What Does Climate Justice in California Look Like?

With rapid global warming increasingly harming low-income people of color, community advocates and scholars at a climate summit say the state can’t reach its climate targets without prioritizing equity.

Crew works on seepage of more than 900,000 gallons of oil and brine water oil from an abandoned well in Chevron Corps Cymric Oil Field that has transformed a dry creek bed into a black lagoon July 24, 2019 near McKittrick, California. Credit: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Crew works on seepage of more than 900,000 gallons of oil and brine water oil from an abandoned well in Chevron Corps Cymric Oil Field that has transformed a dry creek bed into a black lagoon July 24, 2019 near McKittrick, California. Credit: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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Six to eight years ago, “the best science” predicted it would take several decades for California to see the type of climate-driven disasters that have already devastated communities, said Wade Crowfoot, California’s Secretary of Natural Resources, before a packed ballroom during a climate summit in the state capital Monday. 

Crowfoot ran down the list of climate calamities pummeling the Golden State: catastrophic wildfires, extreme heat, a multiyear dry spell just two years after the most punishing drought on record. “We are alarmed with the rate of acceleration of climate change,” he told the policy experts, scholars, community activists, business leaders, public health experts and scientists assembled in Sacramento, a short drive from California’s seat of government.

“As proud as we can be of our collective progress on climate change in the past in California,” Crowfoot said, “we have to move further and we have to move faster, given the accelerating impacts of climate change.”

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The state still lacks a detailed plan to stop extracting fossil fuels, the primary driver of climate change, Crowfoot acknowledged. And, as experts throughout the day made clear, the state does not do enough to reduce the health risks of oil and gas extraction, which are concentrated in low-income communities and communities of color.

Last fall, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that California would phase out oil drilling “no later” than 2045. That’s nearly two decades too late by the calculations of the U.N.’s latest climate report, released earlier this month. Greenhouse emissions must peak by 2025 and nearly halve by 2030, scientists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned, to avoid dire consequences from a warming planet. 

“It’s cheaper to build renewables today than it is to run fossil fuel power plants,” said Ellie Cohen, CEO of The Climate Center, a climate and energy policy nonprofit that hosted Monday’s California Climate Policy Summit. “But our challenge is what’s happening here in Sacramento.”

The oil and gas “stranglehold” on the Democratic supermajority is blocking progress, Cohen said, while the state’s market-based climate policies are perpetuating health inequities.

“We often talk about climate impacts on frontline communities, but we often don’t drill down to what that really means,” said Veronica Garibay, co-founder and co-director of the Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability. It means a farmworker lives with his family of four in a mobile home with no air conditioning, Garibay said. And when it’s over 115 or 120 degrees, which is common in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, they have to sleep in their car and turn on the engine to run the air conditioner to find relief.

California’s poorest regions have long failed to meet clean air standards, Garibay said. And air quality continues to decline as wildfires become more and more extreme. “There are entire communities without fully weatherized homes, without energy efficiency appliances, without AC, without any recourse whatsoever to protect themselves and their families.”

California’s market-based climate policy was widely praised as the most ambitious in the nation when it passed in 2006. But environmental justice groups did not jump on the bandwagon, fearing that allowing polluters to buy the right to pollute, a cornerstone of the program, would further concentrate fossil fuel pollution in their communities.

When you let people pay to pollute, they’re not going to foul places like Beverly Hills, said Mijin Cha, a climate justice researcher at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “They’re going to pollute in areas like East Los Angeles, where the majority are people of color living in communities with little political power.”

Experts in tracking unequal exposures to environmental pollution reported in a 2018 study that neighborhoods with higher proportions of poor people of color were most likely to see increases in emissions of greenhouse gases and related pollutants from nearby facilities, even as emissions dropped statewide. 

The same team released a follow-up study in February showing that those disparities have persisted.

Pollutants rising along with greenhouse gases include particulate matter, nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide. All are associated with respiratory, lung and heart disease and premature death.

“There is no doubt that we need to substantially reduce our carbon emissions, but how you reduce emissions is as important as the quantity that we reduce,” said Cha.

“To build power to push ambitious policies and counter the fossil fuel industry, we need broad-based, multi-issue coalitions,” Cha said. “We need people to be able to see their own concerns and their own worries are reflected in the things that we are asking for.”

That means wage standards, renewable energy job creation, affordable housing and addressing health disparities should all come under the mantle of climate policy, Cha said. “We need to think much more broadly about how we can make people’s lives better, and through making people’s lives better we actually will achieve ambitious emissions reductions.”

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California’s carbon trading program has raised revenue for projects aimed at mitigating climate change impacts and building community resilience, including planting trees in urban areas and funding affordable housing and projects to reduce extreme heat risk. 

But the state’s market-based programs are falling short. As the state auditor reported last year, California won’t meet its 2030 target of reducing emissions by 40 percent of 1990 levels without accelerating the pace.

That’s no surprise to scholars like Cha. “Relying on revenue from pollution to counter pollution is not efficient,” she said. 

California’s Air Resources Board has the jurisdiction to directly regulate emissions, yet has instead created a market for pollution, Cha said in an interview. “When you create a market for pollution, the financial incentive is to keep polluting.”

Back at the summit, Cha said that the only way to meet the state’s carbon reduction goals is through policies that improve people’s lives while reducing emissions. “Equity is not a distraction. It is a path through which we achieve ambitious climate action,” she said, as the crowd burst into cheers.