Climate Justice

Diverse groups to celebrate a Summer of Our Power

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Our salmon are in hot water.

More than a quarter million sockeye salmon returning from the ocean to spawn are either dead or dying in the Columbia River and its tributaries due to warming water temperatures. Federal and state fisheries biologists say the warm water is lethal for the cold-water species and is wiping out at least half of this year’s return of fish. By the end of the season that death toll could grow to as high as 400,000. As much as 80 percent of the population could ultimately perish.

Sockeye are a telltale species that tell the scary tale of a warmer, drier, more turbulent clime that will transform the formerly cool, wet, green Pacific Northwest. Our great reservoirs of seasonal freshwater—mountain glaciers—are vanishing in silty, sluggish rivers; our oceans are growing acidic and hostile to sea life; our forests are burning with increasing frequency. We know the cause: A superabundance of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, released as the result of over-reliance on fossil fuels.

“Carbon pollution and the climate change it causes pose a very real and existential threat to our state,” Governor Jay Inslee warned recently. “Farmers in the Yakima Valley know this. Shellfish growers on the coast know this. Firefighters battling Eastern Washington blazes know this. And children suffering from asthma know this all too well and are right to question why Washington hasn’t acted to protect them.”

The governor expressed frustration that he wasn’t able to get from the state Legislature this session a more robust discussion and policy the state really needs, a method to price the true costs of carbon pollution and a mechanism to reduce those emissions. Last week, Inslee directed the state Dept. of Ecology to step up enforcement of existing state pollution laws and develop a regulatory cap on carbon emissions. Inslee said Washingtonians have too much at stake to wait any longer for legislative action. And it’s going to take a transformation much larger than many lawmakers are willing to bear.

Others agree and have taken action of their own.

“With the legislative session coming to an end, it’s clear that climate action will need to come from the people,” University of Washington economist Yoram Bauman said. “Currently, the only climate policy on the table is Initiative 732 from a grassroots group called Carbon Washington.”
Initiative 732 would institute a revenue-neutral carbon tax and address climate change through progressive tax reform. If implemented, it would be one of the strongest carbon pricing policies in the world. The Carbon WA policy is based on the successful carbon tax that British Columbia implemented in 2008, and like the BC carbon tax it is revenue-neutral, meaning that the revenue from the carbon tax is used to reduce existing taxes. In particular, I-732 would reduce the sales tax by a full percentage point, saving Washington households about $1.3 billion a year, Bauman explained. Most households would pay a few hundred dollars a year more for fossil fuels and a few hundred dollars a year less for everything else, he said.

It’s action. But is the proposal effective? Is it equitable?

Speaking in Bellingham recently, Inslee praised efforts to get a carbon pricing policy on the ballot for voters. But he expressed concern I-732 did not actually cap emissions and did not place the financial burden where it firmly belongs—on the state’s major polluters.

“I want a stop sign,” Inslee said. “Not just a sign that says ‘slow down.’”

Others also yearn for a more equitable carbon pricing policy, concerned that the impacts of a simple carbon tax are regressive and hit poor working families hardest.

“In Washington and across the United States, communities of color and low-income neighborhoods are more likely to be exposed to air pollution and toxic chemicals. People of color and people with low incomes will also be disproportionately impacted by climate change,” writes Kristin Eberhard, a senior researcher with Sightline Institute, a public policy advocacy group based in Seattle. Earlier this month, Sightline released a report identifying highly impacted communities, many along the transportation line that transects the Puget Sound region—the Cancer Corridor.

“Low-income households and communities of color often have fewer resources available to respond to climate change and related health threats,” Eberhard notes.  “A fair and equitable climate policy will ensure that Washington communities who have been and continue to be the most highly impacted by pollution have the opportunity to thrive.”

“Everyone feels the heat, but some are impacted more than others,” agrees Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community 2 Community (C2C), social justice advocates based in Bellingham. “Farm workers labor under the sun, children in polluted neighborhoods lack clean fresh air. The same is true for climate impacts like drought, respiratory illness and fires, some people face greater risk than others. Most often, they are low-income people and communities of color,” she said.

Impacted residents aren’t just poor and they don’t just have a lot of pollution, though. They also face crippling socio­economic, cultural, environmental and health barriers. Each factor layers on top of and often amplify the others. It turns out that these factors often go together: incomes of Black, Latino, and American Indian families languish far below those of white families in America, and neighborhoods with more people of color, more poverty, more unemployment and less education also have more exposure to pollution.

“As a ‘revenue-neutral’ proposal, Initiative 732 aims to disturb the status quo as little as possible,” said Carolina Gutierrez, a project director for CIELO, an Olympia-based nonprofit that promotes self-sufficiency and leadership for communities of color. “The initiative redirects most of the revenue generated by its carbon tax as rebates to rich and poor alike, without investing in pollution reduction nor community benefit. Washington voters are tired of the status quo.

“Rebates alone,” she warns, “won’t address equity.”

Guillen and Gutierrez are part of a large and growing network of groups engaging a dialogue in climate justice. From Olympia to Bellingham and beyond, they’re building a network for social and environmental justice.

“The world is confronting two fundamentally interrelated crises—economic and ecological,” Guillen observed. “In the U.S. alone, more than 17 million people are officially unemployed, and despite some stability in the financial markets, economists recognize that global capitalism is in a deep crisis. Meanwhile the most destructive impacts of climate change—such as extreme storms and the disappearance of water sources—are threatening communities worldwide—particularly indigenous peoples, who have the least responsibility for climate change and the fewest resources to adapt to and survive it.

“We believe that we can address the root causes of the climate crisis while creating meaningful work and livelihoods for a majority of the 17 million unemployed people in the United States,” Guillen said. “This will require a radical transformation of the economy. Communities are already beginning to implement real solutions to climate change that chart a path towards a more democratic, ecologically rooted economies.”

Former Bellingham City Council President Cathy Lehman is now outreach director for the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, a coalition of individuals, organizations and businesses calling for immediate action to reduce global warming pollution in tandem with a strengthened economy.
“The Carbon WA initiative is tax policy, not climate policy, and not centered in equity,” she said.

“It is important to understand that communities of color helped build the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy,” Lehman said. “Leaders from these communities have helped us put equity and social justice at the heart of our movement.

“We all feel the urgent need to take action on climate. Yet we have to recognize the extent to which communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by our changing climate. Community 2 Community and the others have helped those of us that come from the environmental community recognize that addressing global warming must be seen as a social justice issue. That is why the Alliance is focused on building as big and broad a coalition as possible, representing communities of color and environmentalists alongside businesses, public health professionals, labor and faith communities and many others.

“Our priority,” Lehman said, “is to develop a policy that is effective, viable and representative of the breadth of our coalition. Throughout the summer, the Alliance will continue to explore more viable alternatives for climate ballot measures with the goal to file and qualify an Initiative to the People in 2016.”

The concept of environmental justice has been with us for a while.

The movement was born in September 1982 when a group of poor residents of rural North Carolina laid down in front of trucks transporting waste containing toxic PCBs to a nearby landfill. Those primarily African American activists eventually lost their battle to keep toxic waste out of the area, but their actions led to an executive order by President Bill Clinton in 1996 that institutionalized the U.S. government’s duty to identify and address “disproportionately high adverse health or environmental effects of its policies or programs on low-income people and people of color.” The law also mandated that the federal government look for ways to prevent discrimination by race, color or national origin in any federally funded programs dealing with health or the environment.

In the time since, many other low-income or minority groups—Latinos, Asians, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and others—have learned to raise their voices and stand up against the discriminatory locating of hazardous waste landfills and transfer stations, polluting factories and utilities, and other triggers for bad air quality and compromised waterways and soils across the United States and beyond.

Some of the better-known environmental justice groups came into being out of specific struggles in their own local neighborhoods.
The Pacific North West Just Transition Assembly, for example, is led by people of color—notably the indigenous tribes of Cascadia. The assembly is co-anchored by Community 2 Community and part of a series of regional assemblies forming nationally hosted by members of Grassroots Global Justice Alliance. The coalition initiated the Summer of Our Power, launched in Bellingham by C2C and other organizations in August, and is designed to link up with similar efforts in communities of color around the nation, percolating this fall in New Orleans—on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a superstorm powered by a warming ocean.

“The Grassroots Global Justice Alliance will focus attention not just on Katrina, but the aftermath of environmental damage seen in coastal communities by the Deepwater Horizon drilling disaster in the Gulf,” Guillen said.

“We believe that in order to address the root causes of these crises, frontline communities most impacted by environmental racism, institutional and systemic injustice, economic and gender oppression, are the voices we need to listen to and uplift for the solutions that will benefit us all,” she said. “This will require a radical transformation of the economy.

“Communities are already beginning to implement real solutions to climate change that chart a path toward a more democratic, ecologically rooted economies,” Guillen said. “The Just Transition Assemblies will harness and amplify these community-led solutions while continuing to push for national leadership, especially in regions where ‘extreme energy’ interests have disproportionately impacted communities as the crisis has continued to deepen.”

“This assembly is part of a series of regional assemblies taking place nationally hosted by members of Grassroots Global Justice Alliance and launches the Summer of Our Power,” agreed Jill Mangaliman, executive director of Got Green,  a grassroots group in the Seattle area led by young adults and people of color that promotes the movement for an equitable, green economy. “Through this process, we aim to sharpen and deepen the conversations across the movement as a whole, bringing depth and complexity to the idea of a Just Transition to the Next Economy, that meets the needs of the people and the planet. This assembly is connected to parallel processes, including the Our Power Campaign, as well as leading up to mass movements related to the UN Conference on Climate Change conversations in Paris at the end of this year.”

“Other states have recognized the imperative and the opportunity to stop pollution and invest in their most vulnerable communities,” Eberhard observed. “For example, California capped pollution and is directing several hundred millions of dollars per year to invest in clean energy, affordable housing, and public transit projects that will benefit highly-impacted communities.

“The Evergreen State could pass a similar policy, directing investments to support highly-impacted communities. To make sure the money goes to the right places, Washington would need to develop a statewide methodology to identify these communities,” she said.

“We need a Just Transition in the US that is connected to the global struggle for justice,” Mangaliman said. “What it looks like and how we get there is the conversation we hope to have in Bellingham and in the upcoming Just Transition assemblies.”

“We make the road just by walking,” Gullien said.

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