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Scientific American: Minneapolis Launched a Groundbreaking Climate Plan, But Left Minorities Out
Author: Daniel Cusick
Posted: June 4, 2020

Read the full story in Scientific American. 

MINNEAPOLIS—Seven years ago, this city leapt to the front of the urban climate movement when it adopted an action plan for global warming.

Hailed by environmentalists, the plan—one of the first passed by a major U.S. city—included reforms on issues ranging from energy efficiency to waste management.

But activists say the effort launched without a critical component: the input of Minneapolis’ minority and low-income communities.

Despite efforts to correct the problem, critics say the initial lack of inclusion laid the groundwork for a climate policy that doesn’t adequately address the needs of these same communities—many of which will be disproportionately affected by the consequences of a warming planet.

Locally, it’s a situation that underscores Minneapolis’ perceived shortcomings on race—a plight exposed to the world last week with the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer.

More broadly, the episode serves as a reminder of a long-standing racial divide within the urban environmental movement and the work that still needs to be done to bring about the societal change necessary to address climate change, experts say.

“The big picture is how do we make marginalized communities part of the solution to global warming?” asked Michael Chaney, a longtime Minneapolis activist and co-founder of the nonprofit program the Family of Trees. The group works to restore tree canopies in heat-stressed North Minneapolis neighborhoods.

“Until we do, how do you think by any stretch of the imagination that you’re bending the curve?” added Chaney, whose group planted an ironwood tree in Floyd’s honor. “You don’t have the numbers, you don’t have the population, you don’t have the communities.”

Critics say Minneapolis’ 2013 climate plan—which the city still uses—failed from the outset to include African American and American Indian voices in critical discussions.

The oversight led to the hasty formation of an environmental justice working group to vet the document well into its drafting stages.

The review was not positive.

The group found “a large number of critical environmental justice concerns missing” from the climate blueprint, even as the plan was “critically needed” for black and lower-income residents because it addressed the transportation, buildings and waste sectors, “all of which seriously impact environmental justice constituencies within the city.”

Those concerns persist to this day.

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As with other urban issues, Minneapolis’ handling of climate change “is an exemplar of the fundamental structural challenges we’re trying to recognize and unpack” in cities across the country, said Vivek Shandas, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University and expert on the dynamics of discrimination and climate change.

A recent study by Shandas and colleagues in Virginia drew the connection between the historic practice of mortgage and insurance redlining—one of the most pervasive forms of institutional racism in American cities—and disproportionate climate change impacts on black and low-income people (Climatewire, Jan. 21).

Minneapolis, Denver and Portland—all politically progressive cities—had the largest heat differentials between historically redlined districts and nonredlined districts, in some cases by as much as 12.5 degrees.

Porter said she’s living the findings.

“Whenever the temperature goes up, the meteorologists will say, ‘Our high today was 95 degrees,’ when it’s actually 107 in North Minneapolis,” she said.

Conditions are made worse by high summer humidity, but it’s also true that North Minneapolis and other minority communities have fewer resources to beat back the heat.

For example, Minneapolis is known as a national leader in parks and green space, providing more open area per capita than any other city in the United States. But tree-shaded boulevards and attractive public parks are harder to find in neighborhoods where persons of color outnumber whites. So are public-access buildings like community centers and shopping malls that provide air conditioning during heat waves.

While predominantly white parts of south Minneapolis enjoy an abundance of picturesque lakes, wooded trails and the iconic Minnehaha Falls, the north side is hemmed in by Interstate 94 and a formerly industrialized section of the Mississippi River. Public officials and nonprofits are working to recreate the river corridor for better use, including public green space.

Shandas said such inequities exist in most American cities and reflect what researchers call “exposure-disease-stress” theory. The theory posits that a community’s environmental health and well-being correlate with investment in strategies that provide protection from climate stressors—heat, cold, storms, fires and drought. Without such investment, a community will almost certainly decline, experts say.

Ultimately, Shandas said, climate solutions that don’t account for racial and cultural differences lead to “a self-fulfilling outcome” of isolation, poverty and institutional discrimination—all of which feed socioeconomic ills like poor schools, a lack of access to health care, and elevated tensions with police and first responders.