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Global Warming Law Shifts Responsibility from Polluters to Communities [Contains Photo Slideshow]

Communities in California and Mexico are angered by a cap-and-trade plan that could shift the burden from polluters to poor communities.
 
 
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Editor's Note: Scroll down to view a photo slideshow of affected communities in California and Mexico.

California leads the United States in energy efficiency, and is often hailed as a global beacon of environmental protection; at the same time, it is the 12th largest emitter of carbon dioxide worldwide, making the state a significant driver of climate change. Any efforts to reduce these emissions would clearly benefit not only California, but the world. So when the implementation of California's Global Warming Solutions Act, AB32, came to a grinding halt due to San Francisco Superior Court's March 18 ruling that it violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), it came as a shock to industry and environmentalists alike.

AB32, passed in 2006, mandates that the state reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. The law is hailed as landmark environmental legislation for its aggressive action to reduce global warming emissions while "generating jobs, promoting a growing, clean-energy economy and a healthy environment for California at the same time."

It wouldn't be surprising if leading-edge environmental legislation like AB32 were to draw fire from climate-change deniers and tea-partiers who undoubtedly see it as a challenge to the god-given right to pollute; indeed, the last attempt to derail the law was last year's California Proposition 23, pushed by the oil lobby and r oundly defeated by grassroots climate justice groups.

But the lawsuit against AB32 was undertaken by the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment ( CRPE) and Communities for a Better Environment ( CBE) -- two groups that advocate on behalf of low-income people and people of color who live, work and play in the shadow of refineries in Wilmington and Richmond, in the agro-toxic fields of the Central Valley, near the waste-dumps of Kettleman City, and in other California communities plagued by industrial pollution.

More surprising still, the bill and its implications are raising hackles among another unlikely constituency: indigenous peasant farmers in the remote jungle of southeastern Mexico.

Why should a bill intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions come under attack from precisely those groups most impacted by toxic pollution? And why is it of concern to subsistence farmers in remote Mexico? The answer is complicated; but in essence, the problem with AB32, from the perspective of those most vulnerable to the impacts of both the climate crisis and the fossil fuel industry, can be summed up in two words: pollution trading.

Environmental Justice Advocates' Campaign to Reform AB32

On April 11, Alegria de la Cruz and Rafael Aguilera spoke at UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy. De la Cruz is the legal director for the San Francisco-based Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment; Rafael Aguilera worked with the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund to help shape AB32 and then, as a private consultant with his own Verde Group, took part in efforts to halt its implementation.

Aguilera, crisply dressed in a sport coat and tie, his long hair slicked into a tight ponytail, began by showing a graph of the rising numbers of heat-related deaths among California's farmworkers.

"Current predictions for the Central Valley are three-month long heat waves - temperatures above 105 degrees in the summer months," he said. Aguilera put up a slide of Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenez, a pregnant 17-year-old farmworker who died of heat stroke near Stockton in the summer of 2008.

"Look at this face," he told the audience. "Maria Isavel is the face of climate change."