Tatum Lau, AECOM

Architecture & Design

How Racial and Gender Equality are Critical for Building Climate Resilience

AECOM Senior Urban Designer Tatum Lau on why it's critical to involve groups of minorities to develop effective solutions.

As we gear up for what will be the most crucial decade for climate action, I reflect on a year that turned everyone’s lives upside down. The year 2020 will be remembered for multiple, overlapping crises—the lives and jobs lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, the on-going racial justice crisis, highlighted by the Black Lives Matter protests and various hurricanes along the Atlantic Coast.

In writing this, I reflect on what this moment means for me as a resilience planner and what thoughts to take forward into the coming year.

As a mission-driven urban planner in Dallas, I am focused on assisting communities along the Gulf Coast as they strive to build an economy that is resilient to future hurricanes; supporting the City of Dallas in developing its Comprehensive Environmental and Climate Action Plan and helping local governments ensure that recovery efforts are equitable and focused on those who need them most.

Last year’s events provided a stark reminder of the inextricable link between the climate crisis and racial injustice. It is clear that Women and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) bear every crisis’s largest burdens. Going forward, it is critical to involve these groups if we are to develop effective solutions. Here is more on how addressing racial and gender inequality can lead to a healthy and safe future for all:

Dismantling systemic racism is central to building resilience.  

As I mentioned above, the climate crisis and racial injustice are inextricably linked; and we have seen that BIPOC have been much more severely impacted by COVID-19 and climate change than white communities.

Redlining practices instituted by the federal and local governments in the early to mid-twentieth century prevented Black homeowners from accessing mortgages, which led to decades of community disinvestment. These communities have also had far more exposure to polluted and hazardous sites and much less access to resources to upgrade and repair their homes. It is no coincidence that Black children are twice as likely to have asthma than white children[1] or that predominantly BIPOC neighborhoods are more vulnerable to storms and hurricanes. Racist planning practices are embedded in our cities and institutions and continue to cast a shadow over these communities as many wrongs remain unaddressed.

A study by the Yale Program on climate change communication found that Black Americans and Latinos are more concerned about climate change than whites.[2] This is unsurprising given that BIPOC communities have had the most first-hand experience facing climate shocks. Systemic racism maintains the status quo in which BIPOC communities face disproportionately negative health and socio-economic outcomes preventing us from taking care of what we care about.

When there are more women in decision-making roles, everybody wins.

Women across every race and ethnicity and particularly those in the global south, bear greater burdens when a crisis strikes. Women still have lower-incomes, are primary caretakers, ‘makeup 70 percent of the health and social sector workforce’[3], and are more vulnerable to shocks and stresses such as pandemics and climate change.

The link between climate change and gender equality has been recognized for some time now. One of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” Because women are more impacted, our perspectives on climate change are more likely to be based on direct experience.

Another trend has also become evident this year: A study of 194 countries showed that “COVID-19 outcomes are systematically and significantly better in countries led by women.”[4]. The authors recognize that these findings are preliminary but suggest the reasons for these differing outcomes might be associated with women’s attitudes toward risk, empathy, and communication. Being more impacted by crises, women are closer to the issues but more importantly, when in decision-making roles, they tend to be more successful at managing crises.

When I ask most people whether they support women or support dismantling racism, they are quick to say they do, and I’m certain that in principle, most of us do. This year, we’ve heard time and again that not being racist is not the same as being “‘anti-racist.”’ –one is a passive approach, and the other is proactive.

If we want to tackle the climate crisis and build a resilient future for everyone, we must be strategic and proactive – and that requires including more women and BIPOC communities at every level of the decision-making process.

Tatum Lau is the senior urban designer and planner for AECOM.

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[1] Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2017. Asthma’s Impact on the Nation in Children’s.

[2] https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/race-and-climate-change/

[3] https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2020/09/gender-equality-in-the-wake-of-covid-19

[4] Garikipati, S., and Kanbhampati, U., 2020. Leading the fight against the pandemic: Does Gender ‘Really’ Matter?

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