Panel Paper: Environmental Justice in the Face of Existential Threats: Local Governments and Climate

Thursday, November 8, 2018
Johnson - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Adam Eckerd, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, Elise Whitaker, University of North Carolina, Charlotte and Susan Sterett, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

By some estimates the effects of climate change are already being felt. The breadth and diffuse nature of these effects presents a policy challenge, in part, because the preliminary effects are predominantly emerging at the local level. Local governments are diverse in terms of their capacities and the governance structures under which they operate and almost certainly do not have a meaningful ability to manage or lead the response to a global problem. And yet, in the absence of meaningful national or international level action to address the challenge, local governments will need to find ways to manage the local effects. Realistically, we can expect that most of this management will be marginal in scope, focused on small scale adaptations rather than large scale mitigation efforts.

Even these marginal efforts are likely to be complex, however. Addressing environmental challenges encompass a wide range of different social effects, including the economy, natural resources, housing, and issues of equity and justice. As local governments around the world begin planning for climate change, however, we do not know much about the ways local governments are balancing these different challenges. Historically, the policy focus of environmental improvement has tended towards economic concerns, with benefits often accruing disproportionately. Yet, decades of awareness of environmental justice issues has shifted our language and understanding about diverse environmental problems, if not necessarily the actual distribution of environmental quality.

In this paper we ask a deceptively simple question: to what extent are environmental justice concerns expressed in the context of local government efforts to manage problems associated with climate change? Behind this simple veneer hides a complex set of considerations, including understanding how local governments, often with very limited capacity, choose priorities, how they manage complex problems for which they generally lack any support from above, and the ways that local governments understand existential threats that they can realistically do little to address. We probe these questions by considering a set of cases of climate change planning in the southeastern United States. We do so through in-depth case analyses of four rather different contexts that all face climate change challenges underlain with environmental justice issues. First, we assess how a mostly poor urban government, but one with a significant federal presence, manages the problem by looking at Norfolk, Virginia. Second, we contrast Norfolk with its wealthier neighbor, Virginia Beach, Virginia. We then consider how a variety of different local governments through South Carolina and Georgia manage the problem as it relates to the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor to assess how distinct minority populations are or are not discussed in climate change planning. Finally, we consider how the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes in South Florida interact with neighboring local governments to deal with issues of sea level rise on tribal lands.