Cleveland’s Plan for Climate Justice Could be a Model for the Rest of the Country

By Shani Saxon Jun 23, 2021

Conversations around climate justice solutions are getting louder now that the Biden administration is discussing the climate crisis as environmental justice, NPR reports. The big question is what actions need to be taken now in order to best protect heavily-impacted, marginalized communities moving forward. 

This new nationwide focus on environmental justice could lead to much-needed jobs in low-income neighborhoods through “low-tech approaches to climate action,” according to NPR. “They include aid for home renovations and upgrades to city transportation infrastructure, including buses.”

"The environmental justice community, and many of our Black and brown communities, have identified the connection between climate change and their own community infrastructure," Cecilia Martinez, senior director for environmental justice at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told NPR. “They can’t be disconnected.”

The White House in January announced plans to consult with “State, local, and Tribal officials,” as well as other advocates, about potential next steps. Matt Gray, formerly chief of sustainability in Cleveland and current senior vice president of programs at the Student Conservation Association, highlights the significance of this step in an interview with NPR. He made it clear that local communities and cities have been equating climate action with climate justice for several years. "What we’re seeing now at a national level has bubbled up from the cities for a good six, seven years," Gray said. "A lot of cities have come to realize that climate action and climate justice are one and the same."

Cleveland is a great example of one of those cities, according to NPR. It began linking climate policy and social equity years ago, which led to the city creating a clearer picture of what climate justice actually looks like. 

NPR reports:

Gray says he thinks that it offers lessons to other cities — and to the Biden administration. For Cleveland, the White House’s infrastructure proposals offer the biggest opportunity in years to advance its goals for both equity and climate change. "It’s a sea change," says Mike Foley, director of sustainability for Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland. "There’s actually resources now to do some of this stuff, which is a real game changer." 

Cleveland, which has one of the highest poverty-levels in the United States, created a "climate action plan" three years ago that targeted cutting greenhouse gas emissions, according to NPR. The goal is for the area to rely solely on renewable energy by 2050. 

Kimberly Foreman, executive director of Environmental Health Watch, was a leader in convincing the city to focus on climate justice back in 2018. Foreman explained to NPR that Cleveland’s previous discussions of climate policy didn’t factor in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. "It was a little elitist, right?" she said. "Or heavily focused on technology. Which is not getting down to the grassroots, or getting down to the people who are most impacted."

Cleveland officials set out to find solutions by holding neighborhood climate meetings in order to discuss widespread health issues, cost prohibitive utility bills, the need for green spaces, better public transportation, and other topics impacting communities of color. "I was encouraged that people did not feel hopeless. They came to the table, unfiltered, and said what they believed to be the needs within their community,” said SeMia Bray, co-facilitator of a recently founded group in Cleveland called Black Environmental Leaders.

According to NPR, three things rose to the top of Cleveland’s climate action priorities: “housing, transit and trees.” Cleveland, however, lacked the funds necessary to build the new infrastructure they needed in order to address these priorities.

"It’s like we’re going uphill, going against the wind," Bray told NPR. "We’re trying to get to large-scale carbon reduction, but there’s this wind of state regulation, there’s this hill of not enough resources."

“The only way to get to scale for cities like Cleveland, I feel, is through a lot of federal support,” he added.

That federal support could become a reality with the Biden Administration’s American Jobs Plan infrastructure proposal aligning perfectly with Cleveland’s climate priorities. As NPR reports, “that package, which requires approval from Congress, includes more than $200 billion to build or retrofit homes; $85 billion for public transit, along with another $20 billion for transportation projects that would specifically help disadvantaged communities; and $100 billion for clean energy.”

While there’s no guarantee that American Jobs Plan will be approved by Congress, Cleveland officials are hopeful that the country is on the verge of making a positive change. "To have support, to implement some of the things we all know we need to do, is fantastic," Jason Wood, Cleveland’s current chief of sustainability, told NPR. "We have spent a big chunk of the last decade-plus preparing ourselves to take advantage of the moment."