Working for Just Adaptation

This is an abridged version of the essay, ‘Working for a Just Adaptation’ by Zachary B. Lamb and Todd E. Vachon. The original, full version of this essay is available on the website for “Power: Infrastructure in America,” a project at Columbia University’s Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture.

The Green New Deal resolution introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in early 2019 lays out strategies for addressing the dual crises of climate change and increasing socioeconomic inequality facing the United States and the wider world.1 The resolution acknowledges that, just as disadvantaged members of society bear the heaviest costs of all environmental hazards,2 climate change has “exacerbated systemic racial, regional, social, environmental, and economic injustices, disproportionately affecting…frontline communities.”

Not only do the impacts of climate change exacerbate existing inequalities, but efforts to slow climate change and reduce its impacts can also contribute to widening inequality. For instance, some labor leaders have raised alarms that efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. can widen inequality by replacing high-paying, unionized jobs in the fossil fuel industry with lower-paying, non-union jobs in the renewable energy sector. That’s why, in recent years, a robust discussion has emerged on the need for a “just transition” to protect working people from the heaviest costs of reducing emissions. However, even if emissions were to stop tomorrow, some climate change is already “locked in” from historical and ongoing emissions. If equity is not a central priority, adapting to climate change can also exacerbate existing inequalities through both “acts of omission,” such as excluding poor neighborhoods from the benefits of new protective infrastructures (e.g., flood protection levees and drainage upgrades), or “acts of commission,” such as evicting disadvantaged populations to make way for adaptation projects.4,5 That is why, along with a just transition, there must also be a “just adaptation” agenda to ensure that workers and vulnerable communities are at the center of planning and design efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change. As a city official in New Orleans reported in an interview, “It doesn’t matter how tall your levees are. If you don’t have a job, you aren’t resilient.”6

Over the last decade, as climate change impacts have intensified, designers and planners have eagerly answered the calls of city leaders and philanthropies to reimagine the spatial configurations and governance of cities to cope with environmental changes. These efforts have taken many forms, including “resilience planning” through the Rockefeller Foundation’s recently discontinued 100 Resilient Cities Program and interdisciplinary visionary design competitions like the post-Sandy Rebuild By Design (RBD) in the New York metropolitan area. Workers and labor unions have rarely been central players in these efforts. Thus far, adaptation planning and design in the U.S., like professional planning and design more generally, has not focused on the interests of workers. Crafting a just adaptation agenda will require substantial shifts in standard operating procedures for both design and planning professionals and for organized labor to ensure that adaptation 1) minimizes harm to workers, 2) maximizes gains for workers, and 3) joins the interests of workers and communities.

Read Lamb and Vachon’s full essay exploring the pursuit of equity and justice in response to climate change as well as detailed pathways for enhancing future outcomes on the website for “Power: Infrastructure in America.”

1. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “Recognizing the Duty of the Federal Government to Create a Green New Deal,” Pub. L. No. H.R. 109 (2019),
2. Benjamin Wisner et al., At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability, and Disasters (London; New York: Routledge, 2004); Mark Pelling, Adaptation to Climate Change: From Resilience to Transformation (London ; New York: Routledge, 2010).
3. Carla Marinucci, and Debra Kahn, "Labor anger over Green New Deal greets 2020 contenders in California," Politico, June 2019,
4. Isabelle Anguelovski et al., “Equity Impacts of Urban Land Use Planning for Climate Adaptation,” Journal of Planning Education and Research 36, no. 3 (2016): 333–48; Benjamin K. Sovacool, Björn-Ola Linnér, and Michael E. Goodsite, “The Political Economy of Climate Adaptation.” Nature Climate Change 5, no. 7 (2015): 616–18.
5. Isabelle Anguelovski et al., “Equity Impacts of Urban Land Use Planning for Climate Adaptation: Critical Perspectives from the Global North and South,” Journal of Planning Education and Research 36, no. 3 (2016): 333–348.
6. Jeff Hebert, Chief Resilience Officer, City of New Orleans, interview by Zachary Lamb, August 1, 2017.