This summer marks the two-year anniversary of my bike accident. I was biking to work, stopped in the bike lane at a major West Oakland intersection, waiting for the light to turn green, when a turning 24 foot semi-truck trailer rammed into me and sucked me under it. Protected by my mom’s prayers to keep me alive, I rolled out the other side into the middle of the intersection, untouched by the truck’s wheels. My bike was a coiled mass of metal under the trailer.
For me, biking wasn’t just a mode of transportation. It was how I connected to nature, to my body. It’s how I took up space on the street. When the accident happened — it disrupted everything I knew about the world. I lost my sense of safety — an encounter like that means you can never step outside your door and look at risk the same way.
When you have a near-death experience, you reevaluate and call into question everything about your life. All aspects of it.
After the accident, I moved to a new neighborhood, and ended a 3-year long relationship. I focused on taking care of the one body that I have. I went to physical therapy each week and started going to the gym. I saw a therapist and pushed myself to share what had happened with friends and coworkers.
That accident became a catapult for major shifts in my life — it strengthened bonds with friends and family and pushed me to spend my precious time doing things that invite joy and adventure.
Disasters don’t have to stop at pain and destruction. They can be occasions to build strength.
This personal experience has informed my work as a researcher working on climate adaptation and environmental justice.
I see that the storms are already here. And I know California can come out of the climate crisis stronger and more resilient.
In California, wildfires are burning bigger, more frequently, and becoming more deadly. Last summer, wildfires engulfed nearly half the state.
The economy of endless growth has created islands of wealth while turning our neighborhoods and homelands into wastelands without clean air, water, or land. It has put us on a path to more wildfires, sea level rise, and climate disaster.
For now, the wealthy are opting-out of dealing with the consequences. During the wildfires, those who could afford it left our smoke-filled cities for impromptu vacations in places with cleaner air.
Meanwhile, caught in the midst of toxic wildfire smoke, immigrant communities didn’t get in-language emergency alerts about how to protect their families.
Right now, California is starting to make important decisions about climate resilience, but we’re doing it without the tools we need to identify and support the people facing the biggest threats.
So far, a lot of efforts around climate adaptation have focused on what we can do to protect forests, coasts, and wetlands. We’ve considered big infrastructure projects like giant seawalls as ways of adapting to a changing climate. But our communities, our neighborhoods, our people living and working in the places we do — remain vastly underprepared.
We need targeted and culturally competent emergency preparedness, response, and recovery efforts. At the same time, we need to ensure planning in housing and economic development considers climate threats and make strategic community investments in resilient infrastructure like clean distributed energy and green space. Most importantly, we need to address the widening economic gap alongside the climate crisis.
In the short term, this means multi-lingual and multi-media alerts systems, safe evacuation shelters, community-led disaster trainings, and inclusive eligibility for disaster relief funds. It means rent stabilization and just cause eviction policies to protect renters from price-gouging. It means creation of community resiliency hubs powered by solar microgrids to provide electricity during a power outage.
In order to do this, we need to know the people and places that will experience the effects of climate change most severely so that we can prioritize and target climate readiness efforts.
My latest research report, “Mapping Resilience: A Blueprint for Thriving in the Face of Climate Disasters,” points to a critical need for an interactive mapping tool that layers the various social, health and environmental factors that can contribute to — or add protections from — climate threats. The recommended framework stands to provide essential information for state and local leaders tasked with making important decisions to appropriately prioritize communities that face the biggest threats.
The good news is that the climate threat assessment tool we need is well within reach. Many of the key climate threat indicators are already in use across dozens of existing frameworks. It’s just a matter of putting the pieces together in a streamlined, usable form.
Centering justice means making sure that working class communities of color are at the center of building solutions to how we respond and adapt in the face of a new climate reality. My hope is that our communities not only cope and survive, but find opportunities to grow and thrive in that transition.
Amee Raval is Senior Policy Researcher at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network.