Centering Equity in Climate Plans and Programs
Washington State has become a leader in integrating equity considerations into climate and growth management legislation. While previously adopted laws, such as the Clean Energy Transformation Act (2019) and HEAL Act (2021) focused on utilities and state agencies, this year’s changes to Washington State’s Growth Management Act apply to local governments. The changes require local governments that fall within the population or density thresholds established in the law to prioritize climate resilience strategies that benefit overburdened communities. The requirement recognizes that the impacts of climate change are increasingly being felt at disproportionate rates in Washington.
As local governments seek to fulfill the new equity components of the Growth Management Act, it is essential to understand what climate equity means and how it is being carried out across the state successfully.
Climate Equity in Action
What does it mean to make climate equity a reality in your community? Here are a few key components for building and carrying out climate plans with an equity focus.
Identifying local overburdened communities
The HEAL Act defines overburdened communities as vulnerable populations living in geographic areas where multiple environmental harms and health impacts are faced. The Washington State Department of Health (DOH) has provided guidance that people most likely to be exposed to climate risks and hazards include the following populations:
- Low-income individuals,
- Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC),
- The elderly,
- Pregnant women,
- Those belonging to certain immigrant groups or certain occupational groups, and
- Those who have pre-existing illnesses or disabilities.
DOH’s Environmental Health Disparities Map may be useful for getting a sense of some of the environmental risks and vulnerabilities being experienced in local communities across the state.
Engaging with community members
Connecting with a diverse group of community members is essential to identify the needs of different communities related to climate vulnerability and to further understand which communities are overburdened in a specific area. This may take a variety of forms, but community members are more likely to find civic engagement meaningful if they experience direct benefits when connecting with local agencies.
Partnering within and outside government
Working across agencies or in collaboration with community-based organizations opens up possibilities for leveraging existing community engagement pathways and expertise regarding the climate risks and needs being faced in your communities. It also can connect residents with resources that governments don’t provide as readily. For example, Olympia has partnered with the local Habitat for Humanity chapter to facilitate free heat pump installations for low-income households.
Examples of Climate Equity Programs
The following examples demonstrate some ways that local governments in Washington have engaged with their communities to develop and carry out climate action plans with an equity focus.
Bellevue’s Environmental Stewardship Plan includes a tree giveaway program to increase health benefits and climate resiliency associated with greater tree canopy cover, particularly for overburdened communities. The program has utilized a racial equity lens and equity scoring system to prioritize tree planting in underserved areas. To facilitate program participation and understand barriers to getting involved, the city worked with a diversity consultant to help build community relationships, tried new outreach strategies, and offered a variety of culturally relevant tree types for residents to choose from.
King County Metro is in the process of transitioning its fleet of buses to be 100% emissions-free by 2035. As this is a gradual process that is being rolled out over several years, the county had to decide where to begin implementing this transition. An equity impact review process determined that piloting the program in South King County would direct immediate benefits to communities that have been disproportionately burdened by vehicle air pollution, including people of color, low-income people, and people with limited English proficiency. Additionally, locating the new electric bus bases in this area is intended to create job opportunities for local residents under the county’s priority hire requirements.
Spokane’s Sustainability Action Plan includes an equity checklist and identifies equity as a key goal of its environmental planning. As a step toward this goal, the city council's Sustainability Action Subcommittee has carried out a series of community conversations at local events to engage with residents and understand their needs and concerns related to climate change while centering equity. These forums helped the council identify a range of community priorities with climate components. To make sure residents saw value in engaging with the council, participants were compensated for participating in environmental justice surveys, and the council hosted events specifically for BIPOC community members, such as nature walks. These efforts comprise important early engagement steps to understand climate resilience needs among a local community and begin building trust for future engagement.
Tacoma carried out extensive engagement with frontline community members to develop its 2030 Climate Action Plan. The community participation process, conducted in several phases over 14 months, involved assembling a committee of climate ambassadors, forming an Environmental Justice Leaders workgroup, collecting community input through virtual and in-person surveys and workshops, and collaborating with partner organizations. Community members who participated in this engagement process were compensated for their time and expertise. These strategies surfaced community concerns related to sustainability and barriers being faced to adapt to climate change.
Implementing climate equity at the local level is essential to making sure all people are equipped to respond to a changing climate. MRSC offers a variety of resources to support local governments with planning and programming for climate equity:
- Equity and Engagement in Climate Response webpage;
- Recent blogs on Investing in Equity to Prepare for Environmental Challenges and Implementation Strategies for Climate Action and Sustainability Plans (see community engagement section); and
- Our on-demand climate webinar series, including sessions on Building Equity into Climate Resilience Strategies (2023) and Equity and Inclusion in Climate Action Planning (2021).
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.