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EMILY KWONG, HOST:
Hey, nerds, Emily Kwong here with NPR science correspondent Dan Charles.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Hi, Emily. I have a question for you.
CHARLES: Have you taken a look at Joe Biden's promises on climate change?
KWONG: Well, I know they're big promises, but I don't know the fine details. So what is the latest, Dan?
CHARLES: Well, there is something about them that caught my attention.
CHARLES: The White House keeps saying, we are going to address climate change in a way that also addresses the country's economic and racial disparities.
KWONG: Yeah, I definitely heard of this. It has, like, a ring of climate justice to it, you know, like equitable climate action.
CHARLES: Right. But I said to myself, what does that actually mean in the real world, like, in some specific place? And I ended up getting some answers in Cleveland.
KWONG: And why Cleveland?
CHARLES: Well, Cleveland, along with Detroit, has the highest percentage of people living in poverty of any big city in the country. It also, like a lot of cities, has a climate action plan. And three years ago, city officials decided to tear up their existing plan and write a new one, this time incorporating economic and racial equity. They made a kind of a to-do list - here is how we would like to deal with climate change and also help people who need help the most.
KWONG: Oh, OK, so this to-do list kind of laid the groundwork that the Biden administration is now talking about.
CHARLES: Seems like it. And now in turn, the Biden administration might be helping the city turn that plan into reality because the administration wants to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into exactly the things that are at the top of Cleveland's to-do list.
KWONG: So today on the show, why the city of Cleveland is linking environmentalism to social justice.
CHARLES: And why one Clevelander riding home from work on the train says doing this means trying to undo the harmful effects of government policies that go back decades.
CHRIS STOCKING: Like with mortgages and redlining, you know, back in the '30s, they wouldn't loan to the inner-city people. They said these are the green areas out in the suburbs. That's where we're going to loan people money. They built housing out there. And then the highways follow in the '50s.
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KWONG: Dan, why did city officials in Cleveland decide to abandon their previous climate action plan and write a new one that's linked to social and racial equity?
CHARLES: Part of it was just a pragmatic move to make climate change more relevant to more people. Matt Gray, who was the city's chief of sustainability at the time, says city leaders had their hands full with all kinds of other problems.
MATT GRAY: It was hard to get climate to the top of the agenda because of all these major challenges, which did deserve a lot of attention and do deserve a lot of attention.
CHARLES: But there was also something bigger going on, maybe call it redefining environmentalism. When I met Kimberly Foreman, who's the executive director of a nonprofit group in Cleveland called Environmental Health Watch, she talked about how the mainstream environmental movement in the U.S. has been kind of disconnected from low-income neighborhoods or communities of color.
KIM FOREMAN: It was a little elitist - right? - or heavily focused on technology, which is not getting down to the grassroots or getting down to the people who are most impacted.
KWONG: Yeah. In fact, polling data published in 2020 from Yale and George Mason Universities found that Hispanic, Latino and Black Americans expressed more concern over climate change than white Americans. So this is very much on the minds of communities of color. So, Dan, how did Cleveland go about having this conversation on the grassroots level?
CHARLES: Well, they started by setting up a bunch of community meetings, asking people really basic questions, like what are your concerns about your neighborhood?
KWONG: You mean things that may appear kind of unrelated to climate change.
CHARLES: Yeah, at first glance. So, for example, there was a meeting in a neighborhood called Hough, and one of the people who showed up was Cindy Mumford.
CINDY MUMFORD: And it just seemed like you really will have a voice. And when I went to the meeting, they really gave you a voice. It wasn't one of those just sit down things where you just listen to someone present.
CHARLES: So I went to visit her, and she gave me a little walking tour of her neighborhood in the rain, she and her neighbor across the street, Deborah Lewis. Deborah grew up in Hough, and she started telling me the history of the area.
DEBORAH LEWIS: It is a community that was devastated by what I can only call tenement housing.
CHARLES: We were walking down a street that a century ago was lined by stately Victorians, also four- or five-story brick apartment buildings. That's what became the tenement housing. And one landmark of that change was a map that a federally backed home loan agency put out in 1940 with this neighborhood colored red, meaning it was risky to lend money there. As part of its explanation, the agency wrote that Black people were moving in.
KWONG: Right. And historically, that's where the term redlining comes from. These maps reflect the fact that lenders weren't lending to certain neighborhoods, often places where Black families lived...
KWONG: ...Basically discriminating against them.
CHARLES: Yeah. And in the years that followed, a lot of the white residents here moved to the suburbs. Houses emptied out. Even though Black people moved, in the neighborhood's population plummeted. Cindy and Deborah say some building owners just stopped maintaining their properties.
MUMFORD: Left the buildings abandoned for years. Years, we were plagued with these eyesores.
LEWIS: To the point where that housing had to be taken down, some lovely old buildings. I mean, my gosh, they just don't build them that way anymore. But you have to take care of them.
CHARLES: Those empty lots are covered with grass now. Some of the old buildings that remain looked like they're in bad shape. This is the face of what people sometimes called disinvestment, when companies, governments, all kinds of people just pull their resources out of a place. And what Cindy and Deborah want for their neighborhood is reinvestment.
KWONG: I like this. So what does reinvestment with climate change in mind look like to Cindy and Deborah?
CHARLES: Well, at that neighborhood climate meeting, they got excited about the idea of community solar. That's an installation of solar panels, in this case, big enough to power their homes, as well as the homes of 50 or so neighbors. They've lined up backers for this. It might actually happen.
CHARLES: Deborah says it would be clean energy, also economic development. They're hoping for jobs, especially during the construction, experience in a growing industry, ownership of a valuable asset.
LEWIS: The inner city is keenly interested in tomorrow. We're not just interested in being a consumer. We're interested in moving into the future.
KWONG: Yeah, this is equitable climate action in action, building solar power and at the same time investing in a local community that the city and property owners have historically discriminated against.
CHARLES: Exactly. So that is one version of equitable climate action, but there are others. Housing - think of all those neglected houses in Hough. Homes account for about a fifth of all the country's greenhouse emissions. And the biggest opportunity to cut that is probably in places where owners haven't been able to spend money on new equipment, new insulation. Plus, those houses often have health risks, like lead contamination, which is why Tony Reames, who's director of the Urban Energy Justice Lab at the University of Michigan, says housing renovation helps people, also helps the climate.
TONY REAMES: I feel like that's our lowest hanging fruit and also the way to have the largest impact, particularly in disinvested communities, communities that are struggling.
KWONG: So housing renovation ended up on Cleveland's climate action to-do list.
CHARLES: Right up at the top, Emily. Now let's talk transportation.
KWONG: Yeah, let's talk transportation because cars and trucks are big, right? Aren't they, like, a quarter or so of the country's greenhouse gas emissions?
CHARLES: They are. And there is also a big fairness problem with cars because when a city is built on the assumption that everybody's got a car, it leaves a lot of people behind. So in Cleveland, you know, close to a quarter of all the households don't have access to a car either because they can't afford it or they don't drive for some reason. But there's an alternative. Buses, trains, those are open to everybody. Remember that guy we heard from at the top talking over the noise of the train about redlining and how highways drew people out to the suburbs where they ended up driving all the time? That was Chris Stocking. He's the volunteer chairman of Clevelanders for Public Transit, which is pushing for more funding for buses and trains and less funding for highways.
STOCKING: Bus lines are lifelines. You know, people really need transit.
CHARLES: And Cleveland's director of planning, Freddy Collier, he says the city is trying to build more transportation options and more walkable, bikeable neighborhoods.
FREDDY COLLIER: To help people get out of their cars, get onto a bus, get onto a scooter, get onto a bike.
KWONG: This is really interesting, Dan, because we're all familiar with the talk about how going green looks like taking public transit, getting on a bike, bike to work initiatives, et cetera, but I never thought about how investing in public transit infrastructure could be also a climate change action.
CHARLES: Yeah, yeah. Now, there's one more thing on this equitable climate action to-do list, Emily.
CHARLES: It involves trees. See, trees help keep city neighborhoods cooler. And that's going to be even more important as we get more extreme heat waves. People die every year from heat-related illness, but Cleveland's been losing its trees. And again, there's an equity angle. In Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland - and in a lot of cities, actually - trees are less common in low-income neighborhoods and places where mostly people of color live. That's why it's part of the climate equity plan. They want to plant more trees and maintain them better, especially in neighborhoods that need them most.
KWONG: So we've got better housing, better public transit, more trees and better tree care - all good for climate change, good for social fairness. But I got to ask you, Dan, is this just a plan on paper or is the city really, like, really taking action to make this a reality for Clevelanders?
CHARLES: That is a very good question. I would say the city of Cleveland and private organizations there are doing these things on kind of a small scale. But now the Biden administration has come out with this infrastructure proposal, and the senior director for environmental justice at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Cecilia Martinez, she says it's basically a climate justice proposal.
CECILIA MARTINEZ: The environmental justice community and many of our Black and brown communities have identified the connection between climate change and their own community infrastructure. They can't be disconnected.
CHARLES: And the money they are talking about is huge - a couple of hundred billion dollars just for housing-related things, for renovating old homes and building affordable green new ones. Just one example - there's an existing program that helps pay for new insulation and more efficient heating equipment in homes where people can't afford it. The plan would multiply that program's budget at least tenfold. No guarantee that this will happen, of course; all this will have to get through Congress and that will take a long time, if it happens at all.
KWONG: Gotcha. But it sounds like the Cleveland plan could be impactful in the near future on climate precisely because it would change that infrastructure in the city, right?
CHARLES: Yeah. You know, infrastructure helps determine a lot of things, like how you get around. It kind of locks you into a particular structure of energy use and greenhouse emissions. So if you're trying to shift your pattern of greenhouse emissions, you kind of have to build a different infrastructure than what you had before. So I think that is what they had in mind, you know, with this infrastructure proposal. And I'll tell you, the people in Cleveland are so excited about it. One of them told me we have spent much of the past decade preparing for this moment.
KWONG: Well, Dan, it seems like Cleveland in particular is totally poised to make this transition or is at least trying to. Thank you so much for bringing this reporting from there to us.
CHARLES: So nice to be here.
KWONG: Today's episode was produced by Thomas Lu, edited by Rebecca Ramirez and Gisele Grayson and fact-checked by Rasha Aridi and Indi Khera. The audio engineer for this episode was Gilly Moon.
CHARLES: Special thanks for help with this episode to SeMia Bray (ph), Jackie Gillan (ph), Shirley Bell-Wheeler (ph), Sandra Albro (ph), Gabe Klein (ph) and Justin Bibb (ph).
KWONG: Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.
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