As I reflect back on my work as the climate change coordinator for the Town of Philipstown, I am remiss that I didn’t do enough to incorporate climate adaptation and climate justice. The hard truth is maybe I’ve been working hard to save the planet, and inadvertently preserving the status quo?

In 2018 I attended a conference in Los Angeles and I remember being horrified to hear the story of a young woman who lived, played and attended school surrounded by oil wells. She shared her story of growing up with nausea, nosebleeds and headaches. I was in disbelief: Toxic oil wells in a city, and so close to people? Weren’t they supposed to be in some far-off place? 

It turns out there are thousands of active oil wells in L.A., with most installed in low-income and minority communities. (Think of the Danskammer gas-fired plant in Newburgh.) Oil, gas and coal all are extracted from somewhere, and next to those facilities is often a community whose residents are paying the price with their health to keep the gears of industry and society turning. 

Our conversation was the first time I had heard the term climate justice. From her I learned why justice must be at the center of climate action.

Climate justice acknowledges that global warming has deeper social, economic, public health and other adverse impacts on underprivileged populations. Climate change is inherently a social issue, because its impacts will not be borne equally, or fairly, between rich and poor, women and men, and older and younger generations.

The inequity begins with those who live in “sacrifice zones” (usually lower-income families and people of color who live near polluting industries). It’s about identifying which companies create the majority of our carbon emissions and holding them accountable. It’s about identifying who is impacted disproportionately and who will benefit most from a transition to a greener economy. 

In the Highlands, we can apply a climate justice lens to adaptation work by identifying who is most vulnerable and how we can make sure that if, and when, climate-related disasters strike, they are not left behind.

If municipalities want to embrace climate justice, they need to move from an individualistic mindset to a collective one. In This Book Will Save the Planet, Dany Sigwalt and Aurelia Durand mention a few key ways to cultivate and sustain relationships, such as community asset-mapping (what are the skills, resources and materials that people can share?); mutual aid (creating networks to distribute goods and services in time of need); emergency planning; and mitigation and resilience policies that prioritize lower-income residents during disasters such as heatwaves, droughts and wildfires.

Climate justice is choosing to replace our extractive, capitalistic, fossil fuel-based economy with a more just, clean, electric one that addresses the inequality baked into the system. And the future, when it comes, is exciting. Cleaner air, cleaner water, less noise pollution and healthier people. Shouldn’t we be aiming for everyone to thrive and not just survive?

Behind The Story

Type: Opinion

Opinion: Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.

Ford, who lives in Garrison, is The Current's Living Green columnist and coordinator for the Town of Philipstown's Climate Smart Communities program.