessary renovations. Rory Christian also cautioned that “whatever solutions we put forward, we need to make sure at a minimum, they don't repeat the mistakes of the past.”

The biggest perceived challenge to retrofitting affordable housing is cost. Ryan Cassidy of RiseBoro Community Partnership pointed out that while the building industry has managed rising costs associated with safety and labor, “When we talk about sustainability, there’s this sensibility that it’s a bridge too far.” This harkens back to Shepard’s assertion about choices. The fact that we claim to be unable to find the solutions that would most benefit building operations, and especially tenants, is a false choice, noted Cassidy. Buildings must be as efficient as possible to reduce demand on the electrical grid, to lessen the energy burden on low-income communities and to provide real workforce opportunities in the retrofit market. Low-income housing should not be synonymous with low-quality housing, and this change happens when we center these issues as mandates instead of choices. 

IT’S NOW OR NEVER 

If there was a single thread that was woven into each discussion, it was the immense opportunity that lies before us. As Janet Joseph put it, whether we design around optimizing for equity or not, we have to realize that the scale alone of the transformation that is needed to reach our climate goals will affect outcomes in climate, equity and health for generations to come. Building off this statement, Espinoza made a crucial point: “Centering equity in our work is critical, but centering equity does not equal environmental justice.” There is incredible momentum to solve the many environmental and social equity challenges that lie ahead. The question, posed by Shepard at the start of the conference, is if we’re actually ready to walk the talk—to center equity and accept nothing less than environmentally just outcomes. In describing how RiseBoro prioritizes sustainability in their projects, Cassidy said, “We look at it holistically and we don’t compromise.” Now, more than ever is the time to heed that advice as we pursue sustainability, equity and health for all.  

About the authors

Rebecca Elzinga
Rebecca is the Education Development Coordinator at Urban Green.