California’s Climate Solutions Must Protect All Californians

New America Media, Commentary, Alberto Mendoza and Nora Vargas Posted: Dec 05, 2008

Editor’s Note: California is considering a pollution “cap and trade” program that could become a prototype for programs around the country and the world. But it needs to be done right, so that communities already hardest hit by pollution benefit from it. Alberto Mendoza is president and CEO of Coalition for Clean Air. Nora Vargas is executive director of Latino Issues Forum.

As the California Air Resources Board (CARB) wrestles with how to implement California’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act, AB 32, they must ensure that the policy solutions do not exacerbate pollution in areas already unfairly burdened by high levels of pollution.

Californians should not be put at greater danger or risk to their health, simply because of their income or where they live in the state.

Many Californians are already enduring dangerous-to-breathe air, chronic asthma, premature death and illness, simply because of their zip code. Climate change threatens to saddle these communities with additional burdens, such as heat waves, droughts, wildfires and floods.

Recently devastating wildfires ripped through parts of Southern California, leaving hundreds homeless. The frequency and ferocity of fires in recent years reminds us that climate change is no longer an unknown and unseen future threat—it is real and it is here.

The current CARB Scoping Plan calls for a pollution “cap-and-trade” program as part of the strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in our state. However, without an honest assessment of current impacts and a commitment to dedicate resources to highly polluted communities, the cap-and-trade approach could benefit some communities at the expense of others.

From the outset, California must be clear about how we plan to reduce pollution in all communities and strengthen those who have been hardest hit by America’s addiction to pollution-driven energy. Here’s how:

First, CARB must identify the California communities that are already saddled with an unfair air pollution burden. Knowing which communities are most polluted today is critical to designing effective policies that will protect Californians and strengthen our communities. This assessment should be completed in 2009.

Second, CARB should create a Community Benefits Fund so that a portion of any resources generated through the implementation of the Global Warming Solutions Act goes toward accelerating pollution reductions in highly polluted areas and assisting low-income communities with adaptation programs.

Communities could use these resources to reduce pollution and create green jobs by upgrading to energy efficient equipment, installing pollution controls and replacing gross polluting vehicles. Resources from the Community Benefits Fund could also help people prepare for anticipated heat waves by creating cooling centers and teaching people to recognize and treat heat-related illnesses.

While many laws have been passed over the years to help the most polluted communities, almost none have provided resources to directly help these communities. California has the opportunity to beat back climate change and become a stronger and more prosperous state in the process. Targeting resources to both protect and strengthen the most polluted communities will greatly increase the chances of turning this opportunity into a success.

Third, and finally, we must place a limit on how much pollution we allow to move from one community to another. While it’s tempting to breathe a sigh of relief that California is taking action to address climate change, it’s unfair to clean up the state for some Californians at the expense of others. This can be done through a combination of incentives and penalties that ensure that all sources of pollution are reducing emissions.

This protect-and-strengthen strategy is practical, required by the law and consistent with the values of our great state.

The next test of California’s leadership will be how California implements and enforces AB 32.

Will a low-wage worker in California have the same opportunity to breathe clear air and escape the ravages of climate change as the family living in one of California’s most affluent communities? Will all residents take a giant step forward together or will some of us be left behind?

California’s climate-change solution has the potential to be emulated around the country and the world. If California is going to move forward with a cap-and-trade program, and it appears that we are, we must do it right. That means clarity on how we are going to protect the most vulnerable Californians and a commitment to follow through on that promise.

Related Articles:

Indigenous People Demand Voice in Climate Talks

School Matters: Green School Movement Focuses on Air Quality

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