California shows what climate equity looks like

December 15, 2015

Kevin de León

California’s groundbreaking clean energy and climate policies have long been recognized by world leaders as a model of climate action, and last week in Paris for the COP 21, they were on full display.   Leaders from nations large and small gathered in Le Bourget, the conference hall where negotiations were being held, to learn more about our commitment to addressing climate change while also protecting and investing in our most vulnerable communities.

The issue of equity for the most disproportionately impacted populations around the globe was at the center of the Paris negotiations. That’s because international leaders recognize that climate change is an issue of civil rights and economic justice. As Martin Luther King III writes in a recent opinion piece, “Make no mistake, the injustice of climate change and the pollution that fuels it are among this century's most debilitating engines of inequality.”

President Obama has continually emphasized the challenge of climate change and air pollution for low-income and communities of color, as well as the opportunities and benefits that climate action creates. In an address earlier this year, the President noted:

“Today, an African-American child is more than twice as likely to be hospitalized from asthma; a Latino child is 40 percent more likely to die from asthma.  So if you care about low-income, minority communities, start protecting the air that they breathe.” (Remarks by the President, August 3, 2015)

As the President points out, pollution from freeways, power plants, refineries, ports and other sources disproportionately harm the poor and people of color, especially children and the elderly. A recent study by the national NAACP found that 40% of the 6 million Americans living in close proximity to coal-fired power plants are people of color.

Within California, people of color are more likely to be near those facilities with the highest emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants such as particulate matter. Overall, people of color experience over 70 percent more particulate matter emissions within two and a half miles from the facilities listed as major GHG emitters.

So it should come as no surprise that disadvantaged communities in California strongly support climate action, including the specific goals of SB 350, which we signed into law earlier this year. According to a survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, 88% of African Americans surveyed believe climate change poses a serious threat to our state’s future and quality of life, along with 88% of Asians and 90% of Latinos. At least seven in ten adults favored each component of SB 350 – which will put California on track to generate half of electricity from renewable sources and double our energy efficiency by 2030, while also significantly expanding electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

This new law and the comprehensive climate policy framework that California has devised over the last decade and a half have also created significant economic benefits for communities of color. Many of the jobs that have already been created by our climate policies and that will be created by SB350 are middle class jobs that don’t require a college education, making them more accessible to our young people of color.

The UC Berkeley Labor Center estimates that extending the Renewable Portfolio Standard to 50% by 2030 will create 354,000 to 429,000 direct jobs from the construction of new renewable generation capacity.  Including the indirect economic effects, the Berkeley researchers forecast up to 1,067,000 job years will be created by 2030.

We are also taking significant steps to make clean energy accessible to all Californians, not just the wealthy and privileged who can afford to be early adopters. Thanks to SB 535, which I authored in 2012, 25% of all revenue generated by our cap and trade program will be reinvested in the communities most impacted by pollution, poverty, and climate change. With SB 1275, the Charge Ahead initiative, we are helping low-income families transition into electric or hybrid vehicles, which will help save money while also cleaning up our air.

In Paris, I participated in a panel with representatives from India and Kenya who are leading innovative approaches to use clean energy that empower impoverished communities. They are succeeding at methods that use solar-powered batteries to light street vendors’ carts and homes, or use solar power for water-filtration systems, proving that sustainable energy creates economic opportunity in local villages and brings about peace in regions suffering from poverty. The underlying strategy is clear: make clean energy the mainstream. This is a winning proposition, both for the health of our families and for the health of our economy – and world leaders are starting to take note.