Summary

  • In January 2021, U.S. National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy noted that “climate change is a racial justice issue” in a videotaped speech.  This briefing focuses on the topic of equity as it relates to the climate crisis and the environment.

NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, 799 UNITED NATIONS PLAZA, 10TH FLOOR (Virtual)

MODERATOR:  All right.  Welcome, everyone, to the Foreign Press Center’s briefing with Khalil Shahyd of the Natural Resources Defense Council.  As a reminder of today’s ground rules, this briefing is on the record.  If you have technical problems during the briefing, you can use the chat feature and we will try to assist you.  I’d now like to introduce our briefer. 

Khalil Shahyd focuses on federal policy and national strategies that create just solutions for environmental and climate crises, specifically by integrating clean energy and energy efficiency with affordable housing and community development.  He has more than 20 years of experience in community and economic justice, organizing – justice organizing, planning, and policy advocacy.  He has worked on just sustainable development in urban and rural settings domestically and abroad in Mexico, India, and Brazil.  Shahyd holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Tulane University, a master’s degree in sustainable international development from Brandeis University, and a PhD ABD in energy and environmental policy with a specialization in urban political ecology from the University of Delaware. 

As a reminder, our briefer’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. Government.  We will also post a video and transcript to our website following this program today.  Mr. Shahyd will provide opening remarks, and then we will open our meeting to questions and answers.   

So Khalil, over to you.   

MR SHAHYD:  Thank you.  Good morning, everyone.  As Katie said, my name is Khalil Shahyd.  I’m the senior policy advisor with the Natural Resources Defense Council.  I’m based here in our DC office, where I work on federal policy related to affordable housing, energy efficiency, climate change, sustainable and equitable communities.  I’m originally from New Orleans, Louisiana, which is – I was born in south Louisiana and grew up there.  I spent time as a community organizer there, but I also worked abroad.  My background is really in international development, is what I really consider my background, and worked abroad, as Katie said, in Brazil, Mexico, and in India, where I worked with the UNDP office out of New Delhi. 

So I’m just going to jump in to my presentation, and hope to be able to follow it up with some questions from you all.  So just give me a second to share my screen and get the slides up.  All right.  I hope that looks okay for everyone. 

MODERATOR:  Yes, it does. 

MR SHAHYD:  All right.  So combating climate change in local communities.  I wanted to start because, for obvious reasons, COVID-19 and the pandemic that many of us are still suffering from, experiencing, dealing with, both here in the U.S. but also as we know across the world, even as vaccines are being rolled out unevenly across the world – but the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has really been an inflection point, I feel like, particularly for us in the U.S., in the way that we think about message, approach, strategize around addressing climate change.  And so I wanted to at least start with a little bit of this context, because I think it really shapes what is really happening and what we’re talking about now. 

And so as most everyone is aware, the pandemic has really deepened and really fed off of existing weaknesses and inequalities across all of our societies.  And the confluence, the relationship between inequality and poverty, discrimination, both drove and heightened disease burdens, particularly amongst certain communities, particularly in societies where we didn’t have the type of social protections that were necessary really to keep people safe.  And no place was that much more starkly evident in the U.S., which is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but is also a place where social rights and social protections aren’t a guarantee in our society, but something that we – but a commodity that we are forced to purchase.  And if you can’t purchase it, then you lack those protections and you lack those social rights.  And our social safety net was not prepared for the scale of this crisis.  Our government was not prepared for the scale of this crisis, and our society as a whole was not prepared.  And so COVID found a very ripe social epidemiological environment to spread and to wreak havoc across many of our communities. 

And climate change really exposes those same fault lines.  But I think prior to the pandemic, many of us climate activists, climate justice activists, environmental justice advocates and many others have been talking about these fault lines and have been warning people about these fault lines, and we’ve seen examples of it through extreme weather events and through other cases and scenarios, but I think the depth of this pandemic, this year-plus under isolation, that this year-plus dealing with this, has just really driven home in a way that our advocacy prior to the last year really hasn’t.  And so living under this pandemic offers important insights for climate activists not only in the way that inequality drives unequal burdens in the face of these huge social events, but also in the way that we strategically address those issues.  Because in the last year in the U.S., dealing with this pandemic, we’ve convinced millions of people in the interest of public health, in the interest of their own safety to drastically change their behavior, to not go to work, to walk away from jobs and livelihoods in the interest of the general good, in the interest of reducing the risk of infection. 

And – however, the ability to do that is uneven across our society, as it is across many societies, and many of the people who are deemed the most essential workers in our society were, one, unable to stay home, but also had the least voice in public policy to ensure that they were protected even as they had to continue to work to keep our society functioning at a basic level.  They struggle with getting the right information, the right equipment, even as they are putting themselves and had put themselves at the greatest risk of being exposed and impacted by this virus.  And we’ve seen that in the way both infection rates but also death rates are also spread across our communities, with those who are in lower income, those who are essential service workers, again, bearing the much greater brunt of this crisis.   

And again, those workers, those communities had the least amount of influence, the least amount of power when it came to public policy and the way that we organize ourselves to respond to this crisis, such that we’re still today having a debate nationally about the utility of unemployment insurance for people who can’t work, who need to stay home, who need to take care of family and small children.  And so we’re still having to deal with these issues. 

And so now, as before, our fight is about how we continue to recover and to rebuild from this crisis, how we begin to move forward.  We are currently debating a huge infrastructure bill to try to move us forward in a way that not only addresses our economic and social issues but also gives us an opportunity to build better for the future, to jumpstart our transition to a clean energy economy.  But again, those same political fault lines are rearing their ugly head, causing us to weaken those proposals, causing us to perhaps waver in that commitment to make that – to make the type of transition and the type of investments that we know are necessary, both for the benefit of those who are most vulnerable but also for the benefit of our climate and our planet. 

And – but we need a real public mobilization to meet this challenge, because we are asking fossil fuel regions and those who are reliant on these industries to walk away from livelihoods, similar to what we had to do under COVID.  We ask people to step away from going to work on a daily basis.  But in the context of climate change, we’re talking about a permanent transition away from emissions-causing livelihoods to something much more sustainable.  And we’re asking these workers, we’re asking these communities to step away from these livelihoods that have offered them some safe means of job, stable home in a context where working people, again, have few reasons to trust the capacity and the willingness of public policy to respond to their needs. 

But – however, again, it is no longer acceptable for us to address climate change without addressing these existing inequities and the potential of our response to climate change to exacerbate them unless we take very deliberate action and are taking into account the needs of BIPOC communities and other fossil-reliant communities as we embark on this transition.  Because reliance on fossil fuels hits consumers harder and differently in different states, different communities, and across income and other social demographics.   

But as you can see here, particularly on the East Coast and in the Southeast, the household energy spending as a percent of income really becomes a burden, particularly on communities of color and low-income communities, in part due to what we call the weatherization gap.  We have under-invested in energy efficiency and weatherization retrofits in our homes.  We have under-invested in the type of persistent and regular maintenance and upgrades to our housing stocks – housing stock potentially in the southeastern part of the country, where poverty rates are typically higher, where there’s also a higher proportion of those states tend to have black and other minority populations.  And as such, heating or cooling demands in these unretrofitted homes with poor insulation, inefficient HVAC systems exacerbate the surge in energy demand. 

We saw this play out in Texas in February during the deep frost, where again, I think more than two-thirds of Texas homes had been unweatherized.  But if we were able to weatherize those homes, we could have reduced the demands on the Texas grid by about 50 percent if we had just brought low-income housing up to a standard of energy efficiency with insulation, with new appliances, and with other initiatives to lower the cost of energy – I mean, to lower the demand for energy through that system.  And we’ve seen it particularly, again, burden black and Latino households, where, again, in Texas 11 people died because they did not have power, because their homes were poorly insulated, and they were literally unprotected from the cold and froze to death in their homes. 

And again, different states differ in their dependence on carbon power, and we see this play out in our politics, where even today as we are trying to address climate change through federal legislation, through infrastructure investments, there are many states who just find it very difficult to be able to imagine, much less support and invest in the type of transition that we need, the type of transition that is actually technologically possible and feasible today.   

But effectively addressing climate change means dealing with these difficulties, it means not underestimating these difficulties, and it means confronting these realities.  And what it means not only politically but really for those communities on the ground who rely on this power, who rely on these industries, for livelihood. 

And it must be said that even as we see these – this disparity in the way that many states rely and use fossil fuel energy, we see the impact of that, particularly, again, being felt by communities of color, where those states are also higher concentrations of health risks such as asthma from the pollution and other emissions from the use of these fossil fuels.  And again, we see those burdens again in black, indigenous, and other people of color households, where black Americans are nearly 1.5 times more likely to have asthma, and black Americans are three times more likely to die from asthma.  And that’s largely due to the proximity to fossil-generating facilities, to the proximity to heavy freight and other transit hubs through the uneven buildout of the national highway system. 

And so dealing with these issues, dealing with the emissions from cars, from freight, from industry has a direct impact and influence on people’s livelihoods but also their long-term health and livability in their communities.  And again, we see here not only health but the way that this transition is going to impact workers in different states.  Here is a chart of fossil energy related employees and their concentration across a state, and so where we need to make these investments is much more critically – again, if you’re looking at the Gulf Coast, particularly Texas and Louisiana, but also up into the upper Midwest and in Appalachia and Illinois Basin, which are our coal infrastructure regions.   

And so how we make this transition and what that – and what those types of targeted investments look like for communities, it’s going to be different from coal communities to oil and gas communities, but it’s going to take a great deal of both public and private investment to be able to make this transition to support livelihoods for these communities that are due to face the shock of this change.   

But climate change doesn’t care about any of that, and we see more frequent climate events like heat waves, flooding due to sea level.  There are millions – actually billions of dollars’ worth of affordable housing properties for low-income families that are at risk from flooding due to sea level rise, due to increased extreme precipitation, particularly, again, in my home state of Louisiana.   

And when these properties are destroyed, housing for low-income families, affordable housing units, they are usually the last to be recovered, the last to be rebuilt, if they are rebuilt at all.  And what we often see, as we saw in my hometown of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, we see a situation of permanent displacement from home, where there’s still about one-third of our pre-Katrina population that was never recovered that never came back to the city.   

And again, due to the uneven development of – in urban tree cover and uneven urban development patterns, again, as temperatures rise we see the increase in the urban heat island effect, which, again, disproportionately impacts poor communities and communities of color, particularly elders who are at increasing risk of heat-related illnesses. 

And so what must be done?  The first thing is returning to a business as usual cannot be an option, because it means just a continuation of the crisis level experiences that many of us are facing, and it means not taking the opportunity to really reimagine what prosperity in a climate – in a sustainable context can actually look like in a way that’s going to be inclusive of all communities.   

But one of the things that we’ve been working on and again is – this is through the increased deployment of renewable energy, which the cost is decreasing every day and is really cost competitive particularly with coal but also increasingly with oil and natural gas, particularly if you remove the subsidies – is lowering energy costs for people across this country, particularly for those communities, again, in the Southeast that are really struggling with high energy burdens.  And we’re doing this through both the deployment of clean energy production but also ramping up the energy efficiency of low-income housing.   

Because as we see here, again, median energy burdens for those families that live in low-income multi-family housing and also broken down by race and ethnicities showing much higher energy burdens, energy poverty for vulnerable communities.  And increasing energy efficiency and reducing energy use through housing because low-income families often obviously have to rely on older housing that hasn’t received the type of investments regularly, hasn’t been updated, hasn’t been seeing the type of improvements to the building stock.  And so those homes tend to leak energy, and they use – and they consume more energy per square foot than their counterparts in middle- and upper-income families.   

And part – and part of this problem is because the public investment in sustaining, preserving, and in building new affordable housing just hasn’t kept up with the pace of the need.  Only one out of four households eligible to receive federal housing assistance receive it due to both bottlenecks but also red tape when it comes to applying and securing access to federal housing funds for families.  And these difficulties are put in place – you could say purposefully – to discourage people from using federal housing assistance when they need it.   

But low-cost units as a proportion or a share of the overall housing stock has been in a steady decline really over the last two decades because we’re seeing shift in our housing market, in our real estate market, where developers just aren’t building it, even with the federal subsidies that are available, and they are pushing to build and develop more high-cost housing for middle- and upper-income consumers instead.  So there is a housing crisis that is part and parcel and coupled with our climate crisis, which makes it impossible for many of these families to really have stable housing, to maintain and secure stable livelihoods, and really to compete and to advance themselves in a green economy.   

One of the things that we’re also working on is establishing green banks both at the state level where we – where we’ve helped to create 15 state-level green banks, including here in D.C., which are providing billions of dollars, both public and private.  Together, they’ve provided over $7 billion in new investments for affordable housing, for clean sustainable housing, which includes housing that is both energy efficient, but also housing that is ready to be incorporated into the renewable grid.  And we’re also working on a national clean energy and sustainability accelerator which will be at the national level which will funnel and provide more federal resources and provide more opportunity for private investment to go into the state development banks.  And as you can see from the second map that there are 22 more of those that are on the way.   

And if we are able to finance and to fund this transition through this combination of federal dollars but also incentivizing and bringing in private dollars, we can fund a carbon transition that delivers transformative investments and climate justice for communities, particularly communities of color that have been overburdened by pollution, that are hardest hit by the job losses due to the transition and the cycling down of fossil fuel facilities, and just those that have been left out of the benefits of industrial growth in the previous era, because there is still a great deal of inequality and poverty across this country.  And so it’s not just about transitioning those communities that have fossil jobs, but there are many communities that have no dominant industries to be able to build their livelihoods off of.  You’re thinking about places such as the Mississippi Delta, thinking about many communities across Appalachia, who, although it’s characterized as being a coal-dominant region, much of the Appalachian region is – it’s really without that type of permanent, stable industry to support livelihoods.  And many communities across the country – think about the Southwest as well.   

And so there are many communities that really need an alternative type of development, an alternative type of economic development, because reliance on fossil fuels has really created concentrated wealth for a few people, for a few communities, and really left many on the outside looking in. 

And we’re also bringing this model to countries such as Brazil and India.  We’re actually talking with partners and trying to solidify a partnership with organizations both in Rio but also in Sao Paolo and you see here in Belo Horizonte, working with state development banks across Rio – I mean across Brazil that are forming and establishing a green banking network there to – and using the sustainable development goals as a template for investing in communities across Brazil to reduce poverty, to reduce inequality, through stable investments in affordable housing, also dealing with issues of housing rights, land rights, property rights, access for those communities as well. 

And I’ll stop there.  Thank you and look forward to questions. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you so much for that presentation.  We’ll now open the floor to questions from the journalists we have attending here.  You can raise your – you can indicate that you have a question by raising the blue hand, or you can also enter in the chat that you have a question and I can call on you, or you can type your question. 

While we give people a chance to think, I’ll start.  I’ll kick off with a question, which is:  Looking ahead to the next, say, 10, 15 years, what do you see as some areas of the U.S., I guess, or globally of challenge, of particular challenge or particular opportunity, in terms of the topics that you were discussing today? 

MR SHAHYD:  Yeah, I mean, I think first and foremost from both – from the challenge is just how do you – I guess the easiest way to say it is the politics of this is how do you make this transition by easening – easing as much as possible the burden on the losers, right?  Those industries that have to cycle down, particularly in the fossil fuel sector.  And so how do you politically sell this point to them?  Because, again, climate doesn’t care.   

We have to make these changes while also making the types of investments that are going to be able to both sustain communities – give them the stability to be able to engage in this new economy – and to offer them the opportunity to be able to build the capacity, to build the skills to court the investment that’s going to be necessary for them.  And so it’s both challenge but also opportunity because, if done correctly, it can create a new wave of economic growth, a new round of economic growth, again, particularly for those countries and those communities that have been struggling under the existing dynamic.  But as always, the imperative towards competition, the imperative towards zero-sum thinking, can sometimes stifle those types of initiatives. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We have a question from Alex from Turan News Agency, Azerbaijan.  Alex, over to you.   

QUESTION:  Thank you so much, Katie.  Great to see you.  This is Alex Raufoglu from Azerbaijan’s Turan News Agency.  A very interesting presentation, and thank you so much for that.  And so many questions popped up here, but I’ll try to break into – break it down into maybe two, if possible. 

The diverse, sudden launch into lockdown a year ago had an interesting effect on carbon emission.  In fact, COVID-19 paused climate emission, right?  But listening to your presentation today, Mr. Shahyd, my impression is that now we are returning back to, quote, “normal” far quicker than many of us had hoped for.  Is that a fair assessment?  And if so, in both the short and long term, what effects do you think that the pandemic will still have on efforts to tackle climate change? 

And my second question has to do with oil and gas production countries, while some are part of the climate debate and others are not, including the country where I come from, Azerbaijan.  How can oil-rich countries take climate change seriously without winding down fuel production?  And if you may, I know this might be a bit – a little bit far-fetched question, but what major environmental changes have you and your team been observing in the wider maybe Gulf and Caspian regions?  What are institutional changes you think to combating climate change across the regions? 

Thank you so much again. 

MR SHAHYD:  Thank you for that question.  I would say I’ll try to go in order.  Your first question.  And so, yeah, the impact of the lockdowns on emissions was – I mean, it was minor and also short-lived.  But also that’s – it’s not a template for how we want to do this, right?  And so the rebound in emissions as countries begin to open up was something that was predicted, because, again, the fall in emissions really wasn’t as small.   

But I would say the most important, again, impact of the COVID crisis in thinking about climate change is really deepening our understanding of the relationship between investments and physical infrastructure and green infrastructure and the social infrastructure, so thinking about unemployment insurance, thinking about housing assistance, thinking about subsidies and support for energy, and so the relationship between those things – again, particularly for those workers and those communities that are going to struggle most with this transition.   

Because when we’re talking about – and particularly in this country, and I imagine in others as well, from what I’ve seen – when we’re talking about a nation’s fossil fuel infrastructure, its extractive infrastructure, its refining, we’re usually talking about rural communities.  And these communities don’t have a very diversified economic portfolio that they can fall back on the way some of our larger metropolitan cities do.  So if they’re having to cycle down and to give up fossil fuels as their primary economic driver, then they really need robust investments to find and to create those alternatives and to really begin to diversify their economies.   

But a part of that – but we can’t just rely on the economic investments without also making a priority of the social investments to help people transition, to help people get over that hump, to provide the type of housing – again, health, unemployment, and other supports, the social investments that are going to help people to get through that period of transition.  And I think that’s the biggest lesson at least that I take away from this – from the COVID crisis, is showing how we actually need to respond in that way. 

And for oil and gas states, I think it’s very difficult.  I’m from an oil and gas state, Louisiana.  And so – and what we’ve seen there and here in this country, we’re seeing a – the start of a push by the oil and gas sector to move more forcefully into plastics, right, because to be a sort of safety net for them as demand for fossil energy begins to ramp down.  So they’re trying to find some other potential consumer use for that good.  But for the communities that are forced to live in proximity to those plants, that’s not an option for them either because the shift to plastics just really increases their burden, increases air pollution and other sicknesses and diseases, again, in communities like Cancer Alley in Louisiana who are at this very moment fighting against the creation and the expansion of a new plastics plant in a community that is already overburdened with chemical pollutions and is already seeing accelerated rates of cancers even amongst children.   

But – and I don’t have a great deal of expertise on the Caspian region and what’s happening there, but from what little I have seen for many of the Gulf states is that they are beginning to think about how to diversify their economies and starting to make those investments.  And those are good things to do, but again, we’re far from where we need to be. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  I will ask anyone else who has a question to please indicate in the chat or to raise your hand, please, and I can call on you.   

I don’t see anyone else raising their hand, so I’ll ask a question – maybe this can be the final question to wrap up.  And thank you again for your presentation, and I will remind everyone that we will be posting this video and transcript on our website and sharing the transcript with our journalists, so we look forward to doing that. 

But so I guess as a final question, we’re in the start of a new presidential administration.  What would be some lessons – and you sort of touched on this in your presentation – but some lessons from natural disasters that have occurred in the U.S. and from the COVID-19 pandemic that you think are the topline lessons learned potentially for the new administration moving forward?  Thank you. 

MR SHAHYD:  Yeah, thank you.  Yeah, absolutely.  I think in the last year, in 2020, we had more than $19 billion, and that’s just from the dollar amount, the economic cost.  That’s not really capturing the human cost from natural disasters due from climate-induced extreme weather.  And that’s likely only going to continue to increase.  I think most importantly, and one of the conversations that we’re starting to have a lot more now, is the need to think about climate mitigation but also adaptation as an integrated set of policies and set of initiatives.  That it’s no longer feasible both because we’re seeing in our lived reality the impact of climate change today because of the difficulties that we’re having as a nation, as a global society, of really ratcheting down and winding down these sectors fast enough within the given timeframe that – and we’re likely going to overshoot the 1.5 target that is set by science, that the UN has warned us of.  And so we’re likely going to see even more damaging impacts coming over the years.

And so it – going forward, we can’t think about mitigation and adaptation as separate initiatives.  We need to do them in an integrated way because, obviously, we have to continue to ratchet down emissions and to cycle down some of these heavy-emissions industries, but we also have to deal with and confront the fact that people are living with and dealing with the impacts of climate change today, every day.  And so we need to make a joint priority of both. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you so much.  And with that, unless you have any other final remarks, that concludes our program.  But I’ll let you have – no?  All right. 

MR SHAHYD:  Yeah.  (Laughter.) 

MODERATOR:  Thank you so much, and so that concludes our briefing today.  We want to thank you so much for participating and for speaking with us today.  Thank you. 

MR SHAHYD:  Thanks. 

U.S. Department of State

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