Communities, Climate, and the US Census

The coronavirus has done something to time.

We are suddenly and acutely aware of how long it really takes to wash our hands and how slowly housebound days pass. We know the projected impact of social distancing for 14-days compared to two months and we’re learning the long-term consequences of our daily decisions, for ourselves, our families, and our communities.

Responding to the Census is the perfect opportunity to apply this renewed understanding.

Every ten years, the US Census undertakes the constitutionally mandated count of every person living in the United States. That count does more than just tell us how many people live where; it provides data that will shape our communities for the next decade. The statistical understanding of our country provided by the Census determines congressional representation and districting; helps track impacts of the climate crisis and environmental hazards; informs federal funding for more than 100 programs—including school lunches, highway construction, and education; and is the starting point for investment and planning decisions made by every level of government.

In other words, the time each of us takes to complete the Census matters to the collective health, safety, and strength of our state, now and for years to come.

Take transportation. Everyone who crosses the new Sarah Mildred Long Bridge over the Piscataqua River should thank the Census Bureau. The construction of that bridge was funded in part by the federal Highway Planning and Construction Program. That program, like many federal programs, uses census data to make statistically informed allocation decisions that have an incredible impact on the daily lives of citizens around the country, like the many Mainers that use the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge.

People and policymakers, including those hard at work on the Maine Climate Council, are thinking creatively about ways to improve how we get around and how we can lower our carbon footprint. Census data can not only help inform federal funding decisions but it can also help decision-makers plan public transit and design policies that encourage working from home and expand transportation options—all of which reduce carbon pollution. With cars, trucks, and buses contributing more than half of Maine’s overall carbon emissions, these priorities are as essential to our future as bridge repair.

Many aspects of climate change mitigation and adaptation will be informed by census data. This data can help state and local leaders:

  • Identify communities vulnerable to climate impacts, including coastal flooding and extreme storms. To build climate resiliency, we need to know who lives where and how many people are at risk. This information can help emergency management directors plan evacuation routes, direct supplies, and save lives.
  • Ensure equitable access to renewable energy resources. Information on population density can indicate how close cities and towns are to existing renewable energy projects and help center racial and social equity in community energy planning.
  • Secure energy efficiency and energy assistance for low-income Mainers. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) work in concert to improve energy efficiency and reduce energy costs for low-income Mainers.

The Maine Climate Council has an ambitious and essential responsibility: to propose policies in 2020 that will achieve our climate goals a decade from now. The Census is made for this kind of long-term planning, and it’s never been easier to do our part in ensuring that our communities have the resources to thrive. The 2020 Census is America’s first online count, with most of us filling out the Census from home. There are options to be counted by phone or mail, too, and enumerators will work through the summer to ensure that everyone, including those experiencing homelessness, is counted.

Maine’s self-response rate is embarrassingly low so far—we’re 48th in state rankings—but it’s easy to do your part to change that. Every Mainer who cares about climate action should participate in the census to help Maine prepare for a carbon-free, climate-ready future. Respond now!