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Investing in communities builds climate resilience

Sponsored: How local leaders can partner with financial institutions to support frontline communities.

Kids drawing with chalk on concrete

Image courtesy of Wells Fargo.

This article is sponsored by Wells Fargo and written by Erin Ceynar and Samantha Ender from the Tides Foundation — a Wells Fargo Climate and Social Justice Fund partner.

Climate change isn’t a problem for the future. It’s happening right now. In 2022 alone, the United States endured wildfires, hurricanes, extreme flooding and decreased crop production.

Despite this real and growing threat, the global community is not moving quickly enough to address climate change. The 2015 Paris Agreement aims to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, a U.N. report released in October notes that without drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the world is on track to warm by an average of 2.1 to 2.9 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels by the end of the century.

Climate change affects every person on the planet, but frontline communities — those that inhabit areas that face the worst consequences of climate change — are more vulnerable than most. Small fractions of a degree can affect these communities, leading to infrastructure failures, food and water scarcity, and worsening health outcomes. Rather than addressing these imminent dangers to human lives, however, most climate change relief funding focuses on our relatively slow transition to a low-carbon future.

In 2021, the United States and Canada received $810 million in foundation funding for climate change mitigation. Most of those mitigation dollars were directed towards lowering emissions and improving carbon capture in sectors such as forest protection, overlooking the effects of climate change on American communities experiencing floods, landslides and drought.

In New Orleans, devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, extreme rainfall is an ongoing threat. The challenging natural landscape, combined with disinvestment in infrastructure, leaves the community vulnerable to dangerous flooding. In particular, heavy rain in the city’s 7th Ward significantly affects low-income residents of color who live in low-lying areas where affordable housing is more accessible. The flooding also drives toxic contaminants into the soil, producing respiratory and gastrointestinal health concerns.

The Partnership for Resilient Communities (PRC), a project of the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC), supports community leaders of color in strengthening resilient communities. New Orleans community activist Angela Chalk, executive director of PRC partner Healthy Community Services, partnered with ISC to work alongside residents and install rain gardens at their homes to minimize flooding in their neighborhood. The gardens hold water, easing the burden on the city’s old drainage system. This attainable and impactful solution demonstrates how community-driven work can educate residents about climate change while also expanding resources that deliver results.

The rain gardens highlight what we can achieve when frontline communities have a seat at the decision-making table. They intimately understand the challenges they face, the resources they can bring to bear and the solutions that will be successful and durable. In other words, engaging with community leaders provides invaluable context, helping financial partners avoid pitfalls that would otherwise remain hidden.

These grassroots and community-led approaches present homegrown solutions to promote equitable development. Climate interventions that target community-identified problems and give communities decision-making power are more likely to be both successful and sustainable. The goal is to uplift community-driven efforts to create a more resilient, sustainable and vibrant future. However, a lack of access to capital and technical expertise can hamstring these efforts.

Frontline communities need genuine partners who can offer financial support while allowing the community to lead. Financial partners shouldn’t shy away from this approach, falsely assuming that it is slower, less efficient, and less impactful than the usual top-down model.

To achieve climate justice for disinvested communities, financial partners can adopt a cooperative playbook:

  • Partner with communities from the outset.
  • Work with community leaders to identify challenges, opportunities and resources.
  • Work with community leaders to co-develop solutions.
  • Support on-the-ground, community-designed programs.
  • Provide the expertise, training and technical resources needed to strengthen community organizations.
  • Remain committed and engaged for the long term.

Following these steps drastically increases a grant’s impact, strengthens civil society and ensures that the community’s perspective is respected and centered.

As climate change intensifies, the coming years will challenge us all. Resilience demands committed partnerships with funders who have a shared vision of a prosperous and just world. Enduring change is possible when we invest in our communities and find ways to offer support that goes beyond checkbooks. Through these partnerships, we can ensure a robust and lasting impact.

Wells Fargo’s Climate and Social Justice Fund, housed at Tides, developed an approach to climate justice that prioritizes under-resourced geographic areas around the country. The Fund will provide 10 communities with needed resources to help implement community-driven solutions for some of the challenges faced through a new program, "Dismantling Energy Inequity in Communities of Color," leveraging ISC’s expertise and climate equity experience.

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