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New Majority Confronts Climate Crisis

By Jess Clarke

The 2014 climate assessment from the UN panel on climate change is the most dire ever issued.1 These climate impacts are hitting our communities now. California is in the grips of a multi-year drought—the worst since it became a state—that is already threatening water supplies, worsening air quality and beginning to drive up food prices.2 International climate policy has stalled. Symbolic agreements, such as the one the Obama administration made with the Chinese leadership in November 2014, have few if any enforceable limits. And while the federal EPA has only just begun rulemaking to limit carbon emissions, the decades-long struggle of California’s environmental justice communities to shape a climate policy that inserts equity into the climate conversation is a notable bright spot.

In the world, the US, and in California, climate change is hitting low-income people and communities of color first and hardest.3 But in California, the combined organizing and electoral power of Latinos, Asians, and African Americans has repeatedly tipped the balance in state and local elections to bring a more liberal if not yet progressive generation of political leadership onto the scene,4 and to push consideration of environmental justice into the calculations of state policy makers. This opportunity is still nascent. Policy victories require multi-year campaigns with multiple coalition participants. They also require the ability to challenge undemocratic planning processes with a political program based on input from impacted communities.

Results from California’s redistricting as well as the newly enforced California Voting Rights Act (which enables fair representation of communities of color at the local level) demonstrate that the raw electoral power of communities of color and low-income people is on the upswing.5 The campaign against the Dirty Energy Proposition 23 demonstrated that a political alliance of communities of color can engage with state-wide mainstream and environmental groups to defend progressive environmental policy. (See Sidebar on Proposition 23.) The victory in creating a Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (SB 535) with specific percentage targets for impacted communities shows that organizing can shape public policy in a positive and not just a defensive manner. (See article by Eric Arnold in RP&E  Vol. 20-1 "Can't See the Forest... Or the Trees.")

Similarly, the Municipal Energy and Climate Action Plans (ECAP), which set policies on how cities can engage in GHG emissions reductions and energy conservation, are another arena for incorporating environmental justice principles. (They are also a potential basis by which GHC reduction funds will be directed.) Since San Francisco first enacted its plan in 2004, other cities across California have done likewise. In Oakland, the community-based Climate Action Coalition (OCAC) engaged in a two-year campaign to institute an 18-point program now in place.6

Across the state there are hundreds of small-scale projects that are already moving ahead with climate resilience policies and practices that are equity-driven efforts from the ground up. Communities are finding intervention points in classic land-use battles such as the work of the Environmental Health Coalition in San Diego’s Barrio Logan.7 Transit organizing projects in Los Angeles8 and the San Francisco Bay Area9 are fusing concerns about climate with transit access organizing to force transit authorities to provide better service to low-income communities—and reduce carbon and other pollution. Urban greening projects, such as Urban Tilth in Richmond10 and Urban Releaf in Oakland,11 and the statewide coalition California Environmental Justice Alliance12 are building greener cities, strengthening community, and advancing policy positions on carbon reduction and sustainable agriculture.

What works? What doesn’t?

The most obvious defect in California’s climate policy is that the progressive thrust of legislation and climate planning achieved through community mobilization and democratic process has been channeled into unaccountable forums, such as the Air Resources Board and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, where neither democratic process nor policy expertise determine outcomes. Vested interests in polluting industries, corporate lobbyists, and politicians who serve them often dominate such decision-making entities.

Another lesson learned is that even in defeat, policy proposals that are debated and contested in democratic or popular political forums, create opportunities for constituent education, alliance-building with other constituencies and regions, a public record of the deliberations, and a better jumping off point for the next round. Therefore, it’s important for environmental justice advocates to create a terrain of contention where democratic process can carry the day. While behind-the-scenes lobbying and relationships with politicians and policy-makers in the environmental and administrative agencies are a necessary ingredient for moving policy, they are simply not enough by themselves. It’s worth looking back at the origins of current policy to better understand what we can win and how we can win it.

Long-term Environmental Justice Organizing Shapes Playing Field

Beginning in the late 1980s, and throughout the 1990s, Environmental Justice organizers were engaging communities to fight pollution and toxic contamination. Kettleman City—still a site of contention between waste disposal companies and the community—was at the heart of a 1988 struggle that characterized organizing efforts of the time. The predominantly Latino residents prevented from participating in public hearings by government actions, organized a political campaign based on civil rights principles that halted the siting of that particular incinerator.13

Numerous other battles in Los Angeles, Oakland, and the Central Valley resulted in the first California State environmental justice legislation. In 1999, Governor Gray Davis signed SB 115 making California the first state in the nation to codify a definition of “environmental justice.” In the following years a number of related measures created state oversight boards for environmental justice in numerous departments.

As Manuel Pastor, Director of the Center for Justice, Tolerance and Community observed at the time, 14 it was often Latino politicians responding to their constituencies—key swing districts in California state politics—that moved environmental justice principles into state law. As climate change has become ever more important in California, it’s often been pressure from communities of color that ha pushed the state to the national forefront on climate mitigation and adaptation legislation.

Cities Break National Climate Policy Paralysis

In 2005, over 50 mayors from cities, such as London, Rio de Janeiro, Tehran, Capetown, Sydney, and Shanghai came to San Francisco to sign the Urban Environmental Accords, a city-to-city compact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.15 The Accords addressed seven environmental areas common to all large cities: water, energy, waste, urban design, transportation, urban nature, and environmental health.16 Parin Shah, a climate activist then working to implement the Accords,17 hailed the way that direct action by cities made it more likely that climate policy would take the needs of environmental justice communities into account. Bay Area environmental justice groups coordinated by the Ella Baker Center organized to create the first Social Equity Track at the UN World Environment Day and staged a dozen events during the three-day Accords conference to ensure that the voices of people of color were heard.18

Origins of AB32

Pro-environmental policy has always played well with the California electorate and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger took the occasion of the Accords conference to sign an executive order that set non-binding statewide greenhouse gas emissions targets and ordered state agencies to begin planning toward those ends.19 But Schwarzenegger’s preferred methodology was “cap-and-trade.”

From the start, advocates on the ground and within the legislature knew that cap-and-trade would allow incumbent polluters to keep their facilities dirty while fenceline communities suffocated in the toxic effluents of power plants, refineries, industrial agriculture, and automobile exhaust. Direct regulations of carbon pollution or an actual carbon tax were both considered by many to be more effective ways of improving health and safety for impacted communities. Consequently, Governor Schwarzenegger lost his bid to force “market-based mechanisms” into the original AB32 legislation in 2006. Cap-and-trade policies were mandated to be considered only after “early action” measures—primarily direct regulation of carbon pollution—had been implemented.

Another key accomplishment of the lobbying by environmental justice groups was the explicit language in the law requiring the California Air Resources Board (ARB) to “ensure that activities undertaken to comply with the regulations do not disproportionately impact low-income communities and that these communities also benefit from statewide efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”20 The legislation has numerous sections directing the executive branch to take environmental justice communities into account. The body responsible for monitoring the impacts is the Environmental Justice Advisory Committee (EJAC).21

California’s 21st century climate policy has seen a dynamic interplay between mainstream political leaders making ambitious and publicly popular promises—often with no implementation plan in sight—and environmental justice organizations struggling to include the interests of low-income people and communities of color in actionable policy language. True to pattern, on the eve of the 2006 election, Governor Schwarzenegger began undermining AB32 with an executive order pushing the state toward implementation of his original cap-and-trade agenda.22 In 2007, he fired ARB Chair Robert Sawyer who wanted to aggressively implement early action regulations to bring down emissions quickly. ARB Executive Officer Catherine Witherspoon resigned in protest.

Angela Johnson-Meszaros, co-chair of the EJAC, reportedly said that ARB was already ignoring their recommendations “not just for climate change, but for co-pollutants.” 23 (Co-pollution is the term for the emission of both toxic chemicals and carbon. Reducing those emissions is central to environmental protection of low-income communities, where the sources are usually located.)

The Governor’s order directing Executive Branch agencies to prioritize cap-and-trade and the firing of the ARB chair successfully forced cap-and-trade to the top of the agenda.24 Repeated expert testimony that called cap-and-trade an untested methodology for controlling carbon emissions, as well as Europe’s failure in implementing the model were ignored.25 Scores of policy recommendations made by the legislatively mandated EJAC went unimplemented. Unfortunately, the legislature provided practically no funds for the work of the EJAC and while the members had a clear grasp of the intricacies of climate policy, they lacked the leverage to alter the cap-and-trade program included in the draft scoping plan proposed by ARB.26

Several of the organizations represented on the EJAC (including the Center on Race Poverty and the Environment and Communities for a Better Environment) sued to block implementation of the cap-and-trade portion of the reduction and succeeded briefly because the plan violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).27 Unfortunately, the ruling addressed only the procedures followed, not the merits of the program and ARB was able to proceed with the cap-and-trade program after formally considering and rejecting the legally required alternative plan.

Greenhouse Gas Reduction Revenues Could Fund Climate Action

Despite losing, the lawsuit against ARB provided significant media visibility for the environmental justice critique of cap-and-trade. Across the state, people were educated about the fact that carbon and toxic pollution were co-pollutants and that cap-and-trade permits allow emissions to continue at refineries, power plants, and other sources situated in low-income communities. Conversation around the lawsuit also helped build a persuasive argument that low income and communities of color need to be included in shaping policy on how mitigation efforts will impact them.

Community organizations that had tried and failed to establish an ambitious carbon trust fund (SB31) in 2009 28 came back to the legislature with a new plan and in 2012, two Green House Gas Reduction Fund measures (AB1532 and SB 535) were passed and signed by Governor Jerry Brown. Organizations both for and against cap-and-trade had reunited to support directing 25 percent of the proceeds from the carbon permit auctions towards improving conditions in impacted communities.29

After a decade of struggle, there is now in place a revenue stream specifically targeted at funding local and regional efforts to reduce GHG emissions and climate change impacts. In FY 2013-14, auctions yielded over $500 million in revenues and ARB estimates that within a few years the amount of money flowing through this channel will be substantial depending on market conditions. Revenues could rise to $1.5 billion in FY 2014-15 and to $2.4 billion in 2015-17.30

Gaining access to that money, however, is an on-going battle with the state as well as with regional and local agencies that make allocation decisions. In the first year, Brown blocked any spending on the required targets and used the money to fill the budget deficit in the general fund. But after the campaign to tax millionaires let Brown raise taxes sufficient to close the deficit in 2014, the Legislature and Governor Brown agreed on the first release Greenhouse Gas Reduction Funds.31

While the bulk of the fund went towards Brown’s own priorities—such as high speed rail—approximately $230 million (about 26 per cent) was allocated to aid environmental justice communities, including $75 million for weatherizing low-income homes, $25 million for transit and intercity rail networks in poor communities.32 and $130 million towards the Strategic Growth Council to fund local planning efforts across the state. According to an analysis by William Fulton in the California Development and Planning Report, “Local governments and their nonprofit partners are focusing on implementation of previous plans—especially climate action plans.” 33 If this prediction bears out, local governments should be more receptive than ever to partnering with grassroots organizations to promote climate resilience work developed with an equity framework. (See sidebar on SB375.)

Across the state, communities are now mobilizing to move this money, the product of a decade long fight by environmental justice advocates, toward real benefits for low-income people and communities of color. Though not much more than spillover funds from the vast resources controlled by the fossil fuel industry, they still represent an important win for our communities and we need to continue the fight even though it be a generations-long process.

In assessing the power of California’s communities of color in stopping Prop 23, Catherine Lerza34 characterizes people of color voters as “a climate firewall” that blocked the attempt by the fossil fuel industries to shut down AB32. Indeed, low-income people and communities of color continue to be our best hope for preventing the firestorm of extreme weather and extreme right political positions that dominate the national political and environmental landscape. Accepting the centrality of community-based leadership and decision-making in channeling climate adaptation and mitigation investments is also the best method of ensuring that the proceeds produce real community resilience. n


Jess Clarke is the project director of Reimagine! and was the editor of Race Poverty & the Environment from 2005-2013. This article is based on a policy briefing paper, “California’s New Majority Confronts Climate Crisis,” produced for the Movement Strategy Center. The original briefing is available at



Communities of Color Defeat Prop 23 with “Climate Firewall”

Just as the major provisions of AB32 were to take effect, two oil companies financed a campaign—the Dirty Energy Prop 23—to suspend implementation of the law until unemployment dropped below 5 percent, cloaking their argument in the classic “jobs vs. environment” format.

Despite its drawbacks, AB32 was California’s strongest piece of pro-environment legislation in a generation and clearly a leader in the nation’s climate policy. While the protection of impacted communities had been a struggle at each stage of implementation, AB32 was still considered a major step in working toward the environmental health of our communities. While mainstream environmentalists and business groups quickly formed a well-funded coalition to defeat the measure, some environmental justice created their own organization: Communities United Against the Dirty Energy Proposition. This statewide coalition, separate from but in collaboration with the mainstream grouping, laid the groundwork for future collective action and advocacy. It enabled a statewide conversation about the equity of environmental priorities and culture-specific organizing in impacted communities, and the creation of a strong state-wide network with equity concerns at its heart. In 2010, the measure was defeated by a clear majority 60 percent vote.35

Catherine Lerza, analyzing the campaign and the results in a post-election review, “A Perfect Storm,” published by the Funders Network for Transforming the Global Economy (FNTG),36 draws a number of important demographic and policy conclusions about the leadership role that communities of color can and are playing in California’s environmental policy battles.

From “A Perfect Storm”
by Catherine Lerza

“In framing messages about Prop 23, Communities United focused on two things: public health, particularly air pollution and respiratory diseases that are epidemic in CA’s low income communities of color, and the jobs and economic opportunity that will flow from an investment in a clean, sustainable economy.”

“In 2011, members of the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA), partnering with the mainstream environmental community, played a key role in winning the nation’s most aggressive renewable energy standards, which increased California’s mandate for renewable energy from 20 percent to 33 percent by 2020. EJ organizations not only helped make the bill’s passage possible by securing three critical committee votes, but also added important components to the bill, including codifying into the law the “Garamendi Principles” (a set of principles aimed at reducing the negative environmental impacts of proposed new energy transmission infrastructure) and a commitment to distributive generation via local renewable energy projects.”Communities of color do not need to be “educated” about environmental and climate issues. They need to be recognized as environmental and climate activists and, most important, as leaders. Funding for organizations led by and rooted in communities of color should not be an “add on,” but should instead be a driver of strategy and mission for foundations and donors concerned about climate change.”

Download the full report at:




San Francisco Grassroots Participate in SB375 Planning

Equity, Environment and Jobs

One major channel for the funds will be regional transportation planning organizations mandated to reduce carbon emissions by another California state climate policy, the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act, commonly referred to as SB375. This legislation supports the State’s climate action goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through coordinated transportation and land-use planning to create more sustainable communities.37

These planning agencies are critical sites for decision-making on a host of other issues, such as transportation access to jobs and economic opportunities and neighborhood streetscaping improvements. Broad-based community intervention in the San Francisco Bay Area plan attempted to ensure that benefits and impacts of such development would be shared by all communities. The alternative plan proposed by community forces demonstrated that by addressing the needs of low-income communities the plan could better serve the entire Bay area, both in terms of mitigating carbon emissions and improving health outcomes.

Richard A. Marcantonio and Alex Karner detail the course of one battle in their case study of the San Francisco Bay Area planning process, “One Bay Area”.38 Anticipating the possible opening SB375 could create for local organizations, in 2010, community groups across the nine-county San Francisco Bay region came together to create a regional policy and investment platform that would put the needs of disadvantaged communities first. The coalition of over 40 organizations that emerged—The 6 Wins Network—has been engaged ever since in shaping planning priorities.

Public Advocates, a key member of the 6 Wins Network, summarizes its important victories:

1. Launching the first ever community-built, equity-driven, alternative regional plan. Developed in 2011, the Equity, Environment and Jobs (EEJ) Scenario focuses on creating a more healthy, prosperous, and sustainable future for Bay Area residents of all races and incomes.

2. Showing that equity is better for everyone. In July 2012, 6 Wins succeeded in pushing MTC and ABAG to study the benefits of the EEJ scenario in their Environmental Impact Report (EIR) of the Plan. The April 2013 EIR concluded that the EEJ out-performed the Draft Plan and three other alternatives. In fact, MTC and ABAG called it the “environmentally superior alternative,” because the numbers show that the EEJ results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants; a broader distribution of affordable housing; $8 billion more to increase transit service levels; more opportunities for walking and biking; fewer injuries and fatalities from traffic accidents; the fewest renters priced out of their neighborhoods; and the lowest combined housing and transportation costs for low-income households.

3. Linking grassroots groups, academics, policy and legal advocates. We know that we’re stronger when we bring each of our unique skills to the table and work collectively across issue areas. The 6 Wins has also built bridges to groups that focus on environment, public health, good government and business. By May, 2013, more than 40 groups, including the American Lung Association, the League of Women Voters of the Bay Area, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, had joined 6 Wins in calling on MTC and ABAG to incorporate key elements of the EEJ in the final plan. n






2 Severe Drought Has U.S. West Fearing Worst Adam Nagourney and Ian Lovett, The New York Times, February 1, 2014

3 “Getting Ready for Change: Green Economics and Climate Justice.” B. Jesse Clarke, RP&E Journal, Vol.13, No.1. 2006. (

4 Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) Statewide Surveys 2008-2012 ( and A Perfect Storm, Catherine Lerza, (

5 “Voting Rights are Local Rights.” Gil Cedillo, RP&E Journal, Vol.18. No.2. 2011. (

6 Oakland Coalition Charts New Course on Climate Strategy, Al Weinrub, Race Poverty & the Environment, Volume 16 #2, 2009


8 LA Bus Riders’ Union Rolls Over Transit Racism By Geoff Ray Vol. 12 No. 1, 2001;

9 TJ Youth Score Win for Free MUNI Passes By Rene Ciria-Cruz




13 California Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Justice Program Update February 2014. (

14 Environmental Justice: Reflections from the United States, Manuel Pastor ( Political Economy Research Institute)

15 “Mayors gather for climate change summit.” Associated Press, May 31, 2005. (

16 “Mayors Sign Historic Urban Environmental Accords.” Department of the Environment, City and County of San Francisco, June 5, 2005. (

17 Parin Shah on Urban Environmental Accords (transcript of audio interview). ( Shah was director of the Urban Accords Institute. He now works at APEN.

18 “Reclaim the Future: Striving for Restorative, Economic and Environmental Justice in Oakland.” Joshua Abraham, Left Turn Magazine.

March 01, 2006. (

19 Executive Order S-3-05 by the Governor of the State of California. Signed June 1, 2005. (

20 Assessing the Effects of AB 32 Climate Change Mitigation Programs in Environmental Justice Communities. ( ings/102213/tracking-indicators.pdf )


22 Executive Order S-17-06. Office of the Governor of the State of California. October 16, 2006. ( )

23 “Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Global Warming Act Called Hot Air.” Paul Rosenberg, Consumer Watchdog. July 27, 2007. (http://consumerwatchdog. org/story/gov-schwarzeneggers-global-warming-act-called-hot-air)

24 Wheeler, Stephen M. “California’s Climate Change Planning: Policy Innovation and Structural Hurdles.” 2009. In Davoudi, Simin, Jenny Crawford and Abid Mehmood, eds., Planning for Climate Change: Strategies for Mitigation and Adaptation. London: Earthscan. (http://its.

25 “Equitable Alternatives to AB 32’s Cap-and-Trade Program,” Recorded remarks of Adrienne Bloch, Senior Staff Attorney, Communities for a Better Environment. (

26 Recommendations and Comments of the Environmental Justice Advisory Committee. Proposed Scoping Plan. October 1, 2008. (http://arb. )


28 “A Trust Fund for California’s Poor Communities.” Evelyn Marcelina Rangel-Medina, RP&E Journal, Vol.16, No.2. 2009. (reimaginerpe. org/node/4921)

29 “California Cap-and-Trade.” Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. January 2014. ( nia-cap-trade)

30 “Politics of Carbon Auction Proceeds – The Battle Ahead.” Four Twenty Seven Climate Solutions. ( auction-proceeds-battle-ahead/)

31 AB-1532 California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006: Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. (2011-2012) (

32 Calif. Earmarks a Quarter of Its Cap-and-Trade Riches for Environmental Justice

This year, $230 million from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund will go to programs for low-income and minority people.

33 Will SGC money pay for planning or implementation? By William Fulton,

34 Perfect Storm” published by the Funders Network for Transforming the Global Economy (FNTG ). (;

35 Suspend Air Pollution Control Law (AB 23). Election Results by County, California Secretary of State. ( general/maps/prop-23.htm)

36 A Perfect Storm” published by the Funders Network for Transforming the Global Economy (FNTG ).


38 Disadvantaged Communities Teach Regional Planners a Lesson in Equitable and Sustainable Development, by Richard A. Marcantonio and Alex Karner, Poverty & Race, Vol. 23, No. 1


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