On the front lawn of a church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a series of small signs quote Hop Hopkins, director of organizational transformation for the Sierra Club:

You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones…
You can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people…
You can’t have disposable people without racism.

The last sign reads: Climate justice requires racial justice.

Climate justice as a movement is gaining force, built on the fact that environmental degradation has frequently occurred in “sacrifice zones”—areas that disproportionately affect poor and minority communities. As the climate crisis escalates, environmental justice activists seek to ensure that the resources to begin restoring the planet and heading off further catastrophes will be distributed equitably, both locally and globally.

Yet interweaving the complexities of “climate” and “justice” is not easy, even if it is essential. “Climate has been in the realm of the scientists and policy makers,” notes architect and teacher Justin Garrett Moore in RECORD’s special report on Climate Justice. “The social and environmental justice movements have been coming from other spaces.” Grassroots activists, living near industry, agribusiness, and petrochemical plants, for example, have long fought against pollution poisoning their communities, while many in wealthier neighborhoods have worked to ban plastics or reduce carbon emissions (vitally important but with less immediate impact on their own lives).

One of global warming’s biggest killers is heat. In most of urban America, the highest surface-heat-island intensities are in communities of color, which have more hardscape, less green space, and few tree canopies.

At least local solutions are underway to address such inequities. In Boston, where days over 90 degrees Fahrenheit are expected to grow from an average of 10 days a year to 50 days by 2070, a new Heat Plan was unveiled by the mayor’s office in April. Focusing on five of the city’s hottest and minority-majority neighborhoods (which are, on average, 7.5 degrees warmer during the day than more affluent areas), the plan, devised by Sasaki, includes both short-term solutions and long-term urban design enhancements. The smaller city of Ithaca, New York has committed to an ambitious scheme to retrofit all 6,000 public, private, residential, and commercial structures for clean electricity by 2030; officials will replace windows and improve insulation as well, in a building stock that was largely constructed before 1940.

On the national level, the Biden administration is implementing a policy called Justice40 to begin to rectify inequity in alotting climate-related resources. Under the program, 40 percent of federal funds spent on climate; clean energy; sustainable, affordable housing; clean water and other areas must be allocated to underserved communities.

But of course, the vast problems of social justice and the climate crisis are worldwide. The poorer countries, particularly in the Global South, must ultimately contend with the profligacy of the industrialized U.S. and E.U. countries, which have been responsible for nearly 50 per cent of all carbon emissions since the start of the Industrial Revolution. The disastrous floods, droughts, famine, and yes, heat domes, will lead to mass migrations and deaths on a scale that is hard for us to imagine.

It comes down, as always, to power and money. At COP 26, the UN Climate Change Conference, held last fall in Glasgow, Scotland, the smaller non-industrialized nations raised their voices but did not get the commitments they sought from the big countries in the G20. “The storm of climate catastrophe is gathering destructive power with every failed promise and missed targets,” said Bruce Bilimon, minister of Health & Human Services of the sinking Marshall Islands. “We will never accept that climate change, which we did not cause, should be the basis for a loss of…our sovereign rights and our maritime boundaries.” 

But not everyone is entirely despairing, as the world heads toward the next international meeting, COP 27, to be held in November in Egypt. As Edward Mazria, FAIA, the founder and CEO of Architecture 2030 and the AIA Gold Medalist in 2021, writes in RECORD, the war in Ukraine reminds us of the catastrophic perils of fossil fuel dependency. With the exponential growth of inexpensive solar and wind alternatives, Mazria believes, we can now break our bad fuel habits and accelerate our transition to a zero-carbon built environment. That way, we not only keep “1.5 alive”—the slogan for capping temperature rise to 1.5 Centigrade to prevent the worst outcomes of climate change—but keep hope alive, too.