Climate change awareness campaigns and social justice movements have been running alongside one another for years. Still, when climate change is discussed, one of the often-overlooked things is the disproportionate impact climate change will have on vulnerable communities.
As the world watched in horror at what unfolded during Hurricane Katrina, many didn’t realize it was a preview of things to come. Some in positions of power have been making strides to improve infrastructure and the ability of cities and states to cope with major environmental events since then, while others have continued to kick the proverbial can down the road.
Climate change will impact everyone as floods, rising sea levels, wildfires, drought and increasingly unpredictable storm seasons become more frequent and widespread. But vulnerable populations, such as those living below the poverty line, are the most susceptible to the negative impacts of climate change due to the unequal provisioning of services and access to resources following such an event.
Climate change and equity are also matters of growing concern during a time of rampant wealth stratification and economic instability. Companies will need to prioritize Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) as it will directly impact the lives of employees and consumers alike.
From more immediate consequences affecting people’s livelihood, safety, food/water security and overall health to worst-case scenarios of lost cultural identities and mass migrations of humans moving from heavily impacted areas, there’s perhaps no dilemma with higher stakes facing humankind at the moment.
The Corporate Responsibility
Climate policies should be taken into account when creating an ESG strategy. It’s not just something your employees will support, but something they expect. As our Millennial and Gen Z Job Seeker series noted: “publicly championing sustainability can help employers capture the attention of younger applicants.”
That said, if the events of 2020 and the social reckoning around race taught us anything, it’s that the credibility of your organization will be examined not by what you “champion publicly” but by what the company does on a daily basis. A company can come out in favor of alternative energy, but if corporate dollars are not supporting partners that are already using, generating or advocating for expanded access to sustainable resources, how are employees supposed to see company values come through in actions?
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts that don’t consider climate change are about as genuine as changing the company logo during Pride Month in June. It’s nice that the company wants to be socially responsible and amplify the message, but how can it do that without recognizing the reality that faces younger generations in the years to come?
The groups most severely impacted by climate change include children, the elderly, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, immigrants and individuals living with a disability. These groups are the most underrepresented in policy decision-making conversations. As a result, they have historically been underserved when it comes to public infrastructure and services.
To effectively commit to a CSR and ESG strategy that tangibly improves sustainability and ultimately reduces poverty on a scale that will help eliminate the exclusion of vulnerable groups when crises occur, C-suite leadership needs to commit company resources to community initiatives. Examples include:
- Increasing food access
- Increasing social mobility and resource accessibility
- Cleanup of environmental hazards
- The construction of affordable, adaptable, energy-efficient housing
- Supporting employees displaced due to climate-related crises
When we talk about climate change, major natural disasters such as coastal flooding, wildfires and hurricanes often spring to mind. But some of the most significant work that would help counteract factors contributing to these deadly and costly natural disasters can be implemented every day. Access to clean water, for example, is obviously vital to human survival but is especially so during summer periods when temperatures are consistently on the rise.
Mobility is an issue in many growing cities where public transport and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure are lacking. In a crisis, this becomes a major issue as cars inevitably clog the highways. For example, when Hurricane Irma barreled toward the state of Florida in 2017, Floridians tried to flee north. However, highways were quickly stuck in gridlock, with some residents abandoning their cars on the side of the road and walking or hitched rides with other people fleeing.
While that crisis wasn’t as bad as it could have been, residents of Southwest Florida were left without power for weeks, in some cases, during the hottest portion of the year. Seniors in care homes were exposed to horrific conditions that threatened their health and safety.
Businesses that operate within that geographic region, historically in the path of most Atlantic hurricanes, will have to learn and adapt from Hurricane Irma. Undoubtedly, that part of the country will exemplify how everyone is impacted by climate change in the decades to come.
Unique Opportunities for Businesses
Without directly influencing policy agendas and stepping into political advocacy, it might seem like there are limited ways for a business to support forward-thinking climate policy. However, this simply isn’t the case.
Businesses have an important role to play when advocating for more education, awareness and execution of sustainable initiatives than most policymakers can manage in a lifetime due to their unique ability to build two things: coalition and community.
Businesses working together with policymakers, nonprofits, activists and public service organizations can use their substantial reach, influence and relationships with the community to create an inclusive approach to climate action that gains momentum, thus increasing the power and capability of these efforts.
Community-level planning is localized and addresses the immediate needs of a given area. Organizations that support community-driven development and financing for climate action will have the most success if there’s enterprise-backed support of a climate agenda that meets local-development goals.
Successful businesses are more process-oriented and innovative than public agencies in many cases. By engaging with city planners, local and state politicians and public service organizations and applying their expertise around process, design thinking, inclusion and social learning, business leaders can drive a positive impact for the broader community as well as the future of their organizations.