15 Feb 2021

Climate change is hyper local. Frontline communities must be empowered to direct resources and capital.


Dr. Karthik Balakrishnan


President and Co-Founder


Danica Sachs



The reality of climate change is that it is a hyper local problem: communities in different geographic regions will see different impacts. Some parts of the world will see flooding, and others drought. Some regions will see colder temperatures in winter with more severe storms, and other regions will be warmer and drier. Other areas will see changes in animal migration patterns, or an increase in pests like mosquitos or crop-destroying locusts and worms. Economic damages will vary too: In the United States, the South will see more significant economic costs as temperatures get higher and drought turns farmland to dust. These varied impacts mean that we need different mitigation strategies to combat the climate crisis.

At the same time, equity demands that quality of life improves for billions around the world. As energy needs increase to meet basic needs like access to food, water, internet and reliable electricity, this compounds the problems of climate change, and magnifies these regional impacts. To avoid runaway feedback loops, communities need both climate change remediation strategies and development projects that respond to the local context. Some of the building blocks may be the same—solar panels used to power water pumps, bus chargers, and homes; heat pumps used to cool homes, factories, and hospitals—but the final solution will look different for each community.

Why empower frontline communities? Most models forecasting the effects of climate change are scaled at the regional or national level, but in fact the most profound shifts we will see as the earth warms are highly localized. Within cities and across regions, staggering inequality and climate impacts that can vary by neighborhood mean that mitigations implemented at the state or national level can fail to address the unique challenges these frontline communities face.

Take for example Treasure Island, California, which is part of the city of San Francisco, but has an incredibly unreliable power supply. Rolling blackouts are frequent, and can last for hours on end, causing food and medications to spoil in warm refrigerators, and risking the health of those who rely on medical devices. Politicians in the city would never tolerate this level of irregularity in the power grid if it happened in a wealthier neighborhood. The root of the problem lies in the lack of accountability to a single source: ownership, maintenance and funding of the power infrastructure are all split between overlapping government entities. For the majority of San Francisco residents the problem is peripheral. The result is that residents of the island are effectively disenfranchised from the political process by this lack of attention to a very basic need. Even though the solution is straightforward, and the cost of stabilizing the grid reasonable, navigating the process to fix the problem is out of reach for the members of the community. While there is a plan in the works now to remedy these intermittent power failures, the problem has been ongoing for years. If the Treasure Island community had the ability to deploy capital locally—instead of waiting for sufficient political will—years of pain could have been averted.

Another uniquely urban problem is the well-documented heat island effect. With large swaths of asphalt, reflections from buildings, and less natural water and shading from trees, urbanized areas tend to absorb more heat than natural areas in the same location. People assume that heat islands are a city-wide problem, but in fact they are highly localized. The heat island effect depends on specific local conditions, and can vary zip code by zip code within a broader urban area. Heat islands are not an unavoidable consequence of cities and are easily counteracted by adding small parks and fountains, planting trees, and creating building codes that encourage green roofs. Hotter neighborhoods that lack these features tend to be lower income and city political leaders may not visit them often. In places like these, recreation areas tend to be more utilitarian, and resources are not directed towards increasing green spaces and maintaining canals and fountains. Those in hotter zip codes are also less likely to be able to afford the costs to install and run air conditioning in their homes, and may not have easy access to community-operated cooling centers. Local communities facing these challenges often push for more greenery, but they lack the political power to direct funding to fix the problem. This issue will be especially important in the face of climate change, as increased global warming means these heat micro-islands will get even hotter. Heat-related illnesses are already on the rise in some of the hottest parts of places like Arizona and Florida. Regional policies can push for lower dependence on cars and more use of transit and biking, but we need to ensure that individuals can walk to the bus stop without risking heat stroke. Cities are an important solution to climate change, as they are a much more efficient use of resources than suburban sprawl. These cities must be livable for all.

Similar issues arise in rural communities, where lack of direct access to resources means that any higher level mitigations gloss over their unique climate problems and quality of life needs. Nearly 1 million Californians, mostly residing in the rural, agricultural Central Valley, do not have access to clean drinking water. High levels of toxins like nitrates and arsenic—used in fertilizers and naturally occurring, and exacerbated by excessive groundwater pumping in drought years—mean that the farm workers who live in these rural, often unincorporated towns rely on bottled water to meet their basic needs. The problem is not necessarily a shortage of water. In fact, many communities that lack clean water are within just one mile of communities which have excellent water. Rather this is a challenge driven entirely by cost: How are these small, poor communities expected to bear the expense of upgrading the water infrastructure? As in Treasure Island, there are numerous stakeholders involved and the task of finding a solution is distributed among all of them. If the actual frontline communities were empowered to deploy earmarked capital directly, with guidance from the state and best practices from climate experts, a targeted solution could improve access to clean drinking water for these individuals.

These are just a few examples of how our climate crisis is creating unique problems in communities that are hard to see from a state or national perspective. We need to act on climate change now in order to meet the global target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Climate mitigations need to be supported centrally—with investment dollars, green building codes, and guidelines for best practices—but it’s beyond the scope of most state and national governments to address these micro-level issues that intersect axes of climate and equity. Common top down solutions—like offering tax credits for installing home solar systems or pushing for electric vehicles in urban areas to reduce emissions—are important but not sufficient to solve all of these climate problems.

Regardless of the difference between projects—stabilizing the electrical grid, cooling heat islands, sourcing clean water—many have the same challenges getting off the ground. Frontline communities—the ones needing to implement climate mitigations and to improve quality of life—need to be given the tools to oversee deployment of capital. This is fundamentally different from giving these communities the ability to engage in the process of deploying capital. With our policy systems in place today, communities often play an advisory role, where they are one among many voices competing for attention and dollars for their unique needs. We need to overhaul our model so that these voices are the driving force, with support from advisors and stakeholders. Frontline communities need to be able to draw on a complex web of resources to apply climate mitigations: stakeholder management, project conceptualization and communication, technology selection, impact measurement, and financing. The role of state and national governments is to be a kind of connective tissue between communities, cities and regions: providing financial support, technical expertise, policy frameworks which ensure positive outcomes, and learning from best practices on other similar projects. By equipping frontline communities with the tools to help design, analyze, iterate, and communicate the solutions to support their projects, ACTUAL can bridge the gap.

Danica Sachs is a writer and editor based in San Francisco.

Illustration by Stefan Gustafsson.

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