Facing the Climate Gap: How Low-Income Communities of Color Are Leading the Charge on Climate Solutions

California’s communities of color are implementing effective climate change responses that address social equity concerns while also building political momentum that can catalyze broader policy change.

Photo Credit: Esteban Ramirez of Clean Up, Green Up

Editor's Note: This is the introduction to a week-long series of profiles from some of California's most hard-pressed communities who are turning the tide on climate change with community-based organizations. Read the first profile here and the entire series here.

This article was published in collaboration with GlobalPossibilities.org.

On September 30, 2012, California Governor Brown signed the “Climate and Community Revitalization” bills – AB 1532 and SB535. The first of these sets up a process to allocate revenues from auctioning allowances (that is, emissions permits) under the new market-based system that is part of the implementation of the Golden State’s 2006 landmark legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).  More significantly, SB 535 requires that a minimum of 25 percent of cap and trade revenue be invested in projects that provide benefits to environmentally burdened and socially disadvantaged communities – and it requires that 10 percent be directly invested in projects in those communities. 

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SB 375 is the result of a long struggle by a variety of groups to lift up the voices and concerns of low-income and minority communities in the global warming debate in California (and the nation). After all, research has demonstrated that low-income populations and communities of color suffer the greatest ill effects from climate change, not just internationally but also within the U.S.  In a double-whammy, they are subject to the worst environmental conditions (like worse air quality) and have the highest vulnerability to extreme weather events (due to high rates of cardiovascular disease, for example). 

We have called this reality the “climate gap” and documented the problem and offered solutions in a series of previous research reports.  But there is another “climate gap” that many environmentalists may not be aware of: polls have confirmed that Californians of color are actually more concerned than white residents about both pollution and climate change and, moreover, played a defining role in defeating an oil company-sponsored effort to derail the state’s efforts to address global warming.

Beyond their leadership on the political front, low-income communities of color are also playing a central role in “facing the climate gap” through local projects on the ground – projects that offer examples of exactly how and where auction revenues ought to be invested to support communities. Today, a collaboration of researchers are releasing Facing the Climate Gap: How Environmental Justice Communities Are Leading the Way to a More Sustainable and Equitable California, a report that chronicles the ways in which California’s community organizations, powered with the support of experienced organizers and concerned residents, have taken a “bottom-up” approach to address climate change and improve the lives and futures of residents in tangible ways.

Unfortunately, the voice of people of color and low-income residents is not always heard in policy discussions about climate change. For example, the state’s global warming law did include provisions to address environmental justice – but the concerns of social justice advocates that a “cap and trade” program could create air pollution “hot spots” went largely unaddressed. Indeed, the disagreement between environmental justice advocates and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) led to a lawsuit and a 2011 court ruling that CARB had not adequately considered alternatives to “cap and trade.” Ultimately, however, the program was allowed to proceed.

Despite these disagreements on how to approach climate change mitigation, environmental justice advocates have not been deterred from directly tackling issues of environmental health and climate change. To tell their stories, we are posting this week a series of profiles from some of the Golden State’s most hard-pressed communities and hard-working community-based organizations.

The report on which these profiles are based involved a year-long study of community-based efforts to confront climate change, ranging from tree-planting to deal with heat islands to urban agriculture to deal with food insecurity, from farmworker challenges to heat-related illnesses to cross-community collaboration that establishes “green zones,” from watchdog work on water quality improvement to innovative ordinances that address incompatible land uses, from the reworking of our transit system to the retrofitting of our energy-consuming buildings, from the use of the indigenous knowledge of First Californians to the design of more integrated land use planning for citywide “just transitions.”

While the specific climate-related challenges and solutions in each of the report’s case studies and this week’s featured profiles below vary, they all highlight one simple message: the communities most affected by the climate gap are creating solutions that can and should receive the sorts of investments envisioned under SB 535 – and scaling them up both in the state and the nation is all the more critical because of inaction at the federal level and the resistance of some industries to mitigation measures. 

Indeed, while we highlight local stories in a single state, we think they give a taste of future possibilities for America as a whole.  California has often led the nation on environmental issues and California’s communities of color are implementing effective climate change responses that address social equity concerns while also building political momentum that can catalyze broader policy change.  With the future of the planet at risk, it may be time to support these efforts and forge a bottom-up approach to tackling both climate change and the climate gap.

Read the first profile in the series here.


Rachel Morello-Frosch is an associate professor at the School of Public Health and the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkeley.  Her research examines the disparate health impacts of environmental hazards and climate change on communities of color and the poor. 


Dr. Manuel Pastor is Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California where he also directs the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity and co-directs USC’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration. His most recent books include Just Growth: Inclusion and Prosperity in America’s Metropolitan Regions (Routledge 2012; co-authored with Chris Benner) Uncommon Common Ground: Race and America’s Future (W.W. Norton 2010; co-authored with Angela Glover Blackwell and Stewart Kwoh), and This Could Be the Start of Something Big: How Social Movements for Regional Equity are Transforming Metropolitan America (Cornell 2009; co-authored with Chris Benner and Martha Matsuoka)