Does containing climate change come at the expense of California’s most vulnerable?

Does containing climate change come at the expense of poor people and people of color in California?  According to a statewide coalition of environmental justice advocates, the answer is yes.  Therefore, they have sued the the California Air Resources Board over the way the state proposes to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

Environmental justice advocates were involved in the creation of the Global Warming Solutions Act, which was passed through the California legislature in 2006.  Advocates were involved in the legislative process not just to help create a solution to climate change, but also to make sure that reducing greenhouse gases at the statewide level would not increase them unfairly at local levels.  But since the Global Warming Solutions Act was passed, they argue that the plan developed by the California Air Resources Board to actually carry out the legislation has moved in a different direction.

The implementation plan proposes a number of different tools to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in California. Although they support many of these tools, environmental justice advocates are worried about one of the biggest hitters on the list: a market-based approach to containing greenhouse gas emissions called “cap-and-trade.” As I understand it, using cap-and-trade is like giving all the polluters a deck of cards in which each card enables its bearer to emit a certain amount of pollution.  Then they can trade the cards among themselves to their satisfaction.  But in a twist to how most games work, players can also buy more pollution cards from people not part of the game at all.  For example, a California polluter could continue to pollute by paying people in Mexico to plant trees, or by paying a lumber company in Canada for the tree-planting they routinely do after a clear-cut operation.  This means business as usual, and continued high air pollution levels, for the people who live closest to polluters here in California.  Local air pollution levels could get even worse over time under cap-and-trade policies in the likely event that polluting facilities decide to expand, and make up for their increased emissions by purchasing more pollution cards, or “offsets,” from elsewhere. This would exacerbate the existing distribution of pollution, which poor people and people of color get the worst of.  On the other hand, directly regulating polluters could mean local reductions in greenhouse gas emissions AND the associated air pollutants. (My recent article mentions another way that the Global Warming Solutions Act could worsen air pollution locally, though not through the cap-and-trade policy.)

Environmental justice groups eventually sued the California Air Resources Board over the implementation plan.  The motivation for the case is based partly on the fact that there is a significant overlap between greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change for everyone, and  air pollution, which causes health problems for the people who live closest to it. The effort by the Environmental Defense Fund to intervene in the suit on behalf of the state reveals the continuing tensions in the environmental movement about how to respond to climate change.  Should we compromise with industry to get solutions that prioritize countering global warming at the planetary level?  Or should we champion more politically challenging solutions that include the poor and people of color as immediate beneficiaries in any solution to climate change?  In this case, the Environmental Defense Fund’s petition was thrown out, and last week the environmental justice advocates won part of their case.  The judge’s decision found that the California Air Resources Board emphasized the cap-and-trade plan without adequately adhering to the law, which required the Air Resources Board to considering an array of possible solutions beyond just cap and trade, and to allow for public comment and deliberation on the various options available.

UCSC alum and lawyer Brent Newell will be visiting my university next week to give us his insider’s perspective.  His organization is one of two representing the plaintiffs in this case.  The title of his talk is “Climate Justice:  Global Climate Disruption and the Struggle for Environmental Justice.” He’ll be talking about the case above, as well as another climate justice case in Alaska.  Those of you who are local can come hear him speak at the Environmental Studies Department’s weekly seminar: April 4th, from 12:30-2:00 at the Interdisciplinary Sciences Building, room 221.


Scholarly studies:

The plaintiffs:

The lawyers:


And here’s a copy of the judge’s 35 page decision, as shared by the LA times

One thought on “Does containing climate change come at the expense of California’s most vulnerable?

  1. Pingback: What do people from California have in common with people from Chiapas? « The Long Haul

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