Giving Voice to Poor, Minorities on Climate Change

By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island is one of a handful of states that is taking a proactive approach to climate change. The Rhode Island Climate Commission, a 28-member board consisting of representatives from a bevy of governmental and non-governmental organizations, recently convened for the first time and is tasked with developing a plan for adapting and mitigating the inevitable effects of climate change on the Ocean State.

It’s no secret that low-income communities and neighborhoods of color have been overwhelmingly affected by the march of technology when it comes to environmental pollution, and that pollution has certainly contributed to the problem of climate change. Consequently, climate change poses a greater threat to those traditionally underserved communities. Fortunately, a group of local environmental and social justice organizations has banded together to ensure that those communities have a voice within the R.I. Climate Commission.

“Decision makers tend to overlook vulnerable populations, ECRI wanted to make sure that didn’t happen within the state’s attempts to address climate change," said Michael Roles, the Environmental Council of Rhode Island's lead for the project.

The "Beats of Resilience" project — formulated by ECRI and funded through grants from The Rode Island Foundation and the National Wildlife Foundation — includes several agencies, such as the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island, English for Action and the Rhode Island Student Climate Coalition. The project has already drafted several recommendations to the Climate Commission intended to protect marginalized communities:

Develop a master plan that ensures proper upgrades and maintenance to access roads, bridges, storm drains and public buildings within and near dense and low-income communities for disaster preparedness and response measures.

Promote green space, permeable surfaces and trees in all planning for future land use and roads in urban centers, especially those in watersheds and near the coast.

Implement a plan for the clean up of sites with high concentrations of toxics and waste, where flooding could exacerbate the problem to nearby properties.

Establish and improve access to cooling centers that can provide sanctuary and shelter to the indigent during extreme heat.

Promote urban and regional agriculture by making unused public land, including school grounds, city land and park land, accessible for long-term use for personal, nonprofit and micro-enterprise organic and sustainable food production, prioritizing projects that are culturally appropriate, create green-collar jobs for low-income residents and direct food produced to low-income communities through retail, food banks and schools. Require and supply assistance in soil testing and remediation.

Improve the accessibility of energy-efficiency programs for low-income residents, and allow tenants who receive Low Income Home Energy assistance (LIHEAP) to live in affordable housing and/or pay their own energy bills to make energy-efficiency upgrades with greater sovereignty from landlords.

Promote energy-efficiency upgrades with owners of property in urban centers.

 “We believe that the communities that will be the most adversely affected by climate change will come up with the best solutions,” Roles said. “The conversation about climate change has been almost exclusively framed for the middle and upper class, but low-income communities need solutions that are not based on consumerism.”

Roles said the project is already addressing climate change in these communities with tree planting programs, increasing access to weatherization programs and, come this spring, will be building a community garden on the South Side.

“The problem of climate change certainly overlaps the problems of social inequality and wealth distribution. It’s understandable that these vulnerable communities are fed up with a political system that largely ignores them,” he said. “But we need an integrated approach to climate change that doesn’t overlook the concerns of these communities.”

The project is maintaining a blog that features updates about ongoing efforts and initiatives Membership in the project is open. Any group that wishes to be involved in the project should contact Roles, via e-mail, at