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California's Transformative Climate Communities

by Justin Galle

In order to prepare for the realities of climate change, California is pursuing large scale transformation of vulnerable communities.

Climate change will force society to grapple with devastating sea level rise, shifting agricultural seasons, and disruptions to the economy. To mitigate the damage, our communities will have to transform energy grids, improve resilience in our infrastructure, and incorporate sustainability into our long term planning. California has a market-based plan to achieve these daunting, necessary transformations while at the same time prioritizing the needs of disadvantaged communities. There is a recognition at the state-level that greenhouse gas reductions should not be pursued in a vacuum and that climate justice should be a key parallel priority. When making decisions on how to spend money to mitigate and adapt to climate change, policy makers will also actively consider how to best protect folks living in poverty, with more exposure to harmful pollutants, and with lower educational attainment, among other factors. This is a welcome approach to climate change adaptation: it makes sense that we should be protecting those most at risk and, if possible, improving their livelihoods along the way.

The California Global Warming Solutions Act, Assembly Bill (AB) 32 in the legislature, authorized the use of a cap and trade system (and other market mechanisms) to begin reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the state. Money collected by the state through these mechanisms has been deposited in the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, which is now being drawn upon to create the Transformative Climate Communities Program (TCCP). Some environmentalists are aghast at the idea of pollution as a commodity to be traded and profited from. They justifiably point out that local pollution affecting certain areas may not be reduced if companies can more cheaply reduce emissions elsewhere. How should we think about the motivations and methods of this program and its potential to define the conversation around state action on climate change in an era of federal government denial? What will all these programs with capital letters actually achieve?

The TCCP lays out three main goals:

  • Achieve significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions
  • Improve public health and environmental benefits
  • Expand economic opportunity and shared prosperity

Climate change solutions typically focus on the first goal, which is reasonable. We must reduce our GHG emissions drastically in order prevent the worst potential damages from climate change. The second goal is usually assumed as a simple outcome of the first goal. Reduce emissions, and you will achieve the greatest public health and environmental health benefits. This does not always play out in reality, though. For example, some communities will be at greater risk to flooding than others, and thus the effects of GHG pollution are varied. Furthermore, if GHG emissions are reduced in one area, but another area faces more local toxic pollution and health indicators decrease as a result, has environmental justice been improved? Should we not be investing in areas that will face the most damage? What does the "most damage" even mean? Should this be an estimation of the greatest amount of damages in dollars (favoring the wealthy property owners), or the potential lives lost (treating all lives as equal), or perhaps the percentage loss in value that communities will suffer (levelizing rich and poor areas)?

The third goal is the one most often attacked by climate change skeptics. Exxon Mobil has for years held that economic growth and carbon emissions are intimately linked. They have argued that reducing GHG emissions will by definition mean tightening our belts and lost economic growth potential. Is this claim true? Can the experience of 35 countries who were able to grow economically while reducing emissions be replicated locally and in all communities? These are complex questions, and the TCCP attempts to identify communities most at risk from climate change, taking as a principle of justice to protect the most vulnerable among us.

The image of California above was produced using the CalEnviroScreen tool, created by CalEPA to identify communities most at risk to environmental harm. This is what California will be using to determine areas most needing climate change funds. It operates through a calculation based on the pollution burden and population characteristics of different census tracts. The colors are based on the aggregated risks, with darker green signifying less pollution risk, yellow a moderate risk, and red the most at-risk. A cursory look at the map reveals where California's cap and trade funds may be spent. The central valley scores low due to the high levels of pesticides used in the main agriultural economic sector. Urban areas of Los Angeles and the Bay Area probably score low due to industrial manufacturing zones, urban poverty, and pollution from transportation. Rural areas are oftentimes greener due to their distance from dense, urban pollution, but there are certain economically isolated communities or towns located near manufacturing facilities that still score low.

Through grants for neighborhood-level projects, the TCCP aims to fund cities, regional bodies, and government agencies in their hopes to firmly put to bed the old critique of greenhouse gas reduction projects: reductions in economic growth hurt low income folks the most, through higher energy prices. Los Angeles and Fresno have been identified as the first recipients of this funding, and participatory workshops are being planned to gain community feedback. After that, a competitive process for funding opportunities will be carried out, with the goal of aligning dollars with the community needs identified through the public forums. If the TCCP can accomplish a reduction in GHG emissions and secure the greatest possible public health and environmental benefits, it will be a success. If it can do that and at the same time reduce economic inequality and achieve growth, the program will be transformative. Let's keep an eye on California as the policy makers roll out these programs and see if in practice they live up to the promises of their sound design.

Justin Galle is an intern for eesi. You can reach him at justin_galle@hks18.harvard.edu