The White House wants to fight climate change in ways that also remove economic and racial disparities. The city of Cleveland has a plan that describes what that might mean.



The fight against climate change might be going in a new direction with the Biden administration. Top officials say that it is also a campaign for economic and racial equity. NPR's Dan Charles has been looking into what this means in practice. Hi, Dan. Thanks for being here.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: It's good to be here.

KING: OK, so there's this idea now of attacking two things at once - climate change and also social inequity. How do you do that?

CHARLES: Well, that is what I wanted to know. And I got some interesting answers, Noel, in Cleveland.

KING: Why Cleveland?

CHARLES: Well, a couple of reasons. First, it is one of the poorest cities in America. It is also one of the cities that's created what it calls a climate action plan. And a few years ago, officials in Cleveland decided to rewrite that plan with equity in mind.

KING: Which sounds like what the Biden administration is promising.

CHARLES: Cleveland was kind of writing the blueprint for this. And they started with conversations in low-income neighborhoods and Black neighborhoods, which is kind of new. Kimberly Foreman, who's executive director of a group in Cleveland called Environmental Health Watch, says the debate about environmental policy, climate policy has often been disconnected from those communities.


KIMBERLY FOREMAN: It was a little elitist - right? - or heavily focused on technology, which is not getting down to the grassroots or getting down to the people who are most impacted.

CHARLES: The city set up a bunch of community meetings asking people, what are you concerned about in your neighborhoods?

KING: And I would imagine that some of the things that people are concerned about have absolutely nothing to do with climate change.

CHARLES: Yes, at first glance at least. So, for instance, they went to a neighborhood called Hough, and one of the people who showed up was Cindy Mumford.


CINDY MUMFORD: And when I went to the meeting, they really gave you a voice. It wasn't one of those just sit down things where you just listen to someone present.

KING: What was Miss Mumford concerned about in her neighborhood?

CHARLES: Well, to explain that, she took me on a little walking tour, in the rain, she and her neighbor across the street, Deborah Lewis, who grew up in Hough.


DEBORAH LEWIS: It is a community that was devastated by what I can only call tenement housing.

CHARLES: We were walking down this street that a century ago was lined by stately Victorians, also four- or five-story brick apartment buildings. That's what became the tenement housing. And one clue for how this happened is a map that a federally backed home loan agency put out in 1940. It showed this neighborhood colored red, meaning it was risky to lend money here. And as part of its explanation, the agency wrote that Black people were moving in. Buildings emptied out, residents moved to the suburbs. Mumford and Lewis say some property owners just stopped maintaining their buildings,


MUMFORD: left the buildings abandoned for years. Years, we were plagued with these eyesores.

LEWIS: To the point where that housing had to be taken down, some lovely old buildings. I mean, my gosh, they just don't build them that way anymore. But you have to take care of them.

CHARLES: Those lots are covered with grass now. Some of the old buildings that remain look like they're in bad shape. So what Mumford and Lewis want for their neighborhood is rebuilding, reinvestment. And at that climate meeting, they got excited about the idea of community solar. It's an installation of solar panels. This would be on a vacant lot big enough to power their homes and those of 50 or so neighbors. They've lined up backers for this. It might really happen. Lewis says it would be clean energy, also economic development, jobs, especially during construction, ownership of a valuable asset.


LEWIS: The inner city is keenly interested in tomorrow. We're not just interested in being a consumer. We're interested in moving into the future.

CHARLES: At those community meetings, other people talked about children suffering from asthma, big utility bills, wanting more trees and green spaces, better bus service. And Matt Gray, who was Cleveland's chief of sustainability at the time, says the connection to climate was natural. Renovated houses are healthier places to live, and also with better heating equipment, people aren't burning so much gas. Public transit and walkable streets means less fuel consumed in cars. Trees keep everything cooler in summer.


MATT GRAY: That's what we're realizing, right? That's what climate justice, climate equity is all about. We can take climate action, and we can make more equitable, healthy communities.

CHARLES: Now, Cleveland does not have the money to do this on a big scale. The city has actually just done modest pilot projects. But Gray thinks discussions like this in Cleveland and in other cities actually paved the way for what the Biden administration now wants to do, which is pour hundreds of billions of dollars into housing renovation and transit and clean energy.

KING: Yes, this is sounding familiar. Climate justice, in a sense, means infrastructure.

CHARLES: That is what Cecilia Martinez. She's a senior official at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.


CECILIA MARTINEZ: The Environmental Justice Community and many of our Black and brown communities have identified the connection between climate change and their own community infrastructure. They can't be disconnected.

CHARLES: Now, this money may never arrive. Republicans in Congress don't include most of the spending in their counterproposal on infrastructure. The Biden administration could cut it in order to get some kind of infrastructure bill through Congress. But local officials in Cleveland are certainly hoping it comes through. One of them told me we have spent much of the past decade preparing for this moment.

KING: Interesting stuff. NPR's Dan Charles. Thank you, Dan.

CHARLES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.