Climate Change and Inequality: A Vicious Cycle

Graphic Designed by: Rose Lee

The BRB Bottomline: As the costs of climate change mount. policy-makers and environmentalists alike are struggling to find solutions. What is often overlooked through this process, however, is the impact of climate policy on inequality. 

It was with unanimous support that Berkeley’s city council passed a landmark ordinance to ban natural gas hook-ups in new buildings this past month. 

With rapid technological and market developments driving down the price of renewable energy, achieving California’s goal of 100% zero-carbon energy by 2045 is a challenge the state is ready to face. What legislators and voters may be overlooking, however, are the social impacts of such policies.

Climate Change and Inequality: A Vicious Cycle

Climate change is a contentious issue for environmentalists and human rights activists alike because of its profound consequences and disproportionate impact on vulnerable and socially marginalized populations. More than 1.8 million Californians live in areas “already heavily burdened by environmental pollution” and 92% of them are people of color. 

Climate change legislation without thoughtful implementation provisions force individuals who lack the resources to purchase the necessary technology into ostracization and perhaps financial trouble. 

Even just financing day-to-day energy needs are already a burden for most families. According to a report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), “One in three U.S. households faces a challenge in meeting energy needs.” Households that had incomes lower than $20,000 or that identified with a minority racial group were hit hardest.

A study from the California Building Industry Association concluded that switching from gas to electricity will cost the average California homeowner over $7,200 in upfront expenses, meaning electrification will only worsen the existing burden.

As wealthier people move away from gas, the same fixed costs of legacy energy infrastructure will have to be divided by a smaller and smaller number of customers, raising prices for everyone left behind. We can already see the impact of broad electrification, with SoCalGas requesting a 30% increase between 2018 and 2022, and PG&E a 15% increase between 2019-2022. 

This paradigm is reminiscent of the Digital Divide, a term used to explain the growing gap between those with access to information technology and those without. A rapid transition to sustainable energy could create a chasm between those who can afford to adapt to high-cost environmental initiatives and those who cannot—a Green Divide.

Moving Forward

The impetus for solving climate change must come from the public sector to create the financial carrots and sticks that incentivize private actors to consider the costs of polluting the environment. If this legislation doesn’t happen, the effects of climate change will be all the more acutely felt in these communities. The response must be to prioritize these same communities in climate policy. There must be greater efforts to remedy deep and possibly even deadly inequities in pollution exposure while ensuring that the most polluted and climate-impacted communities benefit the most from the renewable energy transformation we need to tackle climate change.

New York’s Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA) is an example of a strong step forward. The CCPA has received support from environmentalists and underrepresented communities alike due to the emphasis on a just transition to a low-carbon economy. Included are elements which ensure at least 40% of the revenue from climate-related funding streams “prioritize direct benefits to frontline, environmental justice, and disadvantaged communities.”

Another potential solution is implementing a gas transition strategy to protect consumers. This would entail a targeted retirement of gas pipelines to reduce infrastructure costs. Market development is another key strategy, starting with bills such as SB 1477, which will deploy $50 million annually to make climate-friendly homes more accessible.

Take Home Points

Climate change policy is one of the strongest tools we have to handle climate change. But at what cost? Marginalized populations disproportionately burdened by climate change are facing a new issue—the inability to keep up with rapidly changing initiatives. Inequality must always be a part of the climate change discussion, and new policies must be introduced to ensure that we can reach our goal of zero carbon equitably. 

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