Archive Hosted by the AFL-CIO

From Tornadoes to Transit: Environmental Justice in the Twin Cities

April 17, 2013 By Esther Schlotterbeck, Macalester College

It's time again for Minnesota 2020's series of environmental policy op-eds from Macalester College students. In the coming weeks, we'll feature articles that explore issues from food labeling to northern Minnesota mining. We hope you enjoy this collaboration with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department and its students.


Last March, a sudden torrent of rain and 85-mile-per-hour winds hit Elysian, a south central Minnesota lake town, overturning boats and ripping pine trees from the ground. This was the first of thirty-seven tornadoes that struck Minnesota last year, and the second-earliest in Minnesota’s recorded history. These tornadoes cost Minnesotans millions in home damage,  public infrastructure repair, and debris removal. Together with the Duluth floods, crop damage, and extreme drought, these events have planted fears of what future “natural” disasters might be in store in Minnesota.

Climate change is a reality, and it is wreaking havoc globally as well as in Minnesota. Extreme weather conditions like these are only a few examples of the increasingly destructive effects of climate change. If we don’t change our activities, we can expect these impacts to worsen. The Environmental Protection Agency predicts that warming global temperatures will cause damage on a broad scale: from drops in agricultural production—like ones we saw from the drought that gripped the Midwest last year—to higher energy costs and burdens on individual health. With food and fuel prices already on the rise, the impacts of climate change are prompting action not only by individuals, but also by state and local governments. Many cities, including Houston, New York, and Los Angeles, have developed climate adaptation plans as a way to adapt and reduce their contribution to a warming climate.



In 2012, Minneapolis developed a Climate Action Plan based on recommendations to provide an urban adaptive plan that should alleviate climate change's costly impacts. Its goals are broad, focusing on transportation, buildings, and waste as three key sectors where we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change’s damages will not play out equally across diverse communities with varying levels of access to resources, however. Energy is a main source of concern and inequity in the Twin Cities in particular. For those who are already struggling to pay their bills, the rise in fuel prices may be more than families can afford. Already the burden of energy bills is unevenly distributed across income levels. For a family of four bringing in $20,000 a year, energy bills constitute 19% of income - more than three times the 6% portion that national housing analysts consider affordable.

On top of rising energy costs, our often patchy system of public transportation means that half of jobs in Minneapolis-St. Paul are inaccessible via public transit within a 90-minute commute. For families that can’t afford a car, the lack of available and reliable public transportation puts them at an even greater disadvantage for employment and economic self-sufficiency.

The Climate Action Plan is a commendable start to mitigating the effects of climate change. The current Action Plan has sweeping goals for energy efficiency updates, reducing car travel, and achieving a zero growth rate in the waste stream. We need to ensure, however, that solutions to climate change don’t create additional burdens for communities that are already under-resourced.

The Climate Action Plan must place equitable solutions at the center of discussion. We need investment in public transit that allows everyone to access a good job. We need to improve bike trails to currently underserved neighborhoods like North Minneapolis. And we need to make energy efficiency programs an affordable and accessible option for low-income residents - for example, through a split incentive for both residents and landlords of rental apartments to update appliances and reduce energy use.

The Climate Action Plan might be able to create these changes, but it can’t do it without your support. An Environmental Justice working group joined the process of drafting the Action Plan partway through. The group made several recommendations to help ensure justice and equity are included as an integral part of the plan. The city is expected to insert some of those recommendations in it next draft. Justice and equality must be at the forefront of any solutions to climate change. Our rich, diverse communities deserve to be supported and sustained.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.