Government sustainability programs have an equality problem

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ByTebany Yune
Originally Published: 

Here's the ugly truth: It's easier for affluent households to adjust for climate change than it is for disadvantaged families. People with higher income have more leeway to budget for energy efficient options — like switching to different lightbulbs, driving electric cars, and purchasing energy-saving appliances — to reduce their carbon footprint. For families who have to make a choice between paying the bills or paying for food, being energy efficient doesn't usually reach the top 10 on their list of concerns.

This concerns some state leaders because the effects of climate change can impact disadvantaged communities the most. According to the Climate and Health Assessment, a study conducted by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), climate change "is a significant threat to the health of the American people" due to the increase in frequency and severity of extreme weather, dangerously high temperatures, the loss of food and water quality, and the spreading of disease-carrying mosquitoes that flourish in warmer weather. Although these issues can harm everyone, they could disproportionately hurt groups that are more vulnerable than others: Low-income households, communities of color, immigrant groups, Indigenous peoples, the elderly, and individuals struggling with medical conditions.

To address this gap in equity, researchers from Rutgers University conducted an independent study of states that are part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). This initiative is a combined effort by nine states — Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont — to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Each state agrees to adopt regulations and programs that follow the RGGI model to keep carbon emissions at a low level. As an added bonus, these states have received economic benefits, such as additional jobs, that come from mindful investments in energy efficiency.

Rutgers' research team reviewed these RGGI states — along with two states and two cities with their own climate change programs: California, Illinois, Austin (Texas), and Columbus (Ohio) — to review each state's progress in spreading these benefits to disadvantaged communities. The study, titled Field Notes: Equity and State Climate Policy, found that the states absolutely require the participation of these underserved households to reach low-carbon goals, but still struggle with bringing their programs, message, and benefits to these communities.

The benefits of climate change programs


For disadvantaged communities, energy efficiency programs can offer a relief from high energy bills. According to the report, previous studies have noted that at-risk households often "spend a larger portion [of] their income on home energy costs" with low-income, rural households paying the most in bills. The researchers cited a 2015 survey conducted by the U.S. Energy Information Administration stating that "nearly one-third of U.S. households (31%) reported facing a challenge in paying energy bills or sustaining adequate heating and cooling in their homes in 2015." The same survey found that one in five households were sacrificing food and medicine to pay their energy bills.

With climate change programs, these costs could be reduced for everyone — both the state and its residents. Programs that encourage switching to renewable energy have already saved states money, noted Michael Milken, CEO of the economic think tank Milken Institute, to CNBC. He believes using renewable energy is a matter of good economics.

“The state that has the lowest cost energy, Texas, is the state in the United States that has the largest amount of wind power,” he pointed out.

Another benefit to clean, renewable energy is improving the air quality. In the USGCRP's Climate and Health Assessment, the organization warned that poor air quality resulting from pollution and changes in the local climate can directly effect a person's health. The assessment stated that "populations exposed to ozone air pollution are at greater risk of dying prematurely, being admitted to the hospital for respiratory hospital admissions, being admitted to the emergency department, and suffering from aggravated asthma, among other impacts." The New York Times has also found that air pollution can shorten lives by as much as a year depending on the location.

Clean energy won't just help low-income households by reducing energy costs — it'll help them save on medical bills, too.

The challenges in reaching out to communities

It's not easy for disadvantaged groups to jump right into the climate change movement. The RGGI study found that there were "social, economic, environmental, and community factors" that served as roadblocks to receiving the economic and health benefits of energy efficient policies. This is where local governments are expected to step up and help — but a number of obstacles can make these efforts difficult.

The researchers noticed a handful of similar challenges that popped up for each state. The states struggled with limited resources, finding it a big mountain to climb when trying to expand climate change programs that could help disadvantaged communities. Government hiring freezes, for example, hindered policy efforts in some states. Limited resources also made it difficult to provide assistance to residents living in old homes that needed extensive efforts to become energy efficient.

Sometimes, states forgot to include low-income households completely; they lacked policies that could reach out to these groups and, instead, focused solely on reducing CO2 emissions. Separate programs with the sole purpose of informing and educating underserved communities had to be considered.

States also wrestled with public support for these programs. Some residents didn't understand the technology or didn't trust the state to help them. Other residents didn't know they were eligible for any energy saving assistance programs. There were also individuals who didn't consider climate change an urgent matter, which can contribute to stunting a program's progress.

Creating a balance between forming climate change policies and keeping energy costs low for residents, businesses, and large industries also proved difficult for states. The diversity of people and businesses within a state can make it difficult to find a middle-ground that could benefit everyone.

Room for improvement

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Rutgers' RGGI study suggests that the participating states are learning how to better serve these groups, although there is still work to do before progress is made. The researchers recommend that the RGGI participants (and the other states/cities with climate change policies) consider more transparent processes that call for input from members of the community. The local leadership should also explain the benefits of climate change policies to residents and prove it through solid commitments to the programs. This could build more confidence and trust in their policies.

The research team also suggests that states develop more tools and means of measurement to analyze the effectiveness of their programs in these communities. Providing fact-based evidence to the public will help people understand the benefits of climate change policies beyond reducing carbon emissions. The team calls for states to consider what's important to disadvantaged communities — how clean energy can improve living environments, work opportunities in the industry, and health benefits — and place an emphasis on how climate change policies can help with their concerns.

Further study and analysis is, of course, necessary. The Rutgers report doesn't compare disadvantaged communities in an RGGI state with disadvantaged communities in a state without climate change policies, so it's still unclear whether one group is better off than the other by proximity. But the report does point to an awareness and a positive step towards including everyone in the climate change movement. As more people continue to learn how clean energy can reduce costs and improve their health in the long run, additional state resources can, hopefully, be diverted towards supporting underserved groups.