By Willy Blackmore
Originally appeared in Word in Black
When the first National Climate Assessment came out 23 years ago, “global warming” was, in so many ways, still a very far-off notion. While there was mounting scientific evidence that average global temperatures were on the rise, and a consensus that the increases were the result of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, it was not yet an era of what can feel like back-to-back-to-back historic natural disasters like the one we live in now. As such, there was less of a deep sense of who would be affected by climate change.
“The prosperity and structure of the economy, the technologies available and in use, and the settlement patterns and demographic structure of the population, are all very likely to contribute to how and how much climate change will matter to Americans,” the assessment from 2000 reads, “and what they can and might wish to do about it.”
But racial demographics didn’t get any kind of in-depth exploration in the document. For example, when discussing how climate change could increase urban heat in the Midwest, the report references the 1994 Chicago heatwave that killed at least 500 people — but does not delve at all into how disproportionately it affected Black people.
Contrast that with the Fifth National Climate Assessment, published this Tuesday, which includes an entire chapter on climate justice.
Instead of some vague gestures about socioeconomic factors, the new assessment is, at times, quite radical on the questions of what brought us to this moment and who is being most affected.
“If climate change is understood as an outcome of socioeconomic and ethical arrangements that resulted in exploitation and discrimination, then reexamining those arrangements also becomes necessary,” the fifth assessment reads.
In other words, it’s not just a matter of acknowledging that Black and Brown people are on the frontlines of the climate crisis — we need to both understand and actually do something about the systems that put them there in the first place.
Twenty-three years is a long time, of course, but the report marks a huge shift from how more recent administrations have talked about climate change too. According to Inside Climate News, the last two assessments released by the Obama and Trump administrations “often approached the inequitable outcomes of the climate crisis as an afterthought, mentioning ‘social justice,’ ‘climate justice’ or ‘environmental justice’ just a little over a dozen times total in documents that were hundreds of pages long.”
The new tact for the National Climate Assessment joins a growing list of climate measures from the Biden Administration that center climate justice — but when huge natural gas export projects are still in play too, the shifts in language can seem more like platitudes than anything else. Because while the National Climate Assessment can guide political debates about climate change, it’s not policy.
There is a certain pleasure in seeing the federal government say things like “social systems inequitably distribute harm to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), low-income, and rural communities; women and gender minorities; and other racialized or overburdened peoples,” or, “in part, beliefs and concerns about climate change have been shaped by well-documented, intentional efforts by industry groups supportive of the continued use and promotion of fossil fuels to misrepresent the uncertainty and knowledge about climate change and downplay the risks to society.” But so much more still needs to actually be done.
The Biden Administration did announce $6 billion worth of new climate programs alongside the release of the new assessment, including $2 billion from the Environmental and Climate Justice Community Change Grants for “community-driven projects that deploy clean energy, strengthen climate resilience, and build community capacity to respond to environmental and climate justice challenges.”
The funding for the grants comes from Biden’s signature climate bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, while most of the other $4 billion comes from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (which is to say, it was all allocations of existing funds).
The electric grid certainly needs updating, but it feels a little mismatched with a report that highlights how “individuals and communities that have lived at the margins of, or have been purposely excluded from the benefits of, industrialization have a greater probability of exposure to pollution and negative environmental impacts.”
But it’s at least moving in the right direction.