Welcome to Climate Point, your weekly guide to climate, energy and environment news from around the Golden State and the country. In Palm Springs, Calif., I’m Mark Olalde.
In what could be a harbinger of things to come, melting permafrost inside the Arctic Circle in Russia caused a fuel tank to topple, spilling 21,000 tons of diesel over 135 square miles and into the Ambarnaya and Daldykan rivers. USA Today has the details of a catastrophe that speaks to both the causes and the effects of climate change globally.
Like we discussed last week, however, the quickly shifting climate won’t impact everyone equally …
LET’S KEEP THE CONVERSATION GOING
If protesters can continue filling the streets, we can continue talking about the issues. In case you missed my conversation with Mustafa Santiago Ali of the National Wildlife Federation, you can catch up on his thoughts here. Ali talked about environmental racism in its many forms, but how does it manifest locally? To dive deeper, I called Gustavo Aguirre Jr. — the only person I’ve heard compare environmental justice to tres leches due to its layers — who is the Kern County director with the Central California Environmental Justice Network.
Kern is home to three-quarters of California’s oil and gas industry and massive agribusiness, so the pollution there is harsh. I grew up with debilitating allergies and asthma — it’s important to note that my family could afford to keep a parent home and keep me in filtered air conditioning when I got sick as a child — so of course I first encountered Kern during the almond harvest. I was only reporting there for a few days, yet breathing was nearly impossible. Needless to say, I was miserable, and in reflecting on environmental racism, my mind immediately returned to Kern where Aguirre explained that environmentalism and racial justice go hand-in-hand.
Here’s our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
CP: You’ve got environmental justice right there in the name. What’s the intersection of those issues, and why has CCEJN chosen to focus on both?
Aguirre: Really the vision of CCEJN was to make sure that the solutions that were being heard — the solutions that were being prescribed to people in power — were solutions that were coming from community groups. You have your “big greens” that really come to this from a top-down approach. … Oftentimes that excludes and unfortunately hurts local, small-scale organizing around where a lot of the fountains of emissions and discrimination and injustice come from. … Oftentimes the experts who are dealing with this day in and day out are the folks who live there. It was really creating a network of folks who are in the frontlines day-in and day-out, understanding what are the best solutions, taking into consideration the people who live there.
CP: So what does environmental justice look like at the ground level that’s specific to the area you service?
Aguirre: The term itself — environmental justice — is a historical reaction to environmental racism, and if you just take “environmental” out of there, it’s a reaction to racism. Where really this comes from, in the early ’80s and early ’90s when these major sources of emissions were being built — for example the landfill in Kettleman City — if you start looking at the context of who are the people behind these decisions and who are the people giving the authority and insight to these corporations to land in these communities, you start to look at documents and studies and references like the Cerrell report. It’s a report that comes from a consultant in Los Angeles. … They study communities throughout California to see where’s the best place to put — for example, a toxic incinerator — and have no one fight back. … And it’s looking at locations that have low density of higher education. It’s looking at communities that are mostly working in labor and an extractive industry. It’s communities that are dependent and highly participant in religion. And it’s looking at communities that are mostly comprised of people of color. … The intersection of having these industrial, toxic polluters built near or next to communities of color really tells the story of this long inheritance.
CP: Are there specific aspects of this issue that are unique to California because of its large Latino population?
Aguirre: The origins of my ancestors, the Aztecs, were in California. The birthplace was here, and then they migrated south. … Then you have the country of Mexico, a lot of it was north of the border of the current United States. … Historically, my people have always been on the land. … You would think that “let’s make sure the folks who were previously here were honored in a more grateful way,” right? But then you look at communities like Coachella, Mecca, Indio, Blythe, Arvin, Lost Hills, Matheny Tract, Stockton. … The people that work and pick and harvest and transport the richest that come from these fields are all people of color. The people that are suffering at the very front lines exposure to pesticides, exposure to 1,3-D are people of color. The people who are constantly sprayed through pesticide drifts in the fields are people of color. Something else we do at CCEJN is look at county budgets. Where is money allocated, and where is money not allocated? … Then on top of that, when we look at where has money been invested in these communities, that’s another huge driver of growing inequality.
CP: In this state, there’s a strong history of organizing, but what needs to happen to address environmental justice issues? What’s the next step in California?
Aguirre: There’s definitely not enough organizing here in the San Joaquin Valley in California. There’s definitely an opportunity and a space to ensure grassroots community organizing is uplifted. And how do you accomplish that and what are some of the goals? Historically, we’ve had extremely low and weak political power here. We’ve put people of color in power, but not much has changed to be frankly honest. So, it’s time to really look at those progressive, forward-thinking minds with justice at the forefront.
ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE IN ACTION
Wrong side of the water pipe. In a must-read, the Fresno Bee and the Investigative Reporting Workshop tell us a story that’s all-too-common here in California: a low-income, minority community doesn’t have access to safe drinking water while it’s situated adjacent to first world infrastructure. In this case, the community is called Tooleville, and its residents are fighting to get hooked up to a reliable water system. “When small communities of color like Tooleville ask for a basic service like access to safe drinking water, they get labeled as aggressive,” said Michael Claiborne, an attorney who’s assisting the community.
Black gold matters. As protests against police brutality and systemic racism rage on, myriad companies have chosen to or been forced to respond. Among them was oil supermajor BP, whose CEO condemned racism. But, Kate Aronoff of The New Republic wasn’t impressed and delivered a thought- and debate-provoking rebuttal. “Fossil fuels’ rise and reign is a story of white supremacy: of Western powers and corporations claiming resources from the global south and maintaining access to them through imperial might,” she wrote.
Total rejection. In a win for one frontline community, the city council in Arlington, Texas, recently voted down a proposal from French oil supermajor Total. The company had hoped to drill three gas wells within several hundred feet of a daycare center in a predominantly Latino and black neighborhood, the Houston Chronicle writes, and advocates had written the project off as almost laughably dangerous.
IMPORTANT STORIES OF THE DAY
The coming flood. As a changing climate intensifies extreme weather events such as floods and hurricanes, American taxpayers might just be handed a bill for billions of dollars, Politico has found. The reason? Mortgage guarantees and flood insurance, the biggest government-supported housing subsidies, will take a beating as more homes find themselves in the path of these destructive storms, fires and floods. Meanwhile, fewer people are taking out flood insurance policies, even though they’re supposed to if they have a government-backed mortgage.
It’s just a hill, and it’s on fire. Picture the side of a hill. Then imagine that it’s starting to crack, there’s a smell of burning and smoke trickles up from the ground. It might sound like the rapture, but it’s actually the somewhat common phenomenon of disused coal mines burning underground. The Centennial State has 38 such fires that have been listed as high priority and that can burn for years on end, Colorado Public Radio reports. Check out this interesting explainer.
Good news if you’re feeling blue. The Arizona Republic reports that there might be some positive news for the water-strapped West. While climate change is hitting the already over-allocated Colorado River, new research suggests that two smaller, but still key, rivers in the basin appear to be more resilient to rising global temperatures. Phoenix isn’t going to stop being unbearably hot, but its reservoirs do appear to have some protection.
COVID-19 HASN’T GONE AWAY
Between the worldwide protests against racism and states quickly reopening as if the coronavirus pandemic were finished, it’s easy to feel like we beat the virus. In fact, it’s spreading faster than ever in a number of states, so let’s check in on its environmental implications.
Going green to stay in the black. BlackRock, the world’s largest asset management company, made waves in the financial world when it decided to make climate change an important factor in its investment decisions. But now, the company is assisting the U.S. government with a $750 billion bailout of American businesses that are hurting from the coronavirus-fueled economic slowdown. It has to play by the fossil fuel-loving administration’s rules, not its own, and it might have to walk back some of its environmentally friendly promises in divvying up the cash, Bloomberg reports.
Charlotte’s interweb. Meatpacking plants have been hit by coronavirus outbreaks, keeping workers off the line and creating a bottleneck in America’s meat industry. Civil Eats reports that pork production is down 10 percent year-over-year, and pig farmers are being forced to euthanize animals. To avoid this waste, many farmers are turning to informal, direct-to-customer sales online, although that’s leading to health concerns as the sales circumvent typical regulatory processes.
Under the cover of coronavirus. Some tribal nations have been hit extraordinarily hard by COVID-19, and as their attention is taken up by the emergency, the federal government decided to move closer to permitting a controversial project, Arlyssa Becenti of the Navajo Times writes. As many as 3,101 new oil and gas wells could be drilled if the government approves a proposal that has been panned for its potential impacts to the area surrounding Chaco Canyon — a national historical park and a UNESCO world heritage site — in New Mexico.
AND ANOTHER THING
Very powerful light. Energy policy is always wonky, but now a petition filed by a secretive nonprofit — Does it represent ratepayers? Is it an industry front group? — could rip up one of the foundational rules that helped build rooftop solar. I’ve got the details in The Desert Sun on how machinations in the world of California solar might explain how much one, small petition could devastate the industry.
Scientists agree that to maintain a livable planet, we need to reduce the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration back to 350 ppm. We’re above that and rising dangerously. Here are the latest numbers:
That’s all for now. Don’t forget to follow along on Twitter at @MarkOlalde. You can also reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can sign up to get Climate Point in your inbox for free here. And, if you’d like to receive a daily round-up of California news (also for free!), you can sign up for USA Today’s In California newsletter here. Cheers.
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