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Planning for Disaster

Community climate-adaptation initiatives preserve and build on stark geographic inequalities.

Scandinavian design is going to war with climate change in New York City, but the battle hasn’t yet left Manhattan. Sometime next year NYC will break ground along the East River for the East Side Coastal Resiliency project, a 2.3 mile, $335 million flood barrier that doubles as a park.

The barrier park — a strip of curved concrete and green space — is designed by Danish architecture firm BiG, and is as modern as the rest of its Manhattan portfolio, which includes a pyramidal condominium complex on the Hudson river and plans for an eighty-story tower at 2 World Trade Center.

The barrier is the first major project arising from former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $20 billion climate-adaptation program, announced in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and intended to prepare the city for future climate disasters. That it begins with starchitect-designed protection for the small strip of Manhattan which holds the bulk of their other pricey creations is perhaps a good indicator of where the city’s priorities lie.

The development also signals a new, more fractured era of climate policy. While national governments continue to debate multilateral commitments to emission reductions, many state and city governments have begun making their own preparations for the eventual effects of a warming world.

That means as climate change progresses, its politics become increasingly local. Over and over, we’re reminded that we’re are all in it together, that global warming is a tragedy of the commons, that carbon released in China goes into the same atmosphere as carbon released in Belize.

But when its eventual effects come to batter our door they will arrive at an exact address: floods and heat waves are intensely local disasters, and their history tells us that we are very much not in it together. Anywhere they strike the poorest residents are often hurt the most, lacking both the resources to rebuild and the protections that accrue to richer areas.

If billions are being committed to fighting the effects of climate change, we should rightly be asking where they’re going, and who benefits. And we should ask now because the ball is already moving on local adaptation projects.

Green Land-Grabs

According to a 2015 study there are currently 4,104 different climate-change adaptation initiatives underway amongt the 117 members of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Among Schedule I nations (mostly rich countries) adaptation programs have increased 87 percent since the last reporting period in 2010.

New York City will be among the first to break ground on a major climate-adaptation project, but it doesn’t have a big lead. Most major cities in North America and Europe have similar plans, encompassing the infrastructure and policy changes to deal with their own local damage. A study in Nature Climate Change estimated that the adaptation economy of New York City is nearly $2.2 billion, London $1.6 billion, and Paris $1.2 billion, of mostly public money.

These cities are already some of the most unequal in the world. Now their planning machinery, whether it is zoning, developing, building infrastructure, or providing services, is being tasked with preparing for the most transformative threat of our time.

In New York, Bloomberg’s original strategy is being run as part of Mayor De Blasio’s oneNYC program, promising “growth, sustainability, resiliency, and equity.” In Vancouver, climate adaptation is administered alongside their “Greenest City” action plan.

But while the language of sustainability and social justice is now common for any urban development plan, treating climate adaptation as business as usual leaves it open to the same lopsided outcomes that define the modern city. Traditional green development initiatives, despite their presentation, don’t follow any specific moral imperative toward equality.

Urban forestation and green spaces have ended up in rich neighborhoods the same way other amenities do. A Los Angeles–based study shows that, historically, the municipal bonds used to develop parks — intended to be distributed equally across the city — were used in wealthier neighborhoods. Similarly, forest cover and green space within cities tends to follow income distribution.

These aren’t just quality-of-life projects, either. Most adaptation plans will be relying on green space as both a heat sink and a flooding reservoir. The adaptation section of the climate plan for Sacramento, for example, maps urban heat islands and identifies the need to plant at least a thousand additional trees a year, in addition to early warning systems and better medical responses.

But multiple studies and reports have found that poor and minority neighborhoods in Sacramento already have fewer trees and more exposed heat-trapping surfaces than other areas. The 2006 California heat wave, which killed 140 people, including fourteen in Sacramento, disproportionately affected those same neighborhoods.

Even large-scale infrastructure projects that benefit everyone often distribute their costs unequally. A 2010 paper in Global Environmental Change highlighted a desalination plant near Melbourne, Australia as a project that provided climate relief while also exacerbating inequality.

The plant, presented partly as a solution for future climate-driven water shortages, is a public-private partnership that cost over $4 billion. Like many infrastructure projects, it was funded by an increase in future service costs, estimated at the time to be an 11 percent increase in water bills — as of 2013 the increase was reportedly as high as 22 percent.

The Melbourne desalination plant model is not unique by any means. Many areas fund flood defenses such as dykes and seawalls — of which there will be many more constructed as sea levels rise — with a similar price hike in water or other services. This kind of funding structure imposes a much greater burden on poor residents, who spend a higher proportion of their income on basic services and housing costs.

Climate plans also call for significant changes to building codes and standards in order to insulate against heat or raise structures above floodwaters. Few proposed changes have been operationalized so far, but without support for housing upgrades it is likely that costs will be disproportionately borne by low-income residents. Poor and working-class people are more likely to live in flood-prone regions, and their housing and infrastructure is generally less resilient to begin with.

This was apparent in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, when low-lying areas like Staten Island and Red Hook suffered devastating damage, much of it beyond repair. Their experience recovering from the storm offers a sobering example of what the future of local climate policy looks like for low-income areas.

After forming community groups to negotiate post-storm compensation and buyouts, several working-class neighborhoods in Staten Island had their property purchased by the New York State government to be abandoned and converted into a wetland barrier against future storms. The prices offered were fair — although some residents in other high-risk areas that suffered extensive flood damage wanted buyouts and weren’t offered them — but there was significant mistrust of the process.

People in the community blamed the recent high rate of development near the seaside for much of the storm damage. They had to be assured the land would be used for public protection, and not flipped to the next highest bidder. “Residents didn’t want to see their home bulldozed to make space for luxury condos,” one of the organizers said at the time.

Their caution wasn’t in any way misplaced, either. The New York City government reportedly offered a similar buyout program; only it wanted to retain the right to sell the land to developers in the future.

Profit-motivated offers of help to people in crisis is one step away from a land-grab, but even the relatively better New York State offer reveals the inequalities inherent within current climate-adaptation projects.

The wetland barriers constructed on formerly occupied properties will benefit huge numbers of people by offering widespread protection from storm surges, at the cost of just the land value of a few working-class neighborhoods. But those communities are also now gone. It’s hard to imagine the population of lower Manhattan being asked to make a similar sacrifice.

Yet sea level rise cannot be sandbagged against forever. Right now the concept of retreat is unthinkable to most Western politicians. “As New Yorkers, we cannot and will not abandon our waterfront,” then mayor Michael Bloomberg said when he first unveiled his climate-adaptation plan.

But retreat is being discussed around the margins. The city of Surrey, British Columbia, had a strip of inhabited land valued by the government for abandonment in 2013 as part of its climate-adaptation strategy; governments in Belgium and Holland have had inhabited farmlands abandoned; the UK government regularly decommissions sea defenses in areas that have become untenable to protect.

Business as Usual?

The idea that in the future the rich will have their homes defended while others will be bought out at market rates and abandoned is not unprecedented; it’s a common reality for post-disaster populations.

For example, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back commission presented an action plan for redevelopment. Written in the modern argot of development, it promised a “sustainable, environmentally safe, socially equitable community with a vibrant economy” protected from future hurricanes by rebuilt defenses and floodable urban greenspace.

The trouble was, the areas the plan singled out as “possible future parkland” included Broadmoor, Little Gentilly, and the Lower Ninth Ward. These were historically poor and black neighborhoods that had suffered extensive damage, in no small part due to decades of neglect by the city.

To residents of those areas, the plan appeared to suggest that their land and homes were disposable and easily reassigned.  Despite the nods to equitable and sustainable development, it replicated the same attitudes that produced the city’s pre-disaster inequality.

The language framing New Orleans’s development plan could be swapped with that of any number of adaptation plans. If this is what the recent past holds, it’s easy to imagine a future in which business as usual also continually fails to support the poorest residents to prepare and recover from disasters. The only wrinkle that climate change planning adds is the foresight to do it before a storm hits.

But New Orleans offers more than just a lesson in the callousness of a single city government. There is also a template for local action. A groundswell of local organizing cropped up in response to the plan: civic and neighborhood organizations returned to the city, or formed anew, held meetings, and engaged with city planners. The groups worked both to restore their own homes, and to demand accountability from city government. Successful efforts were launched to reform the levee boards, and the Bring New Orleans Back commission was disbanded.

Climate change lacks the urgency of such an aftermath — most of its consequences still lie in the future — but there is a need for the same sort of strong local political action to ensure that cities protect more than just their richest assets.

And there is some cause for hope. In many respects, on-the-ground plans to mitigate climate effects — power grid upgrades, seawalls, and flood recovery programs — are more tangible, at least compared to high-level meetings on emissions targets and aid packages. And unlike those closed-off negotiations, the process is accessible to local political action — action that often echoes familiar fights: green development and city regeneration initiatives have consistently preserved the economic status quo, and disaster recovery has prioritized a return to prosperity and production over long-term resilience.

When these outcomes have been altered, it is often because of the action of local housing associations, civic rights groups, labor unions, and environmentalists fighting to ensure community representation. This continued engagement is crucial. Without it there is a danger that any increased rate of local decision-making — especially if it is presented as urgent and moral under the banner of climate change — will, on balance, tilt against poor residents.

Indeed, left to their own devices, most city planners and corporate developers are doing very little to incorporate community decision-making: a survey in 2012 reported that less than half of cities developing adaptation plans held public meetings, and even fewer partnered directly with community groups.

But there are many working to change that. The New York Environmental Justice Alliance has promoted resilience planning in waterfront neighborhoods, and pressured city hall to focus on low-income areas in its adaptation plan. In California, the Oakland Climate Action Coalition includes community groups, housing associations, labor unions, and religious organizations. It works to promote collective action on community resilience, and engages with the city on its climate plans.

The alliance of environmental activists and groups working to fight local inequality is a natural one. Climate change is an environmental issue, but the work of preparing for its effects is largely indistinguishable from development.

This has long been recognized at the international level. In the early days of climate negotiation, adaptation was hardly mentioned — preparing for the eventual effects of global warming was seen as a profoundly defeatist stance — but over the past decade a coalition of environmental and aid activists have fought together to tilt some of the vast, abstract sums committed by the negotiators towards the world’s poorest regions.

They are working with the understanding that stronger, more economically secure communities, with reliable access to services, are more resilient and will be better prepared for a world where disasters are both more frequent and more severe. And that will be as true in London as it is in Quito. The more granular work of securing that future for specific cities, neighborhoods, and people will require the participation of groups familiar with challenging those same local political structures.

This means that housing associations, health partnerships, labor unions, and community activists are not only welcome allies, but absolutely necessary to shift the balance of climate adaptation from business as usual towards something more transformative.