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December 14, 2023 Departments

Climate Change Is a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Issue

Joanne Charles

While climate change threatens everyone, it does not affect everyone equally. Climate change disproportionately impacts historically diverse, underserved, and marginalized communities. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) anchor key considerations when designing and implementing climate change policies. Effective climate change activism requires engaging people from all backgrounds to develop fair solutions. Inclusive climate change action calls for reducing the effects of climate change on vulnerable populations as well as ensuring the fair distribution of the benefits and burdens of climate action. Equity in climate change policy development requires acknowledging the disproportionate impact of climate change and its roots in the historic and systemic oppression of Black, Indigenous, and poor communities. New technologies can support these efforts but not without a proper understanding of what policies and processes contributed to current inequities.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice (EJ) as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Environmental and climate justice are integral parts of social justice. EJ serves as a lens through which social justice principles can be incorporated into fair sustainability practices. Meanwhile, climate justice highlights the disparate impact of climate change on vulnerable communities and promotes the fair distribution of resources to address the impacts of climate change. Science and technology, including innovative research and artificial intelligence, play an essential role in current efforts to end environmental injustice.

Different forms of justice contribute to traditional EJ pillars. Distributive justice focuses on the fair distribution of environmental costs and benefits as well as the allocation of material goods, such as resources, income, and wealth, or the distribution of social standing. Recognitional justice requires the recognition of and respect for differences in shared communities. Procedural justice addresses fair and equitable institutional processes and requires an understanding of unjust resource distribution patterns and how political and social processes impact those patterns contributing to inequities in resource allocation and decision-making.

When inequality in political power and influence remain the norm in environmental decision-making, it leads to procedural environmental injustices. Attempting to address systemic change without inclusive voices only serves to augment existing imbalances and magnify structural inequities. Large language models driving artificial intelligence tools focused on climate change but relying on biased data sets only exacerbate existing inequities unless reviews focused on diversity and inclusion intervene. Including the histories and experiences of diverse communities informs equitable framing of issues and community-focused solutions. The most effective approaches to addressing imbalances rely on input and collaboration from impacted populations to ensure the cultural acceptance of recommendations and proposed technological interventions.

ABA members play an important role assisting communities developing strategies to adapt to the impacts of climate change and influencing inclusive environmental policies. Diverse legal professionals can be effective allies for DEI and EJ through campaigns and pro bono program participation, as well as policy drafting and litigation support. To learn more about what ABA member projects, visit the ABA Section of Environment, Energy and Resources (SEER) diversity resources page for a listing of DEI-related programs assembled by members of SEER’s Special Committee for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging.

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Joanne Charles

Gilead Sciences

Joanne Charles is chair of the MAD Committee and associate general counsel at Gilead Sciences. Her work focuses on AI, privacy, and data ethics. Prior to joining Gilead, Joanne was senior corporate counsel in Microsoft’s Corporate, External and Legal Affairs team.