Excerpted From: Cinnamon P. Carlarne and Keith H. Hirokawa, Disrupting Dominance, 56 Connecticut Law Review 133 (December, 2023) (401 Footnotes) (Full Document)


CarlameandHirokawaHumans are vulnerable to climate change. However, our levels of vulnerability vary widely depending on who we are and where we live. The spaces we live in and the places we call home are characterized by inequalities and precarities that emerge from past and present systems of dominance and difference which shape community resilience in the face of climate change. As suggested by Jackson, Mississippi Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, “[e]xtreme heat is not an equal opportunity threat.” There will be no uniform experience of climate change, and those members of society already experiencing socioeconomic and political inequalities will be hardest hit.

As prominent law professors Susan Kuo and Benjamin Means suggest, “climate change has arrived,” and so has the time for transformative legal change. We are at a point in our collective understanding and response to climate change where there are things we know with certainty. First, climate change is our present and future reality. Second, social, political, and economic transformations are needed to weather this storm and law is an essential tool for advancing the changes that are necessary to save millions of lives. Third, climate change will disproportionately affect those who are already uniquely vulnerable to environmental change as a result of historic and contemporary patterns of exclusion and underrepresentation, particularly racial and ethnic minority communities. Fourth and finally, legal change is urgently needed to minimize the negative impacts of climate change and local governments are uniquely positioned to advance these efforts in ways that are responsive to local needs, capacities, and interests. That is, local governments are an optimal site for developing the climate adaptation strategies necessary to manage the inevitable impacts of climate change and ensure that the most vulnerable people are not hit the hardest by climate change.

These are the harsh realities of a climate-changed world to which this Article responds. In this Article, we seek to disrupt dominance in climate adaptation planning and to advance more effective and equitable climate adaptation strategies. We do so by showing how dominance limits the ability of communities to “flourish and live dignified lives” in the face of climate adversity. We then offer an alternative vision for climate adaptation planning that decenters economic and stasis-oriented thinking to center human and social equity-oriented thinking. This is achieved through vulnerability-led adaptation planning that surfaces dominance and finds pathways forward that are responsive to the needs and capacities of all members of a particular community.

Part I contextualizes the extensive, but disparate, threats that climate change poses to humans. It begins by reminding the reader of the scale of the climate challenge and the pressing need for more comprehensive, equitable, and effective adaptation planning. Part II then examines the evolving legal architecture for adaptation planning and suggests that it remains underdeveloped and urgently in need of sufficient development. This development, however, must be attentive to questions of equity. Part III then engages the questions of what vulnerability is and why vulnerability matters in the context of climate adaptation planning. Here we make our case for moving towards a model of adaptation planning that is responsive to the needs, priorities, and capacities of even the most vulnerable members of a community. Part IV then examines local climate planning in context. Here we offer insight into the varied approaches some local entities are taking to climate planning and demonstrate how local-level strategies that are attentive to existing patterns of inequality and exclusion are more likely to advance climate strategies that disrupt dominance and improve community resiliency. Part V concludes by emphasizing that disrupting climate dominance means putting people first and leading with race.

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Heat, flooding, fires, and sea level rise. These are some of the inevitable and ubiquitous impacts of climate change. Everyone, in some way, will be impacted by climate impacts regardless of race, gender, age, wealth, or location. But all the facets of who one is, where they live, and how attentive society is to their particular needs and vulnerabilities will shape their future in the climate change era. To return to where we began, climate change “is not an equal opportunity threat.”

All residents of Albany, New York and Providence, Rhode Island, for example, will have to cope with extreme heat and flooding. But the residents who already experience higher levels of socioeconomic vulnerability due to past and ongoing patterns of exclusion and under-representation will be disproportionately affected. By virtue of living in Providence, vulnerable residents’ needs may be more likely to be taken into account than the needs of vulnerable residents in Albany. This is because Providence engages in an equity-driven, inclusive climate planning process, whereas Albany continues to center its planning focus on the collective needs of the city. The different approaches to climate planning in Albany and Providence will have profound impacts on people’s lives.

Vulnerability matters more than ever in a climate-changed world. Inequality undermines climate resiliency. Thus, understanding and responding to inequality and vulnerability is essential to equitable and effective adaptation planning. This is of particular importance at the local level. Local level responses are highly determinative of the impacts of disasters, including slow- and sudden-onset climate disasters. And the need to rethink climate planning strategies is pressing because past (and ongoing) practice suggests that planning decisions tend to focus on protecting physical assets and infrastructure at risk, especially high value properties (and wealthier communities), as opposed to responding to the risks posed to particular communities–especially historically excluded communities. This too often leads to planning decisions that not only disregard but also often exacerbate the already inequitable distribution of climate risks that vulnerable communities experience.

At a very basic level, climate planning that is not grounded in the circumstances and perspectives of those in need guarantees that the costs of climate change will be extreme and that they will be borne by those least able to do so. Policy formation that ignores the impact of past practices of oppression, segregation, and marginalization neither responds to the past damage done nor avoids reproducing such impacts in a climate-changed future. Gradually, local governments are beginning to reckon with this reality. Here Sonoma County explains the transformative impact of engaging in a policy formulation process that in grounded in self-assessment of past practice and attentive to vulnerability:

We want to acknowledge that developing this report was a learning opportunity. We were compelled to look deeply at how we understand well-being, how we think about social problems, how we define the very concept of progress, and how these concepts and word choices cause harm. Grappling with these issues is difficult and uncomfortable. Can we say that well-being has improved overall in the county if Black community members have lost ground? If too many of our neighbors remain traumatized by wildfires or Covid-19? Or if rising housing costs are forcing county residents out of our communities? We know that a focus on “improvements” risks hiding the very real past harms to Black, Native American, Latino, and Asian people and obscures ongoing marginalization. We also know that people living with disabilities, people who are undocumented, LGBTQ community members, and others are at risk of being left out of the story due to inadequate data. To move beyond these pitfalls, we acknowledge that there is more work to do locally to unravel harmful narratives, ensure that our shared understanding of Sonoma County’s well-being includes nonwhite perspectives, and redouble our efforts to improve data collection.

The process Sonoma Country describes is one that is designed to disrupt dominance. Disrupting climate dominance means bringing people into the fold, empowering people to govern and take ownership of their communities, and relieving people of the chains that bind them to past and imbedded practices. To disrupt climate dominance, put people first, and lead with race.<

The President and Dean of Albany Law School.

Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School. The authors would like to thank Jocelyn Buti for her excellent research assistance in this project.