So The People’s Climate March Kicked Ass, Now What?

So The People’s Climate March Kicked Ass, Now What?

I always try my best to observe the Buddhist precept of letting the past remain where it was and embracing the present where it is. But I have to admit that I am still flying from the success of the People’s Climate March. Nonetheless, I personally have not honored the success of the march by celebrating, for me the success has engendered a state of perpetual pontification. Simply put, what’s next and where do we go from here (or there might be more appropriate)?

For me, the answer to these questions is that we must transition from the People’s Climate March to a People’s Climate Initiative. Specifically, an initiative rooted in and carried out with a strong sense of justice. Naomi Klein (and I must admit that I have developed a little bit of a crush on her) in her latest book, This Changes Everything, states, “And there are plenty of signs that climate change will be no exception [to previous policies implemented to avert disasters financial or otherwise]-that rather than sparking solutions that have a real chance of preventing catastrophic warming and protecting us from inevitable disasters, the crisis will once again be seized upon to hand over yet more resources to the 1 percent.” When I read this it got me really thinking, and I totally disregarded Buddha’s recommendations for leaving the past alone…I actually became consumed with my past, specifically my past life in California.

My first professional jobs in California were in environmental consulting. Essentially, I was tasked with evaluating proposed developments/projects for compliance with environmental policies/statutes such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act. One aspect of my job that always caused chagrin, was the fact that CEQA has no requirement for the analysis of social and economic impacts nor the analysis of disproportionate impacts and environmental justice (EJ) like NEPA does. This is troubling for a number of reasons.

The People’s Climate March took great pains to include front-line communities and organizations that represent them, like Uprose Brooklyn, at the front of our march. We wanted (and succeeded) to show that climate change is impacting communities of color and low-income communities hardest by putting them at the literal head of our march. Those on the front lines lead our protest, just as they must be leaders in our movement. But in California, the progenitor of so many of our environmental laws (the first state to require electric cars, the first state to regulate offshore oil drilling, the first state to ban plastic retail grocery bags and so much more), the state’s oldest and strongest legal tool for protecting the environment makes no consideration for how humans are impacted differently by pollution based on their race, class or where they live.

I don’t want Ms. Klein to be right – that climate solutions will benefit the 1% more than anyone else – but if California is to be our model for climate action, that’s what could happen.

The demographics of California’s population have changed drastically since 1970 when CEQA was written.  In 1970 California was mostly White, and mostly rural (76.3% White, 13.7% Hispanic, 7.0% Black and 2.8% Asian and Pacific Islander). Today California is mostly urban and Whites no longer account for the majority of citizens, in fact Latinos alone account for 39.0 percent of the population (versus 38.8% White) and people of color account for the majority of California’s population at approximately 57.8%. Due to the vast change in California’s demographics since 1970, it is likely that people of color and low-wealth communities are at an even higher risk of experiencing disproportionate impacts from toxic facilities, including adverse health effects, due to the placement of these facilities in their communities. Could it be time for the State Government of California to amend CEQA to reflect the new demographics of California and reduce exposure of low-wealth communities/communities of color to pollution (this is DEFINITELY a rhetorical question)?  

I frequently ask myself why CEQA has not been amended to address EJ and disproportionate impacts. One reason may be associated with the torpidity of mainstream environmental organizations to address this issue and make their members aware of it. We must establish a nexus between protection of the natural environment, through, for instance, improving air quality via curbing climate change/global warming emissions, and protecting human lives. I believe establishing this nexus represents the heart of climate justice, and it was a key paradigm of the People’s Climate March. We must ensure that protection of the environment, as Naomi Klein warns, is not a luxury available only to the few. We must make justice intrinsic to the protection of the environment, not a subset of the overall process.

I’m willing to work to address the issue of EJ’s absence from CEQA review in the coming months. If you’re interested in solving the question of justice in our climate and environmental movement  I’d love to hear from you and talk about how to make the case that PEOPLE are an imperative variable that should be included in the environmental protection equation.