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Facing the climate gap: How low-income communities of color are leading the charge on climate solutions

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.

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.

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. (and below)

Urban Releaf: How One Community Group Is Saving Urban Neighborhoods and Creating Jobs

After working in Soledad Prison in the Salinas Valley, Kemba Shakur moved to North Oakland and realized the prison grounds were more attractive than many of the treeless neighborhoods throughout her city. She decided to change this by planting trees, not only to improve the landscape but also the quality of life.

“The conditions that you see here on the Oakland streets are a lot of young people hanging out on corners, idle, with no jobs, underemployed and a terrible education...but then at the end of the day they are blamed. So, I wanted to do something to give people jobs as well as make them stewards of their own environment,” Shakur explains.

In 1999, Shakur founded Urban Releaf, a non-profit organization dedicated to planting trees in the urban landscape of Oakland as well as providing job training and education for local youth. The organization focuses its efforts primarily in East and West Oakland, otherwise known as the “flatlands” because of their geographic and socio-economic contrast to the nearby “hills” (where there is an abundance of trees – and wealth). Since 1999, Urban Releaf has planted 15,600 trees and worked with over 4,000 youth through their Urban Forestry Education program.

Urban Releaf is not merely a response to unattractive city streets (common not just to Oakland but to disadvantaged places nationwide) but also to the environmental hazard known as the “heat island effect.” This dangerous situation is common in urban areas in which there are few trees and an abundance of dark or cement surfaces that radiate heat and increase the temperature above those of surrounding areas – a dangerous duo when combined with more extreme heat waves associated with climate change.

The heat island effect is not an equal opportunity affair: research in California and the U.S. shows that communities of color are likely to have far less shade from tree canopy and more asphalt and other impervious surfaces. And the effect is not only detrimental to immediate human health and comfort, but according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it contributes to increased air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption as people try to fight the heat with air conditioning and other cooling measures.

Urban forests and tree-plantings have the power to alleviate the heat island effect as well as climate change itself. For example, shade trees help cool buildings and can reduce cooling costs by 30 percent. Also, 100 healthy, large trees remove 300 pounds of particulate matter and ozone and 15 tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year.

With the combination of freeways, industrial land uses and ports surrounding Oakland, the rate of asthma hospitalization are two to three times greater for children under 5 years of age living in North, West and East Oakland than in the rest of Alameda County.

Shakur says one of the most obvious impediments to health and wellbeing in communities affected by the climate gap is the lack of information.

“I think that people of color and poor people are the last ones to get information. So, they don’t understand the benefits of trees and the benefits of greenery as much as they probably did generations ago,” said Shakur.

The work of Urban Releaf also contributes to the greater psychological wellbeing within the community. Shakur says “health” goes far beyond issues of air quality.

“The health issues also involve issues of poverty, issues of food, issues of education, issues of unemployment. Being an organization of color, we are besieged with those social ills…a lot of the young people that we deal with, they have arrest records, they may have issues around housing, drugs, or jobs,” says Shakur.

Providing local youth and residents with a skill set, work ethic and pride in their community is one of the greatest assets of Urban Releaf, says Shakur. Urban Releaf’s Director of Urban Forest Education, Gregory Tarver, Jr. says the work of planting trees has improved “people’s connection to nature, connection to a greater sense of ownership and sense of community due to working on the trees.” And it has also contributed to a new generation of environmental leaders by spreading information about the benefits of urban forestry.

Urban Releaf has also collaborated with researchers from UC Davis, UC Berkeley and the USDA Forest Service Center for Urban Forestry Research in the Oakland Watershed Restoration and Protection Study. The study area includes a 1.4 square mile Watershed located in West Oakland. Urban Releaf is recruiting local youth to plant and maintain 1,800 trees in the study area.

Early results have revealed that those trees prevent 9 million gallons of contaminated water from entering the nearby San Francisco Bay. Studies such as this, says Shakur are helping locals realize the very “tangible” effects of the work they do.

While the work has empowered many youth, it cannot protect them all. Shakur says six kids in the community were killed in 2010, which included one of their former co-workers. Still, she hopes their work will provide youth with a positive alternative to more negative activities.

Gentrification is also a concern. While planting trees improves community quality of life, it also raises property values, and Shakur worries that this could also push out low-income families in West and East Oakland. A 2007 analysis by the Center for Urban Forestry Research found that tree canopies contributed to $4.7 billion in increased property values in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Urban Releaf hopes to mitigate that effect by including local residents in the greening process through training and employment programs. To more effectively combine urban forestry with economic development, Tarver suggests that local hiring mandates should be included in city, state, and federal policies that fund urban greening projects.

“We have to think about it more economically, and more about economic sustainability for that community. You can’t just say, ‘oh, we’re going to plant trees.’ No, this is actually industry, green industry. So, if it’s a green industry we need qualify it as we would any other industry,” says Tarver.

The problems of heat and health are also key issues outside of urban areas like Oakland. In the predominantly agricultural Central Valley region of California, temperatures are regularly in the triple digits and the frequency and intensity of heat waves in the region is expected to increase. Líderes Campesinas, a group formed 24 years ago to improve the health and well-being of farmworker families, is providing training on environmental health, heat stress, and worker rights such as access to water and shade and notifications about pesticide exposures and risks. Its members have worked to improve shade coverage at bus stops, increase the frequency of transit services, and have more frequent monitoring and enforcement of labor protections.

Both Urban Releaf and Líderes Campesinas are working so that communities most in need can beat the heat while also decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. But they are doing more than heat preparedness: they are integrating the local realities of health, economic, and environmental justice – and demonstrating that powerful answers can come from the grassroots.

Replicating and scaling their models – supporting urban forestry and protecting farmworker livelihoods – is critical. The California Air Resources Board includes urban forestry projects in the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) and Congresswoman Doris Matsui (D-CA) has introduced the Energy Conservation through Trees Act (H.R. 2095), which would fund partnerships between electric utilities and non-profit tree planting organizations to create shade tree programs. It’s time to take action – and planting a tree is not a bad place to start.

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).

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.

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