Author: Katharine Bierce

For thousands of years, indigenous peoples lived in harmony with the land. Green buildings weren’t something unusual: they were the standard. 

In North America, known to indigenous peoples as Turtle Island, settlers from Europe took indigenous land and brought slaves from Africa to create wealth. Racism was written into the American constitution with the Missouri Compromise and 3/5 Compromise: Native Americans were not counted as people for the purposes of determining representation in Congress, and slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person so that the South would have more representation for people who could not vote.

OK, so you may be wondering, what does the history of colonization and slavery have to do with building decarbonization and addressing climate change? What’s the connection?

The link is that the oppression that started with slavery isn’t over, and racism didn’t end with emancipation. The legacy of slavery continued into the late 1800s and 1900s with Jim Crow laws that made segregation legal, with redlining practices, and banks refusing to loan money to Black entrepreneurs. If reparations were paid to African-American Descendants of Slavery (AADOS), estimates vary from $350K to $150M per person. Slavery continues today in the form of prison labor because slavery is allowed under the 13th Amendment as punishment for a crime. According to the ACLU, nearly 800,000 incarcerated workers have been stripped of even the most minimal protections against labor exploitation and abuse. 

A Citigroup study found that racial discrimination costs the American economy $16 Trillion since 2000. That’s Trillion with a T.

  • Black workers have lost $113 Billion in potential wages because of discrimination in accessing higher education.
  • The housing market lost $218 Billion in sales because of discrimination in providing housing credit.
  • About $13 Trillion in business revenue never went into the economy because of discriminatory lending to Black entrepreneurs, with an estimated 6.1 million jobs not generated as a result.

Racial Justice and Climate Justice are connected

So what do we do about all this inequity – historically, and in the present moment? We need to advance justice in our climate work. Racial justice and climate justice are connected. 

Image showing the difference between reality, equality, equity, and justice.
This image by @restoringracialjustice explains the difference between reality, equality, equity, and justice. (Note it originally comes from the Interaction Institute for Social Change, artist: Angus Maguire, with variations discussed in this blog.)

If we want to advance equity in climate action and in building decarbonization, we need to acknowledge the distinction between equality, equity, and justice. Because of the historical and current impacts of racism, people of color face barriers that people with privilege don’t. 

There is a difference between equity, equality, and justice in reality (and in sustainable infrastructure)

In the above image, you see three people trying to watch a baseball game. The reality is that the tall person can see easily, but the short person can’t. There is a big disparity. If we start from the point of view of equality, that means everyone should have equal support. However, this doesn’t acknowledge the barriers that some folks face. The short person still can’t see the game. With equity, everyone gets the support they need, so the shorter person gets more support to stand on to see over the barrier and everyone can watch the game. But even better is justice: when the obstacle is removed, everyone can see the game without support or accommodations because the cause of the inequity is removed. Justice is what we need – in building decarbonization, too.  

The Midwest Building Decarbonization hosted its annual Equity Summit, following the theme of Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) on November 2-4, 2022. Recordings of conference sessions can be viewed here, and an overview of key takeaways from the conference follows:

Why focus on reducing emissions from buildings?

About 35-40% of US CO2 emissions are attributable to residential or commercial buildings, and even more so in dense urban areas. And, most (about 80%) of the buildings we will have in 2050 (when we need net zero emissions) are already built or under construction. All current projects will play into future climate targets. 

Charts showing 35-40% of U.S. CO2 emissions can be attributed to residential or commercial buildings; most of the 2050 buildings are already built/under construction. All current projects will play into future climate targets.

Why focus on greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Midwest?

The share of emissions and average heating degree days are higher for the Midwest region of the U.S. than other regions (over a quarter of American CO2 emissions). The U.S. Midwest would be #5 globally between Russia and Japan among the top 10 emitters! And the #1 source of fossil fuel emissions from buildings Is heating. This is because the Midwest has a colder/longer winter which means a longer heating season. Nationally, 70% of homes get their heating from fossil fuels. In the Midwest, it’s over 90%.

Charts showing 35-40% of U.S. CO2 emissions can be attributed to residential or commercial buildings; most of the 2050 buildings are already built/under construction. All current projects will play into future climate targets.

Clean energy is only one piece of lowering building emissions

Energy efficiency + electrification + carbon-free energy = building decarbonization

  1. Reduce: limiting the amount of heating and cooling needed or shifting energy use from peak times (insulation, better windows, etc.)
  2. Replace: convert appliances like stoves, water heaters, and furnaces from fossil fuels to electricity (such as heat pumps for home heating)
  3. Produce: supply building energy needs from a carbon-free source (such as solar or wind power)
Diagram showing energy efficiency + electrification + carbon-free energy = building decarbonization

Why does Climate Justice in building decarbonization matter?

Image showing that the median energy burden of low-income households is 3 times higher than that of non-low-income households.
  • Many low-income households are spending 12% of their income on utilities, on top of increasing rents.
  • 40% of rental housing in the US is in an area at risk of climate disasters.
  • Across the Milwaukee, Wisconsin metropolitan area, a Sierra Club study found that households in predominantly Latinx and Black neighborhoods have an average energy burden of over 5%, while those in predominantly White neighborhoods have an average burden of only 2.1%.

Examples of what Climate Justice might look like:

  • Communities of Color could own their own clean energy means of production.
    • Social Impact Bonds are a way for investors to make money if some impact is made – there is a ton of money in the “impact investing” field that is looking for returns and people who want to do good and make money. Why not set up solar on every school in America and have impact investors pay upfront, get their money back after 5 or 10 years, and transfer ownership of the solar panels to the community after 5 or 10 years so that the community owns it? 
    • Major opportunities include heat pumps, district energy, induction cooking, and high-performance building design.
  • Lobby our elected officials to invest in fixing water infrastructure.
    • Water infrastructure in the US is often 100+ years old and has corroded pipes and contaminated water.
    • Flint, Michigan is a prime example of the need for this.
  • Invest in clean energy, not cap and trade.
    • Cap and trade policies allow industries to pollute Black and brown neighborhoods.
    • Black and brown folks disproportionately live near polluting industries and have higher rates of asthma, cancer, and other diseases that they wouldn’t have as much if the air and water were cleaner.
  • Hold elected officials accountable to the Justice40 requirement in the IIJA and IRA bills.
    • Don’t assume that justice will happen if BIPOC voices are not involved in shaping the requirements for how the money gets spent! Get to know your state energy agency or work with a nonprofit that is in your community that is in conversation with them.
    • There’s an opportunity to improve the quality of housing for vulnerable populations: 33 state and local governments (22% of the U.S. population) have committed to mandating minimum building energy performance standards, and there is a 30% increase in the cost of producing affordable housing in recent years – IRA funding can help address these concerns. 
  • Practice impacted leadership and privileged support.
    • In her book Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown shares the idea that people impacted by an issue should be leading, while those with privilege show up to support those impacted. 
    • If you’re a lawyer, a project manager, a construction expert, or someone who knows how to write an RFP, consider volunteering with a community nonprofit or a housing developer and offer your assistance to help the organization navigate the IIJA and IRA to get communities of color the money owed to them.
  • Advocate for vocational training in solar installations, weatherization, and clean energy jobs at your local community college or higher education institution.
    • The clean energy transition will require more electricians, plumbers, welders, construction project managers, carpenters, and more skilled workers. We must invest in high-paying, safe green jobs to boost the green economy and workforce. 

What I want to leave you with is the idea that these are not the only solutions. The Midwest Building Decarbonization Coalition is focused on equity and carbon elimination, not one carbon-free technology over another. People living in poor quality housing, near polluting fossil fuel industries, and have experienced the harms and hardships directly are the experts in building decarbonization. If you want to be an activist, an organizer, or make a difference, you can work on your active listening skills, show up with curiosity, and ask questions. Don’t assume that even these ideas here are the answers, because the colonial mindset of showing up with the answer is not what we want to perpetuate. If we want to decolonize our imaginations, we need to remember that the process we use matters as much as the result. 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author and not of her employer.

About the Author:

Katharine Bierce cares about bringing attention to what matters through marketing and mindfulness. She is a connector in business-driven social innovation with a tech marketing and startup background. In 2012, she was a Finalist for the Net Impact “Impact at Work” award for her “intrapreneurship” in a global employee volunteering group at work. Outside of work, she enjoys hiking and teaching yoga. Katharine graduated Phi Beta Kappa in Psychology from the University of Chicago.

Land Acknowledgment:

Katharine is a Mayflower descendant who lives and works in unceded Lisjan Ohlone territory, what is now known as Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, Piedmont, Emeryville and Albany, California. The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust is an urban Indigenous women-led land trust that is today working hard to restore traditional stewardship practices on these lands, heal from historical trauma, and facilitate the return of Indigenous land to Indigenous people. May they be successful in their work!