In order for the United States to deal with the climate crisis, we must empower disproportionately affected communities, particularly communities of color, by including their voices in the government and development process.
Climate change will continue to disrupt our nation’s infrastructure, economy, and politics in the 21st century and beyond. Sea levels have risen by 10 inches since the 1920s, according to a 2019 Environmental and Energy Study Institute report. The 4th National Climate Assessment (2018), emphasized these concerns with growing certainty. Scientists reported that the Northeast will face the most immediate effects of climate change, with temperatures expected to increase by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2035, as well as the highest rates of sea-level rise and ocean warming in the U.S. In the Southwest, wildfires and droughts (and megadroughts) have increased dramatically, affecting more than 60 million Americans, including 182 tribal nations, according to analytical reporting by the non-profit news organization, Grist.
Climate action plans (CAPs) are an integral component of efforts to address climate change. CAPs are a series of policy measures, regulations and public-private sector initiatives with the intended goal of dramatically reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and addressing climate change impacts. A powerful and comprehensive CAP should include state-level leadership (i.e. California), local-level leadership (i.e. Lancaster, Pennsylvania) and environmental justice (i.e. Seattle, Washington). The last area in particular is rarely mentioned or considered in traditional CAPs, including those in California and Pennsylvania. In order for the United States to deal with the climate crisis, we must empower disproportionately affected communities, particularly communities of color, by including their voices in the government and development process.
California has led the way on environmental policy, nationally and internationally, before and throughout the Trump era of American politics. In 2013, California established a cap-and-trade program to mitigate GHG emissions in its own state and abroad, creating the fourth-largest carbon-trading system in the world after the European Union, Republic of Korea and the Chinese province of Guangdong. This policy is part of California’s broader climate change agenda: California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32).
California has also been a trailblazer on climate action at the local level. The state’s Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) prepared a list of all California cities that have enacted some form of a climate plan; it also notes the cities that have not yet acted. This form of accountability and leadership has spurred cities like Los Angeles, which is the largest municipality in the country, to address transportation emissions, renewable energy, and environmental justice (EJ), the last policy area barely explored. The OPR framework is effective because it demonstrates that the state government is highly involved in the CAP formulation and implementation process. In addition, cities that have already established a climate plan are held accountable, and those in the process of developing a plan are encouraged to adhere to more stringent standards.
The state-led framework also led to feats of local leadership. Take Los Angeles’s Climate Action Plan; the city is a founding member of the Transportation Electrification Partnership— a collaborative effort between the California Air Resources Board, Metro, and several utilities to deploy zero-emission technology into the marketplace. This one component of Los Angeles’ CAP is essential to address GHG emissions as they relate to transportation and industry. This is just one of several ambitious environmental plans that L.A. has proposed, including carbon neutrality by 2050 through the OurCounty plan.
Across the country, Pennsylvania established its fourth iteration of a state-wide climate action plan in 2018. The Climate Change Advisory Committee worked with 21 state agencies and private partners to develop the plan’s goals: 1) Reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent by 2025 from 2005 levels; and 2) Adapt to changes already happening to the economy, climate and the public. Earlier this year, PA went a step further towards climate action when Governor Tom Wolf joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, a partnership of states abiding by the Paris Climate Accords objectives in a period of federal non-leadership.
In spite of this, the only PA county to implement an in-depth CAP with set targets, strategies, and policy is Lancaster County. California has a timeline for various GHG reduction areas while Pennsylvania only has these goals outlined, some of which are vague. The plan builds off of 25 years of climate action developments focusing on several key policy areas: Energy; Vehicle Fleet; Water and Wastewater; Stormwater; Waste; Building a Culture of Sustainability; and Carbon Offsets. The intended end result? A reduction of carbon emissions of 80% by 2025 and 100% by 2050. In tandem with this reduction process, Lancaster will run on 100% renewable energy sources by 2025. In comparison to the state plan, Lancaster has established an audacious set of objectives and strategies so that the county can address the effects of climate change that already burden the region, such as record rainfall and unprecedented temperature increases.
The PA plan, unfortunately, lacks an emphasis on racial disparities and environmental justice—essential components of sustainability. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) criticized Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf for his state’s plan, even with the updated actions and strategies that came out in 2019, because it still does not establish EJ policy objectives, or even recommendations that Wolf and the PA General Assembly could have enforced into law. Separately, the California Climate Action Plan does not explicitly have a focus on environmental justice, even though the California state legislature has passed crucial EJ bills and various cities such as Los Angeles attempt to tackle these issues through energy and infrastructure policy.
The city of Seattle has emerged as a leader in this area, at the urging of community groups. In 2015, the mayor’s office created the Community Partners Steering Committee (CPSC) to develop an agenda that addresses racial prejudice and empowers minority communities in the public policy process. CPSC convened and invited communities of color, youth, low-income, immigrant, refugee, small businesses, faith-based, limited English proficiency, and mainstream environmental communities in order to “ensure the people most affected by environmental injustices have a strong voice in finding the solutions.” The result: The Equity and Environment Agenda (2016). This agenda’s main goals are to ensure healthy environments for all; jobs, local economies, and youth pathways; equity in city environmental programs; and environmental narrative and community leadership.
There is plenty of opportunity, and necessity, to incorporate underrepresented groups into the decision-making process. In this way, our cities and states can begin to heal generations of public health, environmental, and economic injustice so that everyone can live in an equitable and sustainable fashion. There are numerous states and counties across the United States that are actively pursuing various forms of climate action plans and environmental justice agendas. In an era of federal non-leadership, the burden shifts to local and regional political leaders and community organizers to reach the audacious targets proposed in the Paris Accords. Even in doing so, it will take comprehensive CAPs with EJ at the epicenter to propel the United States to status of “the Green Leader of the Free World.”
Teaser photo credit: There is plenty of opportunity, and necessity, to incorporate underrepresented groups into the decision-making process. (Photo: Friends of the Earth International)