Building Back Better from Cascading Climate-COVID Disasters: An Intersectional Lens Matters for Equitable Resilience

  • Idowu Ajibade Assistant Professor of Geography
    Portland State University
Cascading disasters in cities

Cascading disasters in cities  

Idowu Ajibade

As climate disruptions and extreme weather events continue to ravage nations and communities, our capacity to respond remains uneven, fragmented, politicized and overlaid on existing socio-economic and socio-spatial inequalities. These inequalities disproportionately affect those disadvantaged by the accumulated burdens of their intersectional identities such as class, race, gender, age, disability, nationality, and so on. The millions of people in this category face threats from multiple disasters such as storms, floods, landslides, droughts, and heatwaves, along with everyday vulnerabilities of insecure housing, hunger, air pollution, unemployment, and the lack of access to clean water and sanitation. The COVID-19 pandemic has also amplified these vulnerabilities in many countries – exacerbating poverty, crippling health care systems, and claiming over 6 million lives worldwide. The intersection of a global pandemic and increasing climate disasters reveal the cumulative nature of the harm structurally inscribed on marginalized communities and groups. Not only must society address these compounding disasters, we must ensure that strategies for building resilience are inclusive, equitable, environmentally sustainable, and socially transformative especially for the most vulnerable.

What does it mean to build back better?
The dominant approaches to resilience planning in many countries have left much to be desired, often emphasizing a return to normal without questioning what normalcy means for those on the fringes of society. In some cities in the United States, when narratives of ‘build back better” are deployed, they typically focus on investment in smart technologies, gray infrastructure (highways, sea walls, dams), and green interventions that advance capital producing assets, foster speculative growth in the housing market, and ultimately lead to gentrification. Gould, K. A., & Lewis, T. L. (2018). From green gentrification to resilience gentrification: An example from Brooklyn. City & Community 17:1; 12-15 Anguelovski, I., Connolly, J. J., Pearsall, H., Shokry, G., Checker, M., Maantay, J., … & Roberts, J. T. (2019). Opinion: Why green “climate gentrification” threatens poor and vulnerable populations. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(52), 26139-26143 All the while, these narratives neglect to address that millions of people lack access to basic needs such as clean drinking water, nutritious food, affordable housing, and clean air. For example, in Miami, resilience planning in response to sea level rise has been used to strengthen power structures rooted in racialized real estate ventures where “valued (white) spaces of growth” have been given greater worth because of their differentiation from “devalued (Black) spaces” that are more prone to flooding. Grove, K., Cox, S., & Barnett, A. (2020). Racializing resilience: assemblage, critique, and contested futures in Greater Miami resilience planning. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 110(5), 1613-1630 Even when planners are not bullet-proofing the built environment with levees or utopian development schemes, they generally take an additive rather than an intersectional approach to resilience planning. But this obscures the obvious connections between thriving communities, social-environmental justice, ecosystem stability, and a balanced economy. To be clear, neither vulnerability nor adaptability and resilience are inherent within a race, gender, age, class, or culture but are historical, intersectional, and multidimensional Ranganathan, M., & Bratman, E. (2021). From urban resilience to abolitionist climate justice in Washington, DC. Antipode, 53(1), 115-137 — as such, they cannot be addressed only in infrastructural terms that presuppose the adaptability of communities without considering the social processes that have produced uneven, racialized, gendered, and class-based experiences of climate disasters and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Who bears the burden of everyday adaptation labor?
Laying aside the systemic roots of uneven resilience, the question of who bears the economic, social, psychological, and physical burdens of climate adaptation and the COVID-19 recovery through their everyday labor remains crucial to advancing a coherent resilience discourse and subsequent transformative action. In terms of gender, we know that women bear the heavy burdens of household work, farm work, child care, and family care during ‘normal’ times as well as during natural and socially-produced disasters. Sultana, F. (2010). Living in hazardous waterscapes: Gendered vulnerabilities and experiences of floods and disasters. Environmental Hazards, 9(1), 43-53 They also bear the psychological stress of losses and the physical hardships of rebuilding their communities. Ajibade, I., McBean, G., & Bezner-Kerr, R. (2013). Urban flooding in Lagos, Nigeria: Patterns of vulnerability and resilience among women. Global Environmental Change, 23(6), 1714-1725 On the issue of class, we know that climate disasters and environmental pollution are co-located in disinvested low-income neighborhoods and among communities living on hazardous landscapes. Schlosberg, D., & Collins, L. B. (2014). From environmental to climate justice: climate change and the discourse of environmental justice. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 5(3), 359- 374 Yet relocation programs implemented as resilience strategies have not always improved the lives and livelihoods of these groups. Ajibade, I. (2019). Planned retreat in Global South megacities: disentangling policy, practice, and environmental justice. Climatic Change, 157(2), 299-317 Also, race remains a major determinant of who is most exposed to the precarity of our current social and economic arrangements. Grove, K., Cox, S., & Barnett, A. (2020). Racializing resilience: assemblage, critique, and contested futures in Greater Miami resilience planning. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 110(5), 1613-1630 This was evident when Hurricane Harvey disproportionately impacted Houston’s minority communities in 2017 with a series of cascading impacts magnified by the city’s failure to address the longstanding exposure of Black and Latinx residents to oil refinery toxicity. Ranganathan, M., & Bratman, E. (2021). From urban resilience to abolitionist climate justice in Washington, DC. Antipode, 53(1), 115-137 Similarly, race has played a crucial role in the pandemic. The majority of frontline workers dead or exposed to the Covid-19 virus due to livelihood necessity, as opposed to luxury exposure, are Blacks, Latinx, and Asians. Many of whom are bus drivers, teachers, meat packers, farmworker, health care workers, restaurant and grocery workers, and other dignified jobs that keep the economy running during a pandemic.

Tackling the equity challenge together but differently
What is the way forward? How do we achieve equitable resilience across the many axes of social difference, and particularly for those for whom the climate and covid disasters intersect in cumulative and compounding ways? Also, how do we ensure that those who have been silenced by design are centered in resilience planning, climate adaptation, and covid recovery? One approach is through negotiated resilience; in which different groups come together to plan, re-design, and operationalize resilience goals in ways that address current inequalities and open up participatory avenues for marginalized groups and communities in policy making, research, planning, and recovery investments. Harris, L. M., Chu, E. K., & Ziervogel, G. (2018). Negotiated resilience. Resilience, 6(3) 196-214 This approach assumes that adding procedural fairness (i.e., equal treatment and fair process in decision making) and recognition justice (i.e., attention to cultures, identities and historical inequities) to planning will lead to climate justice, collective healing from covid trauma, and a resilient future. While useful, this is not enough, since a focus on procedure and recognition misses three fundamental points: 1) that our current social structure is embedded within neoliberal economic systems that protect capital over people and the climate; 2) that fossil fuel production has remained largely unregulated and will likely continue to drive climate warming emissions unless stronger regulations are put in place locally and globally; 3) that those with actual decision-making power have a vested interest in keeping the economic status quo, so inclusion alone is not likely to yield meaningful change unless there is systemic change, meaning, social transformation.

Social transformation is about imagining new ways of organizing society. It is also about mental emancipation, bold thinking, and a re-envisioning of the kinds of investments needed to build resilience in an equitable manner. To achieve this, we must take four crucial steps. First, promote non-partisan political engagement aimed at challenging the hegemony of polluting industries and extractive practices driving up local and global emissions. Second, intensify social resistance against the greenwashing of exploitative projects that further the privatization of the commons (our water, land, forest, and air) and the commodification of every aspect of human life. Third, adopt values-based investment that eliminates culture wars and shifts society towards an ethic of care, community healing, solidarity and improved health and wellbeing for all. Fourth, prioritize financial investment strategies that reduce pollution, improve biodiversity, create clean jobs, and expand the access of low-income communities to renewable energy. We see an example of this in Portland, Oregon, with the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefit Fund. This program has awarded $60 million for creating green jobs and climate action projects that advance racial and social justice through retrofitting low-income homes to make them more safe, comfortable, and energy-efficient, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and lowering monthly utility bills. The program will also invest in the training of historically-marginalized groups so they can benefit from well-paying clean energy jobs. City of Portland (2021) Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund issues $60 million request for proposals.

The investments outlined above require us to view resilience planning as a site for creativity, innovation, contention, and socially-just transformations. This new intersectional approach demands that we foreground historic, social, and political processes that have contributed to the uneven racialized, class-based, and gendered landscapes of vulnerability. It also requires that we tear down the material infrastructure that has sustained those processes and harm and create new systems and avenues for healing – particularly for groups that have been historically devalued and oppressed through traditional planning approaches and who continue to experience climate change, COVID-19, and everyday chronic risks as cumulative disasters.

As the threat of cascading disasters increases, we must bend the arc of history in the direction of justice by centering emancipatory, intersectional, and relational understanding of resilience along with a strong commitment to climate, social, and environmental justice. For the latter to have any real effect, we must address racial, gender, and class inequalities. These issues are interconnected and unless they are addressed as such, resilience planning for climate disasters or future pandemics may give rise to new injustices and vulnerabilities, thereby deepening the very problems society seeks to resolve.