This is a guest essay by Danielle Deane. Deane is a Program Officer at the Hewlett Foundation, where she runs the New Constituencies for the Environment initiative. She is also a 2007-2008 Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE) Connecting Leaders Fellow. The essay is part of a series on climate equity.


Danielle Dean1. What would climate equity look like? What’s the end state we’re aiming for?

Climate change is going to hurt the poor the most, but there are ways to make a difference. Legislators and policy makers who promote reforms to reduce climate change should include in their considerations the impact of reforms on the most vulnerable populations. This is beginning to happen. California’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act, AB 32, has a provision mandating that measures to reduce global warming cannot cause additional pollution in neighborhoods already suffering from unhealthy conditions.

Second, rich nations should speed the spread of clean, energy efficient technologies and practices to developing countries. Doing so should be a funding and policy priority. Right now, too many nations are pointing fingers instead of leading. We need to see leapfrogging. There is no time to waste.

Third, the “green economy” is attracting tremendous investment capital and can have great economic benefits. Who is getting access to these dollars, and where will be benefits occur? The communities most in need of job opportunities could benefit, but that is not likely to happen without deliberate effort. There is potential for economic and environmental wins. It should come as no surprise, then, that many labor unions support a greener energy policy at the federal level.

2. What are the policy steps that start us down the road?

We need a cap on carbon designed with equity in mind. That means, among other things, that climate change policies and Environmental Impact Reports for major projects should be required to consider the impact on the populations most vulnerable to climate change. An “Equity Analysis,” if you will, along with economic opportunity analyses.

Beyond that, regulators should compel companies to report on greenhouse gas emissions across the complete life cycle of a product. Right now, some companies call themselves environmentally responsible, but a look at what went into every facet of their products, including components that were outsourced and the products’ ultimate disposal, would tell a different story. Often companies exclude the impact of exporting their dirtiest production processes and waste into poorer countries with lax environment standards. It’s just another way that the poor bear a disproportionate price for environmental degradation.

If we don’t demand more honesty about which practices are genuinely green, it will be harder to slow global warming and the most vulnerable populations will pay the greatest price. Life cycle reporting will shine a light on how “green” companies really are, and incentivize companies to work with their suppliers to reduce environmental impacts.

3. What’s needed, politically speaking, to marshal support for those policy steps?

We need political pressure on our elected leaders, from across the political and economic spectrum. That means we need resources for effective, strategic mobilization and advocacy to generate that pressure.

Organizations working on behalf of the most affected communities — with the most at stake — need significantly more resources. It is going to take more than the work of traditional environmental organizations. We are already seeing partnerships with unions, green businesses, churches, and social justice organizations. We’ll need this and more to win this battle.