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Winter 2024: Environmental Health & Safety

Prioritization of Climate Resilient Development in Environmental Justice Communities

Katherine Lee Goyette


  • Climate injustice will occur without proper climate adaptation and hazard mitigation planning in environmental justice communities.
  • Climate adaptation and hazard mitigation planning requires long-term planning and meaningful involvement from all parties, including utility providers, governments, community organizations, and the public.
  • Climate resilient development through an inclusive lens advances equitable climate action.
Prioritization of Climate Resilient Development in Environmental Justice Communities
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Climate change is a current, not a future, problem. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has confirmed unequivocally that human activities have caused global warming, as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have continued to increase due to unsustainable energy and land use. Climate extremes are being experienced across the globe, resulting in widespread adverse impacts upon food and water security, public health, and the environment. The causal relationship between human-caused GHG emissions and the warming of the climate system is clear, impacting our world’s most vulnerable populations—low-income, rural, and people of color.

The United Nations (UN) Office for Disaster Risk Reduction warns that adverse impacts on our access to electricity, water, health care, and education occur due to human action inadequately considering the inadvertent effects upon ecosystems and livelihoods. Our world has entered the “new normal” of climate extremes. Hot extremes, including heatwaves, have worsened air pollution, limited the functionality of critical energy infrastructure, and resulted in human mortality and morbidity. Extreme precipitation and extreme drought impact public health (e.g., malnutrition, mental health, infectious diseases), clean water availability, food production, and community living and infrastructure (e.g., inland flooding, coastal-area flooding, and infrastructure damage). Climate change has impacted the spectrum of human living, from the food we eat to the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the places where we seek shelter. See generally IPCC, Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report (2023); UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, GAR Special Report 2023 (2023). This article explores how climate adaptation and hazard mitigation planning by utility providers can benefit environmental justice communities, who are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events.

BIPOC and Low-Income Communities Are Disproportionately Impacted by Climate Change

Several studies of climate extremes conclude that Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and low-income communities are more vulnerable to changing climate conditions and at higher risk of climate-related health impacts. Racially and socioeconomically marginalized American communities are disproportionately impacted by storm/flood events, infectious diseases, and heat extremes due to climate change. The relationship between temperature extremes and racial and socioeconomical health disparities has been studied nationwide based on regional climate-related events (e.g., wildfire studies conducted in western states; hurricane studies conducted in the Southeast and on the Atlantic Coast), ultimately concluding that rising temperatures, flooding, less-resilient infrastructure, adverse health outcomes, and infant mortality and adverse childhood outcomes specifically impact people of color as compared to white people. Alique G. Berberian et al., Racial Disparities in Climate Change-Related Health Effects in the United States, 9 Current Env’t Health Reps. 451 (2022).

BIPOC and low-income communities are more likely than other groups to live in historically redlined neighborhoods, or neighborhoods harmed by systemic discriminatory practices and disinvestment due to race and socioeconomic status. As a result of this discrimination and disinvestment, BIPOC and low-income communities live in neighborhoods with fewer green spaces and higher temperatures relative to adjacent neighborhoods. This is called the “heat island effect,” where urbanized areas experience higher temperatures than outlying areas due to buildings, roads, and other infrastructure absorbing and re-emitting the sun’s heat. Urban areas have concentrated infrastructure and limited natural green spaces, resulting in “islands” of higher temperatures compared to nearby neighborhoods. Angel Hsu et al., Disproportionate Exposure to Urban Heat Island Intensity Across Major US Cities, 12 Nature Commc’ns 2721 (2021). Communities located in heat islands experience higher daytime temperatures, reduced nighttime cooling periods, and higher levels of air pollution, which directly correlate with heat-related deaths and illnesses. BIPOC and low-income communities living in heat islands are specifically at greater risk of adverse heat-related environmental and health consequences, in addition to the severe financial impacts of seeking medical treatment and increased costs of cooling dwellings. For example, a study examining heat impacts in Portland, Oregon, found that eastern Portland was significantly hotter than western Portland; and when temperature data of the city were compared with census block group data based on race and socioeconomics, the study concluded that higher heat exposure directly correlated to low-income and nonwhite households. Jackson Voelkel et al., Assessing Vulnerability to Urban Heat: A Study of Disproportionate Heat Exposure and Access to Refuge by Socio-demographic Status in Portland, Oregon, 15 Int’l J. Env’t Res. & Pub. Health 640 (2018).

Race and socioeconomic status also correlate with heat in the context of transportation and transportation infrastructure. The urban heat island effect is more pronounced near freeways and other city spaces with heat-absorbing pavement. As discriminatory transportation policies during the 1940s–1950s ensured that freeways and other transportation infrastructure are built in BIPOC and low-income communities, these communities are disproportionately burdened by vehicle air pollution and the extra heat caused by freeways and public transportation. These inequitable transportation policies continue today, as discriminatory land use policies related to housing, transportation, and availability of public green space create disparities in vulnerability to climate change impacts. Monica Heger, Equitable Adaptation to Extreme Heat Impacts of Climate Change, 39 UCLA J. Env’t L. & Pol’y 283, 297 (2021).

CRD Policymaking Through an Inclusive Lens Advances Equitable Climate Action

Climate resilient development (CRD) is the principal climate management strategy established by the IPCC that focuses on the human ability to adapt to, mitigate, and build resilience against the effects of climate change. Adaptation and mitigation strategies are combined to achieve sustainable and equitable development. Adaptation strategies seek to reduce the exposures and vulnerabilities to climate change, while mitigation strategies require the reduction of carbon emissions through human action and increased GHG sequestration. However, the IPCC warns that there is a “rapidly narrowing window of opportunity” to enable climate resilient development to ensure a livable, equitable, and sustainable future for everyone. IPCC, Synthesis Report of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) (2023). While there has been substantial headway with the adoption of policies and passage of laws addressing climate mitigation strategies within the last decade, their application is unevenly deployed across geographic regions and economic sectors. Mitigation strategies often face legal or institutional barriers, as choices made by policymakers, residents, and other stakeholders influence mitigation plan selection and implementation. Yet, adaptation strategies can backfire and create the effect of maladaptation, or unintended consequences that lead to an increased risk of adverse, climate-related outcomes, which specifically affect marginalized and vulnerable populations (e.g., housing displacement and vegetation management, as the removal of mature healthy trees reduces shade and cooling, further exacerbating the urban heat island effect). As our Earth warms, the availability of adaptation strategy options will be limited, thus reducing their effectiveness in reducing climate risks.

Policymakers should view and implement sustainable adaptation and mitigation strategies with an inclusive and equitable lens to advance equitable climate action in CRD policymaking. This requires balancing various participants’ interests within the CRD process, notably state and local governments, the private sector, interested stakeholders and community groups, and the public when CRD decisions are made. While financial resources and other logistical barriers strain the CRD decision-making process, the process should integrate risk reduction, equity, and climate justice. An inclusive and equitable approach to mitigation and adaptation pathways will secure long-term sustainable CRD for all parties involved.

Climate Resilient Development Requires Utility and Community Participation

Utility companies play a central role in climate resilience. Rising temperatures combined with the increased frequency and intensity of climate extremes pose significant threats to the safety and reliability of utility water, gas, and electric distribution. As a result of climate change, utilities are being forced to adapt to both current climate conditions and future anticipated climate changes to ensure continued safe and reliable service. According to the North American Energy Reliability Corporation’s (NERC’s) 2022 Long-Term Reliability Assessment, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirmed 18 separate billion-dollar weather-related events nationwide in 2022, 13 of which affected the performance and reliability of generation transmission (causing loss of customer load). As of July 11, 2023, NOAA has identified 12 U.S. climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each. The power grid’s ensured reliability can be a matter of life and death, whether during periods of extreme heat or cold.

Higher temperatures increase electricity demand, which increases the need for transmission capacity. During heat waves, the electricity sector suffers from problems with generation, transmission, and distribution, often causing blackouts or brownouts that result in detrimental public health and economic effects, especially upon vulnerable populations. Cold weather events include cold snaps, subzero temperatures, wind chill effects, and severe ice events, all with the ability to cause structural damage to above-ground utility infrastructure. Both sea level rise and coastline storms place low-lying utility infrastructure at risk, which leads to infrastructure damage, power outages, and other consequences. As all climate events occur with greater frequency and duration, current design standards for utility infrastructure resilience against extreme climate events will be inadequate.

Utility providers nationwide have incurred significant costs associated with climate change. Distribution infrastructure is regularly damaged by extreme storm events, imposing substantial restoration costs, often subject to fiscal approval by regulators at ratepayers’ expense. For example, NSTAR Electric Company, doing business as Eversource Energy in Massachusetts, filed a request before the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities at the end of 2022 seeking cost recovery for August 2021 Tropical Storm Henri and an October 2021 Nor’easter, both of which caused widespread damage to the company’s distribution system and individually exceeded $30 million in incremental costs alone. Between 2010 and 2016, National Grid (whose service territory currently includes New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island) incurred approximately $184 million in storm-related costs. Climate change poses both physical and financial risks upon utility companies, as well as ratepayers, where energy needs will vary with temperature and humidity extremes.

Fortunately, the costs of extreme weather events can be reduced through utilities’ strategic climate planning. For example, the New York State Public Service Commission mandated Consolidated Edison (whose service territory includes New York City and Westchester County) to consider how climate change will impact the company’s service reliability, infrastructure, and general operations following Hurricane Sandy. Consolidated Edison’s 2019 Climate Change Vulnerability Study demonstrates the necessary utility climate planning process that acknowledges the uncertainties surrounding future climate extreme weather: It identified the company’s various vulnerabilities to climate risks and established a resilience management framework needed to address service territory climate risks. Consolidated Edison subsequently developed its 2020 Climate Change Implementation Plan to better understand planning, engineering, operations, and best emergency response practices due to climate change.

Regulatory entities should exercise leadership roles in requiring utilities to assess their climate vulnerabilities and necessary adaptation practices, as a form of climate resilient development. A utility’s engagement in strategic climate resiliency planning should both be required and in the form of a public proceeding to ensure public participation in the process (especially if service territories serve environmental justice areas). As utilities have a continuing obligation to provide safe and reliable distribution services, regulatory entities should require utilities to conduct a climate vulnerability study (like the one performed by Consolidated Edison) as a form of emergency response planning. Such climate studies would be in the public’s interest and provide a concrete resilience management framework for application company-wide, with identified climate adaptation pathway solutions to systemic climate risk vulnerabilities.

As a result of utilities considering the impacts of climate change in their system planning (with the knowledge of existing and future forecasted weather conditions), communities will be better prepared for investment in cost-effective and proactive hazard mitigation strategies. During this system reliability planning process, a utility can identify and implement measures such as load relief planning, grid modernization, network redundancy, cooling system upgrades, vegetation management best practices, and sustainable storm-resistant design measures. However, while a climate study can provide a utility with a comprehensive evaluation of risks to existing infrastructure, the reliability analysis of individual circuits and distribution system planning (in order to identify specific system modification recommendations based on loading and voltage performance concerns) does not constitute an adaptation pathway. Importantly, climate adaptation pathways implemented by utility companies require proactive measures and investment (e.g., engagement with stakeholders and academic institutes to map hazards along key transmission lines or establishing a wind speed threshold for overhead line damage to better prepare ratepayers for windstorms). Development of proactive climate adaptation pathways as part of a larger climate resilience management framework by a utility is vital to the prevention of distribution infrastructure damage and power interruptions. Charles Fant et al., Climate Change Impacts and Costs to U.S. Electricity Transmission Distribution Infrastructure, 195 Energy 116899 (2020). Reactive measures by utilities following severe weather events have long demonstrated that the cycle of destruction and repair is not a sustainable solution for companies, governments, or communities.

In addition to a climate vulnerability study, a regulatory entity can order utilities to develop climate adaptation and hazard mitigation plans that are:

  • Inclusive of both hazard mitigation and disaster response planning efforts, including an evaluation of operations and infrastructure, and a time line for the modification of operations and upgrades of infrastructure to meet such resilience standards;
  • Based on future predictions of climate, including temperature, humidity, precipitation, sea level rise, and extreme weather, rather than only historic observations;
  • Created in coordination with other utility companies, state and local officials, and impacted environmental justice communities, with an opportunity for input by all impacted community stakeholders; and
  • Reviewed at regular intervals to reflect new information on climate predictions and most-recent climate science, as they become available to assess the adequacy of mitigation and adaptation planning measures.

For each identified climate change impact, utilities’ hazard mitigation and evaluation plans should include screening and prioritization of operations, planning, and asset types; identification of adaptation options; costs and benefits analysis of adaptation options for a range of possible climate futures; and a plan for implementation and adaptation options over time (which can be flexible and incorporate adaptive pathways to account for future uncertainties without further deferring needed planning actions now). See generally Johannes Epke, Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities Petition Requesting Rulemaking on Climate Vulnerability and Adaptation Planning (Mar. 1, 2021). These requirements will help regulatory entities establish a uniform framework for a statewide climate resilience policy, guiding distribution companies to ensure consistent application of climate adaptation and hazard mitigation requirements, involvement of impacted community stakeholders, and adequacy of public safeguards and service reliability.

However, in developing individual utility climate adaptation and hazard mitigation plans, community participation and engagement should be prioritized to ensure accessibility by all community members, especially those residing within environmental justice communities. Not all electrical outages are experienced equally: Environmental justice communities are often vulnerable to high heat and flooding, contributing to disproportionate experiences with electrical outages. For example, in a Massachusetts study of average total customer outage hours from 2016–2021, Massachusetts environmental justice communities experienced higher than average customer outage hours (570 hours) as compared to the statewide average (505 hours). Jill Collins, Not All Electrical Outages Are Experienced Equally, Conservation Law Found. Blog (Feb. 8, 2023).

Environmental justice communities are also less likely to have the financial resources to resolve climate-related events. While outage data can be helpful to determine the most effective climate resilient interventions, utility providers realistically have no business incentive to make proactive investments to prepare for or mitigate damage from storms without a ratepayer or government funding mechanism. This makes the engagement of community members in a utility’s climate resilient development planning process even more critical, and those who bear the highest energy burden reside in environmental justice communities.

Utilities can ensure that their climate resilience development plans are accessible and inclusive by making proceedings public (in-person and virtual, offered at different times to accommodate different work schedules); ensuring language translation services if appropriate for the community; choosing an ADA-accessible and nonthreatening location for physical meetings; providing child care, food, and refreshments for long meetings; and allowing community members to provide comments and feedback on the utility’s proposed plans either orally or in writing. Utility providers should actively reach out and work collaboratively with all interested stakeholders, including rural, low-income, and community of color organizations throughout the development of their climate resilience plans. See generally Cal. Pub. Util. Comm’n, Business and Community Outreach Program.

Recommendations for Climate Adaptation and Hazard Mitigation Planning

Utilities can implement several recommendations to benefit environmental justice communities during the CRD process. The creation of climate adaptation and hazard mitigation plans and evaluations by utilities require a holistic approach, where all parties to the process are provided the opportunity to participate, including state and local leadership, interested stakeholders, and members of the public. Regulatory entities or a legislative directive can impose the initial requirement upon utilities to engage in climate adaptation and hazard mitigation planning, but a crucial component to the CRD process is public access and engagement with all parties. Community-based decision-making does not equate to “stakeholder consultation”; the draw on the community for input and feedback does allow all parties to the CRD process to understand climate vulnerabilities and inequities, but community members should be able to play an active role in decision-making processes. To ensure an effective community-based model is implemented during the CRD process, regulatory entities should also be prepared to answer questions regarding the type of support being offered to the community, whether the process uses community input and feedback, whether all in the community are equally represented, and how much real decision-making power is delegated to the community.

While community-based decision-making in climate management is increasingly being used to include residents in decisions that impact their future, genuine engagement of community stakeholders by utility providers and government entities is pivotal to the success of the CRD process. For example, during the City of San Leandro, California’s climate adaptation and hazard mitigation planning process, multiple in-person and virtual meetings were held, in addition to community workshops, online surveys, and even games to better understand climate vulnerabilities. Sy Baker, From Consultation to Community-Based Decision Making: How Government Actors Can Drive Inclusive, Effective and Equitable Community Engagement in Environmental Management, Geo. Env’t L. Rev. Online 1 (Jan. 29, 2023).

A company’s climate adaptation and hazard mitigation plan should be developed alongside those of other local distribution companies to ensure environmental justice communities’ climate inequities are incorporated and addressed during the planning process. Utility providers should specifically engage community organizations (including those serving low-income, rural, and people of color) and state, local, and tribal government officials to accurately identify community climate needs and vulnerabilities. In addition to electrical outage data, utility companies can specifically analyze the extent of urban heat islands as part of its climate study, and subsequently work with government entities and community partners to incentivize tree planting and green-roofs in shade-deprived areas. Accessibility to urban green space (while not causing displacement) is important for climate change adaptation, as urban trees can contribute to substantial decreases in air temperatures.

Finally, utility companies can apply equitable adaptation principles as they navigate the CRD process. The practice of these equitable adaptation principles throughout current and future CRD processes may be beneficial to help utility providers address climate equity gaps affecting environmental justice communities within their service territories. The following principles of equitable adaptation have been identified to guide this process:

  • Government entities must play a role (i.e., climate solutions are not the sole responsibility of individual community members);
  • Equitable adaptation measures should acknowledge community demographics to understand how to best serve the most vulnerable;
  • Communication and outreach to the community should be culturally sensitive and accessible;
  • Participation within the process should be encouraged but not required;
  • Indirect environmental stresses, such as stormwater management, should be considered;
  • The interplay between mitigation and adaptation should be considered by policymakers; and
  • Policy development should be cross-disciplinary and comprehensive instead of siloed or piecemeal.

Alice Kaswan, Seven Principles for Equitable Adaptation, 13 Sustainable Dev. L. & Pol’y 41, 42–45 (2012).

The failure to conduct climate adaptation and hazard mitigation planning within environmental justice communities constitutes climate injustice. Environmental justice communities, including low-income, rural, and BIPOC communities, are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events and the lack of climate adaptation, and hazard mitigation planning will create ineffective communication and lack of mitigation strategies and aid to these communities following extreme weather events. Climate adaptation and hazard mitigation planning demands proactive, long-term planning with meaningful involvement of all parties—utility providers; local, state, and tribal governments; community organizations (including those serving low-income, rural, and people of color); and members of the public. As climate change worsens, the needs of environmental justice communities need to be prioritized to ensure continued safety and reliability of water, gas, and electric utility distribution. The regular deployment and review of CRD pathways in climate adaptation and hazard mitigation plans affecting environmental justice communities are crucial to guarantee these vulnerable communities are supported and adapt more equitably during climate change events.