Environmental justice advocates in California have fought for years against landfills, refineries and other polluting facilities in their neighborhoods. They insist that a progressive environmental agenda can’t tackle crucial environmental issues such as climate change from a purely global perspective. The local impacts matter, too. They say that regulators and politicians need to craft environmental policy with an eye toward reversing the discrimination and racism that have long affected low-income communities of color.
Michael Méndez, an assistant professor of urban planning and public policy, documents some of the crucial years of the environmental justice movement in California from 2006 to the present in his book “Climate Change from the Streets: How Conflict and Collaboration Strengthen the Environmental Justice Movement.” The book recently won the Harold and Margaret Sprout Award, sponsored by the International Studies Association.
On this episode of the UCI Podcast, Prof. Méndez talks about California’s leading role in the environmental justice movement, what he believes are the flaws of California’s cap and trade carbon emissions reduction system, and why the Green New Deal isn’t really that new.
In this episode:
Michael Méndez, assistant professor of urban planning and public policy
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California’s environmental justice advocates have made it clear for years that clever schemes to reduce global carbon emissions can still permit harm to local communities, if polluters are allowed to keep on polluting. Now, with the Sunrise Movement and the Green New Deal, that message is going national.
How has California been at the vanguard of environmental justice? And how can we protect the most vulnerable people when we’re trying to fight climate change?
From the University of California, Irvine, I’m Aaron Orlowski. And you’re listening to the UCI Podcast. Today, I’m speaking with Michael Méndez, an assistant professor of urban planning and public policy at UCI. He’s also the author of the book “Climate Change from the Streets: How Conflict and Collaboration Strengthen the Environmental Justice Movement.”
Professor Méndez, thank you for joining me today on the UCI Podcast.
Thank you, Aaron. It’s such a pleasure to be here. Thank you for the invitation.
Yeah, of course. So California has a very progressive reputation on environmental issues, and it’s really seen as being at the forefront, especially on topics like climate change and clean energy. But I want to ask you, do you think that we deserve that reputation?
Absolutely. California has consistently in the last few decades been at the forefront of broader national and global experimentation around climate change and sustainability in general. And it also has been at the forefront of integrating environmental justice into climate change policy and sustainability policy, primarily driven by social movements — low-income communities of color advocating for more public health and protections for these individuals.
Is that, I mean, you just mentioned the low-income communities of color advocating and this movement towards environmental justice in California. Has that always been the case or is that a more recent development?
And let me back up a little bit here as well. Yes, California absolutely deserves that sort of mantle of being one of the more progressive leaders on environmental issues and climate change, but California can always do better. And that’s where the environmental justice groups have really come in and saying that not only should we be looking at the majority population and how we protect our oceans, our lands and that majority population, but how do we protect and safeguard the most vulnerable communities, those communities at the frontline of impacts from climate change and the pollution that’s coming from a lot of noxious facilities that are disproportionately sited in low-income communities of color.
So low-income communities of color for decades have been fighting for environmental justice that is ensuring that the environmental bads and the noxious facilities are not disproportionately sited and located in their communities. And we see this back from the United Farm Workers event in April — we celebrated Cesar Chavez Day — and that struggle for pesticide reform in labor reform, and in essence was one of the first mainstream-level views of environmental justice here in California.
So that goes back a long ways. And California has always had this strain of environmental justice in its environmental movement.
Yes, in different various forms. We didn’t always call it environmental justice. We called it either labor rights or we called it occupational health and safety, but there always was one form or another of environmental racism and environmental justice. And groups have been advocating for a long time to ensure that their needs and demands are met.
Well, and then you wrote a book that examined the environmental justice movement in recent years. The book was, “Climate Change from the Streets” and it really looks at the years from 2006 to the present. So what were some of the changes, or what were some of the advances, that the environmental justice movement made in that time, in this recent history?
So yes, I do have a new book called, “Climate Change from the Streets.” It was published through Yale University Press, and that is a historical and a contemporary analysis of how low-income communities of color have been advocating on climate change to be more focused on neighborhood scales and human and equitable impacts. Previously, when I first started this project, I was working in the California State Legislature as a senior consultant then as a lobbyist and gubernatorial appointee. So I saw the various behind-the-scenes, conceptualizations, battles and conflicts around climate change. And the subtitle of the book is, “How Conflict and Collaboration Strengthen the Environmental Justice Movement.” So in 2006 and earlier, this idea of climate change was really abstract and really focused on the global. So we used to symbolize climate change as that really tired symbol of the polar bear that we would see that polar bear on that melting ice cap, out there in the wilderness, out there somewhere else, but not in our backyards.
And environmental justice was really just trying to disrupt that image of climate change — not saying that the polar bears were not important, but really to also refocus back on neighborhood-level impacts that are happening. So in 2006, there was a lot of tension and conflict of trying to rescale, or reconceptualize what climate change meant. This conflict was really centered around traditional environmentalist, or what some people may call mainstream environmentalist, such as the NRDC, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and EDF, the Environmental Defense Fund, that really wanted to focus on that global and statewide scale and did not want to focus on public health, for the most part, and local impacts. So that was the main tension there of what type of policy were we going to be moving forward with and centering? Was it going to be the global, statewide perspective or was it going to be one focused on local health and local neighborhoods?
Well, I want to dig into that more in just a second, but you mentioned that you started this book while you were working in the State Legislature and during some of your earlier career experiences. So let’s talk a little bit more about your background and how you really started working on environmental justice. And you grew up in a Latino immigrant community in Los Angeles. So how has that experience growing up in that community influenced your work today?
It most definitely influenced my work. I really approach it — and I’m very clear about my positionality or my lived and embodied experience — I grew up in a communities of Los Angeles that face multiple environmental threats, either the siting of landfills, dealing with a lot of pollution in smog or facilities that were creating a lot of local pollution. I saw how these were impacting my neighbors, my community members and family members, either in terms of respiratory diseases like asthma, cancer rates. And at the same time, I saw community groups trying to resist some of these forms of environmental racism and environmental inequalities, and campaign against expansions of these toxic or noxious facilities.
So that really inspired me at an early age of the power of social movements, and to question, why did the largely a Latino, immigrant, working-class community that I lived in look the way it did and have so many environmental hazards in our community. So that eventually led me to looking at the field of urban planning because that really looks at not only the sociological theories but also the political factors, and really trying to connect theory with practice, and come up with substantive policy solutions, both at the local, statewide and national and global levels. And that eventually led me to pursue those degrees in urban planning. And I spent several years in Sacramento, focusing on environmental justice at a statewide level.
Well, and you will soon be able to bring some of that perspective to the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, where you were recently appointed to that board. So congratulations, first of all. But what kind of perspective do you really hope to bring to that board?
Yes. Thank you. So Governor Gavin Newsom recently appointed me in late January of this year to the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. This board regulates water quality in a region of 11 million people. So it’s one of the largest, most populous regional boards in the state, and one with the most responsibility, in terms of how to deal with the regulation and water quality throughout the Los Angeles and Ventura and Santa Barbara basins. And from my perspective that I’m really interested in is providing that equity lens, and also that analytical lens that I marry between my academic work and my practical political experience and policy experience of how can we regulate our water more efficiently and, primarily, how can we do it in a more streamlined and equitable process in low-income communities of color. And with that said, the problems of climate change are increasing and putting additional stressors on our ability to have adequate sources of affordable drinking water. So I’m also interested in looking at water resiliency, and how can we prepare for the impacts of climate change on our water systems?
Well, and speaking of climate change, let’s get back to your book. And as you mentioned, you were documenting the stories of these environmental activists who were seeking to make the climate change conversation more local and not quite so abstract or global or national, but really about the local impacts. And the book follows this climate change program that California has instituted called cap and trade. And it tells the intersecting stories of some activists in California, Mexico, and Brazil. So, first of all, how does cap and trade work? And then why does California’s program affect other countries?
In basic terms, cap and trade, first of all, is what we call sort of a market-based system. And this system is often seen as a very economically feasible and cost-efficient manner to reduce emissions from polluting industries. But at the same time, it has created a lot of conflict from individuals, such as environmental justice groups, that say that cap and trade may have a disproportionate effect on certain demographic groups, primarily low-income communities of color, that are living next to polluting industries.
So cap and trade is this idea that there’s a cap. And I’m going to use really simple numbers. So say there’s a cap of 100 tons. And you’re a facility in a lower-income community of color, and you only can pollute up a 100 tons. And if you want to pollute more than that, you have to buy pollution credits, either through the state — state auction — or from another polluting business that is actually not polluting above the cap. So you have a choice — either you can pollute up to 100 tons. If you want to pollute over that, you have to buy pollution credits from someone else. Or you could upgrade your facility to reduce your emissions. So that’s sort of the idea there.
And this is seen as being sort of a geographically neutral, that anyone throughout the state could be doing this. And it doesn’t matter how many of the polluting industries are buying credits in a certain region or zone. All that matters is that that cap — the statewide cap — is not reached. And environmental justice groups are quite concerned with this because they see — and research has shown — that a lot of these polluting facilities are not upgrading their technologies, but they are instead just buying additional permits and continuing to engage for the most part in business as usual.
And so you can imagine environmental justice groups are concerned that these industries that are fossil fuel-based are not reducing their emissions reductions next to the communities that they’re in — the communities that they’re living in. So they’re really concerned with this because while the climate change program is focused only on greenhouse gas emissions — carbon, primarily — the burning of fossil fuel also creates local pollution that stays at the local level at the same time. So they see the climate change program as an opportunity to address multiple forms of pollution, not just global pollution, like greenhouse gas emissions.
Specifically, I think your book documents the story of some activists in Richmond, in the Bay Area, who are concerned about the facility there continuing to pollute. But then another part of the story also looks at how communities in other countries can be affected when companies buy what are called carbon offsets, to account for the pollution that they’re creating. Can you describe a bit more what those offsets are and how did the activists in those other countries really respond to California’s program
So carbon offsets are this idea that people anywhere else in the world can create these pollution credits, at least global carbon offsets. A polluted industry can pay somebody else anywhere in the world to reduce their carbon footprint — their carbon emissions — and then sell that emissions reduction back to a polluting industry. So the idea is that landowners in Mexico, Brazil or other places are going to be paid not to engage in deforestation — that’s the cutting down of trees for logging, extracting oil and other types of land uses. And that instead they’re going to be paid to keep those trees intact at least for 100 years so they can sequester carbon. And they’re paid through what’s called carbon offsets. Each offset could be a range anywhere between $6 to $12 or more. And they’re paid for each ton of carbon that they can prove that that one tree or multiple trees are sequestering carbon. So these are in high demand for many polluting industries because they are cheaper than the cap and trade credits.
So what do you think — if California were to design a different program, other than cap and trade, that really accounted for this environmental justice perspective, what would that program be? What do you think is a better policy?
Well, that’s a difficult decision. I think it’s a very complicated decision. I think the biggest issue that we see with cap and trade is that the polluting industries that are heavily concentrated in low-income communities of color are still engaging in business as usual, for the most part, and continue to pay to pollute. And a system — it needs to be done that’s more stringent and more equitable — that puts the incentive for these polluting industries to actually change technology and change their business practices to more sustainable ones. So we need stronger regulation on site and be focusing first and foremost on those communities that are disproportionately experiencing the impacts of local and global pollution.
Well, let’s move really close to the present here. So President Biden recently announced a $2 trillion infrastructure package that has a huge focus on clean energy and specifically clean energy jobs. And this isn’t quite the Green New Deal that many environmental activists have been asking for a long time. But it would do significant work to fight against climate change. But so regarding the Green New Deal, do you think this is a really new policy, or why is the Green New Deal not really new?
Yes. I often argue that there’s nothing new in the Green New Deal because low-income communities of color and places like California have been advocating for these equity, public health, jobs and poverty alleviation policies tied to our economic protection paradigms. So they’ve been advocating this for years. The Green New Deal, I’m strongly supportive of it. And I’m grateful for the opportunity that individuals such as a Congress Member Ocasion-Cortez, and the Sunrise Movement have done in getting this dialogue around climate change, racial justice, environmental justice at the forefront of our political debates around climate change. So that’s a key thing to really acknowledge, but also to remember the history of groups that have been advocating for these very types of measures for decades, if not, at least for a century.
So what do you make of President Biden’s infrastructure package and its focus on clean energy. Do you think it takes the right approach on this issue?
I think it’s a great starting point. Obviously this is going to be a couple months or weeks of debate in Congress on what the ultimate package will look like. But I think there’s a really strong focus of how can we get these technologies and this infrastructure that’s sustainable either in terms of renewable technologies, electrifying our transportation systems or other types of issues that are, first and foremost, being targeted to environmental justice communities. So the Biden administration has made a pledge that climate investments, at least 40 percent of climate investments, are going to be targeted towards the environment of justice communities. And that’s a goal and a mandate that California has set. So it’s great to see some of the innovations that California has done transferring to the national level.
What other ways should leaders, both in California and at the national level, incorporate environmental justice principles into their policymaking? How can we make this a real reality going forward?
But one of the key things is acknowledging that environmental justice exists in almost every aspect of our environmental and our transportation and our energy sectors. And it really starts with the question who’s the most harmed from our existing systems and infrastructure? And how can we design policy that centers them at the outset of crafting of this policy? Because oftentimes environmental justice is seen as something that’s left to be dealt with later. And it’s sort of this last thing that people feel that they have to just casually address. But I think first and foremost, is starting with this idea of who’s being served, who is this policy going to benefit, and who’s being left out? And really centering these people that have been suffering for many generations and their communities.
Professor Méndez, thank you for joining me today on the UCI Podcast.
Thank you, Aaron. It was such a pleasure.