Texas deep freeze shows us why climate change is justice issue
Thursday, March 04, 2021 @ 10:16 AM | By Aladdin Diakun
On Feb. 15, the polar vortex returned to Texas. The vortex is a mass of cold air that circulates in the (rapidly warming) Arctic. Normally, it is held more or less in place by the westerly winds of the jet stream. However, the jet stream can weaken, allowing cold Arctic air to spill southward toward unprepared communities. In Texas, this has led to nearly 80 deaths, millions of homes and businesses without power, and many billions in direct and indirect costs.
The jury is still out on climate change’s particular role in all this; however, the event still offers broader lessons about climate justice. As journalist Emily Atkin writes “This extreme polar vortex event epitomizes everything climate change is: unprecedented, unrelenting, affecting a population unaccustomed and unprepared.”
The catastrophe in Texas highlights some of the many ways that climate change, like the COVID-19 pandemic, reveals and magnifies existing injustices and gives rise to new disputes.
Here are a few examples:
Exacerbating systemic racism
The deep freeze illustrates that people who are already suffering from racial injustice are on the front lines of climate change impacts.
In Texas, racialized households are more than twice as likely to live in poverty, increasing their vulnerability to climate change and extreme weather events. Such households are less likely to have backup power, sufficient insulation, money for hotels or the ability to leave hard-hit areas. Facing worse impacts atop pre-existing injustices, they will likely take longer to recover.
Racialized communities are also disproportionately vulnerable to industrial pollution, including from weather-disrupted operations. As temperatures dropped, Texas regulators froze air quality rules and industrial facilities released roughly 3.5 million pounds of dangerous pollutants into local communities.
If the legal profession is to meaningfully grapple with systemic racism, we must turn our minds to the ways that climate change, like the COVID-19 pandemic, disproportionately affects racialized communities, amplifying injustices and eroding fragile gains. These communities are “hit first and have to suffer the longest.” As the planet heats, experts like Penn State meteorologist Gregory Jenkins worry that climate impacts “will disable many communities of colour.”
Threatening state-reliant, other vulnerable populations
Issues like poor prison conditions, mandatory minimum sentences, overcrowding and cash bail are already the subject of many worthwhile reform efforts. But climate change can exacerbate harms the legal community is already trying to reduce.
For example, prison infrastructure is increasingly facing climate-related stress, from flooding to extreme heat, risking dangerous and inhumane conditions. In Texas, prisoners in Harris County were left with “no running water, no extra blankets and meager food”, some holding their bowels for days due to overflowing toilets. Notably, the vast majority of the prisoners at Harris County Jail are in pretrial detention and have yet to be convicted of a crime. Many simply cannot afford cash bail.
As climate change and extreme weather intensify, a “climate blind” approach to criminal justice will leave prison populations increasingly vulnerable to danger.
Texas offers myriad other examples of how climate disruption exacerbates conditions for vulnerable parties, including asylum seekers, immigration detainees and those in need of health care.
Increased business disruption, disputes
The International Bar Association has noted that climate change “will undoubtedly give rise to increased disputes” and “[t]he legal profession must be prepared to play a leading role in maintaining and strengthening the rule of law and supporting responsible, enlightened governance in an era marked by a climate crisis.”
As Texas reels from the deep freeze, there’s no doubt that a great number of clients are hurting and many lawyers are likely scrambling to keep up with demand.
Issues like insurance claims, class actions, supply chain disruption and contract disputes are well within the legal lane. Clients expect their trusted advisers to identify and mitigate these and other risks that are now being amplified by the changing climate.
Lawyers undoubtedly advised a wide variety of actors on risk and liability in the years preceding this human-made disaster, including the grid operator, municipal governments, building and energy regulators, individual power plant owners, utilities and innumerable other businesses.
Yet, it is hard not to wonder how many in the Texas bar sufficiently contemplated climate disruption and extreme weather events when giving such advice, or when drafting regulations and agreements. Those that did may have spotted more issues, drafted stronger provisions and better protected their clients from foreseeable, tragic and wildly expensive risks.
Increased disputes also suggest potential access to justice implications. Texas’ extreme weather has left people worrying about rent amid soaring electricity bills, trying to make insurance claims and facing possible wage loss. To the extent that climate change increases disputes, it is important to consider whether there are enough affordable legal services available for those who need them.
As extreme weather and other climate impacts increase, the access to justice gulf may grow. Even law students trying to enter the profession are facing new climate-related hurdles.
Takeaway: Lawyers must not be blind to climate change
Climate disruption and extreme weather events are here to stay. Even if we take sufficiently rapid action to avoid catastrophic worst-case scenarios, historical emissions have locked in decades of hurt.
Justice systems are already being buffeted by the gathering storm. The Texas deep freeze offers an icy warning to justice actors to take climate threats seriously.
Aladdin Diakun is a 2020 call based in Toronto. He is a candidate for the Global Association of Risk Professionals’ Climate and Sustainability Risk program and a member of Lawyers for Climate Justice. He has over 15 years of experience in climate and sustainability issues spanning the think tank, NGO and academic communities.
Photo credit / Ladanifer ISTOCKPHOTO.COM
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