Incorporating Climate Justice in the Work of Human Service Nonprofits Is Critical to Helping Those They Serve

Climate change affects us all, but its burdens are not distributed equally; it adversely impacts low-income populations and people of color. In a guest column, Michael Corey, Executive Director of Human Service Chamber of Franklin County, shares how entities across our community are helping those most susceptible to our changing climate.

Whenever we have the opportunity to speak about the social determinants of health with our public officials, we weave together the challenges and opportunities to overcome them with three commonalities: Racism and other -isms; transportation; and global warming.

We are fortunate to be at a point where most public officials with whom we have the privilege of working with in Franklin County understand that racism and transportation are intertwined with the social determinants of health, which are the “conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risk.” 

But even though Columbus has a very good Climate Action Plan, and even though there is an array of exciting work happening in numerous sectors to brace for climate change, there remains surprisingly little recognition of climate justice, the disparate impact of global warming on the people that health and human services nonprofits serve, and the nonprofits themselves.

At the Human Service Chamber of Franklin County, we believe that’s finally changing, and that our community will be a far safer place accordingly.

We believe that the last 12 months have been the tipping point in that understanding, because global warming is no longer an abstract fear in Columbus — the evidence here and around the world is incontrovertible now. To wit, this past summer Central Ohio experienced a torrid heat wave that disrupted our power grid enough that resulted in 65,000 households losing electricity for days. Beyond the unsafe temperatures, people lost precious food supplies while our country was still reeling from the worst inflationary period in decades. Months later, we were blasted with -35-degree wind chills, a spectacularly dangerous level that put strains on our homelessness system as it worked extremely hard to ensure everyone had somewhere warm to be until temperatures rose.

The weather will only get more severe, and more frequently so, in the future. But it’s not just the anomalous temperatures and storms that have a disproportionate effect on the people the health and human services sector serves; it’s the steady increase in temperatures that has been and will continue to have an outsized effect: on energy bills, on public health, and on daily life.

But help is on the way. Across Franklin County, various entities are finding ways to integrate sustainability, energy efficiency, and climate preparedness into their operations, and into their planning. Though this has been building for years, the speed and caliber of these efforts has accelerated dramatically thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, perhaps the most important yet underrated federal legislation of our generation.

The law, passed late last year, is driving innovation and dollars into electrification and energy efficiency efforts in the private and public sectors, and in neighborhoods as well. It has supercharged cost-savings opportunities through incentives and tax credits, most of which went into effect as the year turned. And now workforce and manufacturing and our electricity grid have to catch up.

But most relevantly, the Inflation Reduction Act created a series of billion-dollar funding opportunities for environmental justice directed specifically at helping the very people and organizations serving those most susceptible to our changing climate.

This is why we are so tremendously grateful to The City of Columbus for funding a new position at our organization, a sustainability manager whose job it will be to support the 170+ nonprofits we serve to help them brace for global warming, to help them become more energy efficient and resilient, and to foment similar changes into every neighborhood they reach. 

There are so many exciting opportunities percolating along the spectrum of sustainability, from SWACO’s leadership on recycling and composting, to entrepreneurs like Dominique Hadad and her Green Scope Consulting business, Community Renewable Energy’s work improving access to renewable energy, and Sustainable Columbus’ critical efforts addressing the fact that different parts of our city are much hotter than others.

We are eager to continue working alongside these partners and so many others in helping support our members as they help our community through the climate-related challenges to come.

Article by: Michael Corey, Executive Director, Human Service Chamber of Franklin County

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