Figure 1: Governor Brown signs historic climate legislation in Los Angeles. Source: Metropolitian Transportation Commission

September was a big month for progress on the adaptation and climate justice fronts. Governor Brown signed two landmark climate bills: Senate Bill 32, which extends the Global Warming Solutions Act to cover the state’s 2030 goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 1990; and a companion bill, Assembly Bill 197, that’s designed to ensure that a fair share of the state’s climate resources for reducing emissions and generating jobs are put into improving the health and economic vitality of less advantaged neighborhoods throughout California.

These landmark climate bills were endorsed by a broad alliance of labor unions, grassroots “environmental justice” organizations and environmental groups, who are all crucial to building public support to achieve the wide-ranging emissions cuts necessary in the years ahead, according to “Advancing Equity in California Climate Policy: A New Social Contract for Low-Carbon Transition,” a new research report by professors Carol Zabin (UC Berkeley) and Manual Pastor (USC ).

Key positions for environmental-justice advocates, Zabin and Pastor explain, include identifying low-income communities of color as locations for environmental cleanup, clean-energy projects and good-paying green jobs. Incentives for residential rooftop solar and clean cars, for example, shouldn’t go only to affluent people, forcing those left out to push for separate programs for renters and low-income drivers.
Similarly, labor unions and their allies have been concerned that not all the “green” jobs generated by climate policies are good jobs. The building trades and other unions fear that the nationwide trend of increasing income inequality will spread within the low-carbon sector, replacing good jobs in conventional-energy infrastructure with clean-energy jobs that don’t offer high enough wages to keep working families in the middle class.

Their new report identifies strategies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also ensuring the low-income and working class in California don’t bear the brunt of the costs of climate resiliency initiatives and receive a fair share of the benefits of the state’s transition to a low-carbon economy. While the recommended strategies are aimed at state government, they can also be applied at the local and regional level.

Key Recommendations

  • Expand low-carbon programs that create good jobs and prioritize low-income communities, such as community solar programs and energy efficiency in public and institutional facilities and operations.
  • Promote labor standards, including skilled workforce and local-hire provisions on renewable energy, energy efficiency and other green jobs that are publicly funded.
  • Monitor “pollution hotspots” in disadvantaged communities with strict evaluation and data collection that assesses the relationship of the cap-and-trade program and local emissions, followed by corrective action if excessive levels of pollution are found.
  • Establish “Green Zones” in California’s most disadvantaged communities to focus investments in comprehensive emissions reduction and community resilience investments through community planning that incorporates the interests of environmental-justice and labor organizations.
  • Start planning now for protecting workers and communities who may later be affected by the decline of greenhouse gas emitting industries. While California is not expected to lose jobs in the short term, the risk of job loss may grow as we get closer to the emissions-reduction targets set for 2050, especially in oil-and-gas extraction and refining.
  • Develop an annual Climate Equity Report based on tracking equity outcomes that will enable state officials to monitor whether equity goals have been reached, and identify areas where climate policies should be improved to advance equity.

Case Studies from the California Adaptation Forum

fig3Meanwhile, in the same week these milestone bills were signed, the Local Government Commission held the second biennial California Adaptation Forum in Long Beach. The event brought together 500 climate leaders and practitioners from across the state to share tools and resources for increasing local resilience to climate-change impacts.

Forum speakers stressed the fact that climate change is a “threat multiplier” – exacerbating existing equity issues already faced by people of color and immigrant communities as the result of long-standing economic, social and racial factors.

“Climate change will act as a threat multiplier on the very communities that are already struggling to stay in their homes, put food on the table, and pay their bills,” said Francesca Vietor, Program Director of the San Francisco Foundation, one of the Forum’s sponsors. “We will see water become more scarce and expensive, health disparities increase, low-lying homes flooded and food prices go up. Those who can least afford it will lose their homes and suffer most. Climate change may very well be the greatest equity challenge of our time.”

As a new set of mitigation and adaptation policies around climate change are being developed, we have a unique and urgent opportunity to create new policies that strengthen the building of environmental, economic and social resiliency.

“We can’t continue to force communities to choose between jobs and health, to choose between investments and mitigation, to choose between a thriving economy and the ability to live,” said Miya Yoshitani, Executive Director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network.

From Veronica Garibay’s perspective, inclusion is not just about getting people to come to meetings. The Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability believes community members must lead the discussion (along with other partners) before, during and after adaptation-minded programs are developed to ensure climate results align with community priorities.

Environmental-justice groups stressed throughout the conference that agencies should ultimately be asking communities what they need – and then use their responses to drive projects instead of merely bringing proposed solutions to the communities for their input.

The California Adaptation Forum showcased a great number of equitable adaptation successes:

  • City of Jurupa Valley Environmental Justice Element: Working with the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, the City of Jurupa Valley adopted an Environmental Justice Element in their General Plan in October 2014 with four objectives: Meaningful participation in the public process by all members of the community; a reduction in disproportionate environmental burdens affecting low-income and minority populations; increased mobility and accessibility for all residents healthy and affordable housing opportunities for all segments of the community.
  • Community-driven adaptation in Wilmington and Richmond: In Wilmington, South Los Angeles and Richmond, California, Communities for a Better Environment has implemented a Climate Adaptation Resiliency, Enhancement (CARE) Program that focuses on engaging residents in the problem-solving and decision-making process to identify adaptation and mitigation solutions, driven by the community. Among the projects that will create tangible benefits for these communities: providing residents with cool shelters and homes; permeable street surfaces; cool/green roofs; access to affordable healthy food and water; and access to clean, renewable, locally generated sources of energy.
  • Engaging tribes: the role of traditional knowledges in climate-change initiatives: Joe Hostler (Yurok Tribe), Ron Reed (Karuk Tribe) and Preston Hardison (Tulalip Tribes) discussed the importance of traditional knowledges in climate-resiliency efforts. Due to a long history of exploitation, tribes are concerned about their rights to maintain ownership of their traditional knowledges, including community traditions, intergenerational ritual practices and moral values that are often expressed through language, stories, legends, folklore, songs, taboos and laws.Tribes have been dealing with the impacts of wildfires, droughts, and water scarcity for a long time, and are asking for the recognition of traditional knowledges so that they can use it to address climate change. Traditional knowledges are place-based, and have to be considered in context. It’s important to identify risks before sharing sensitive information and ensuring data ownership. Traditional knowledges are rooted in spirituality, so people need to understand the intrinsic value of religion and faith when seeking this information from tribes.

Communities Are Made Up of Individuals, and Climate Adaptation Rests with the People

Social equity, civic engagement and community resiliency are inextricably linked. A community can truly be resilient only when it ensures that its efforts to adapt to climate impacts, security risks and economic consequences protect and benefit all of its residents especially lower-income neighborhoods, communities of color and those who have historically borne the greater burden of unhealthy pollution, environmental injustice and social disinvestment.

Climate change can seem like a distant threat for many people, and the idea of adapting or building resiliency is abstract compared to more tangible demands to find safe, affordable housing, reliable transportation, healthy food, clean air and water, and jobs that can sustain a family.

For climate-smart policies to be truly inclusive, responsive and ultimately successful, we must be thinking of climate risks and solutions at the scale of human experience.

What does a person need to be happy, healthy and resilient as an individual? How can we scale that approach to impact the way we develop climate adaptation strategies?

Our climate solutions must build the resiliency of the individuals who make up our communities as we focus on the community as a whole. The complexity of climate change calls out for a new level of thinking, for “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it,” as Einstein said.

The good news is that this is already happening in communities across California, creating viable models that can be replicated and expanded. These projects are not only reducing pollution and increasing resilience to extreme heat and other climate impacts but they are also providing for people’s basic housing, transportation, food and work needs. (See the August 2016 Livable Place Update for examples.)

As public servants, it is our professional responsibility and our social imperative to ensure that the decisions we make today protect and our grounded in the expressed needs of our most vulnerable residents. And in doing so, we help make the whole of our communities stronger and more resilient.

Check out more resources from the California Adaptation Forum.

A note of special thanks to our dedicated Forum note-takers: Natalie Hernandez, University of Southern California; Arya Moalemi, CivicSpark AmeriCorp Fellow; and Gilee Corral, CivicSpark AmeriCorps Fellow