Environment

Can California Protect Frontline Communities From Climate Change?

Poor people will be hit hardest by the impacts of climate change.

A cogeneration (combined heat and power) plant in central California.
Photo Credit: Richard Thornton/Shutterstock

In the last five years, San Jose has seen severe drought followed by the worst floods in a century, and to top it off, record-breaking temperatures. These extreme weather events are not unique to the Bay Area, but are happening all around California as well as the U.S. and the world. Climate change makes them more common and more severe.

Although California is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it won’t stop global warming. We can slow down extreme weather events like those in San Jose, but communities will continue to feel the impacts of climate change no matter how much we curb emissions.

The weather conditions brought on by climate change—like  flooding, heatwaves and wildfires—can affect everyday life for people. Californians face the increasing likelihood of power outages, displacement, increased costs for electricity and food, contaminated drinking water, worsened air pollution and increased asthma rates.

While climate change impacts will affect everyone, poor communities and communities of color will be hit hardest. These frontline communities already spend as much as 25 percent of their entire income on just food, electricity and water, which is much more than most Americans. They face a greater risk of heat-related illness and death.

And while air conditioning and transportation could alleviate extreme heat impacts, many people of color and low-income residents lack access to air conditioning or cars to escape hot days. Often located in areas with severe air pollution, these communities will also breathe even dirtier air as smog increases due to climate change.

So what is California doing to ensure frontline communities are prepared to handle the impacts of climate change and continue to thrive?

The state has developed a climate adaptation strategy called the Safeguarding California Plan. The plan covers 10 sectors, including energy, transportation, public health, water and forests. For each sector, the plan discusses what the state is currently doing to address climate adaptation, what must be done, and how the state plans to accomplish those goals. The plan covers a lot of ground, but focuses heavily on the vulnerability of built infrastructure (e.g. roads, highways and energy facilities) and natural systems like wetlands, forests and agricultural lands.

The plan does little to prioritize community vulnerability. For instance, are cooling centers available on hot days for communities lacking access to air conditioning? Are emergency evacuation routes available for people without vehicles? What is the emergency response system to warn people of extreme weather events in rural or hard-to-reach communities? What measures are in place to prevent displacement?

Recognizing the need to address these issues, the Resources Legacy Fund brought together several environmental justice, public health and climate equity organizations, including Greenlining, to create a Climate Justice Working Group. The working group provided recommendations to the state as it updated the Safeguarding California Plan earlier this year. We also just released a set of climate justice principles and recommendations that go beyond “Safeguarding California.” We believe the state should include the recommendations in all climate adaptation policies it develops.

Here’s an overview:

  • The state should prioritize the protection of essential facilities that provide health care, food, and emergency shelter; bring economic opportunities into frontline communities and avoid negative consequences such as displacement.

  • The state should conduct community vulnerability assessments to identify what make a community vulnerable. The assessments can inform strategies to build community resilience.

  • Importantly, the state should meet with and actively engage frontline communities to include their voice in all climate adaptation plans.

  • The state should identify at least $1 billion by 2020 and $10 billion by 2025 to accomplish climate resilience goals.

To hear what communities have to say about climate change, Resources Legacy Fund and EMC Research conducted a survey of 800 California voters of color. Sixty-one percent of these voters say climate change poses a major threat to low-income communities, and 85% want their elected officials to develop stronger policies to help their community prepare for the impacts of climate change.

The recently passed extension of California’s cap-and-trade program designates climate adaptation as a priority that must get funding from cap-and-trade revenue. Since climate adaption will get funding, this is an opportune time for the state to think about incorporating the Climate Justice Working Group’s recommendations into its policies—especially since voters of color want to see policies that address community vulnerability.

Officials must listen to the voices of the communities hit first and worst, and make sure that we build up the resiliency of those communities and don’t accidentally increase poverty and displacement.

Sona Mohnot is environmental equity program manager and policy analyst at the Greenlining Institute

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