California’s Roadmap to Building a More Just World through Climate Action

Xavier Becerra
Sep 13, 2018 · 4 min read
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is leading battles to defend environmental protections critical to our health and well being. Photographed here announcing a coalition to defend clean car standards.

This Friday, I’m honored to join leaders from around our nation and the world at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. As the chief law officer for the State of California, I’ll be sharing the story of our state’s many successful efforts to uphold the rule of law when it comes to protecting the planet. Indeed, the climate is warming, and not just because of the hot air from Washington, DC. But California has a long track record of taking bold action to protect our planet and our people. We’ve been leading the way for decades when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from our cars and promoting commonsense energy-efficiency standards for our consumer products.

No matter what happens in Washington, California will continue to lead the way towards a healthier climate — now with a heightened urgency because of this year’s historic wildfires and mudslides. We’ll keep proving that you don’t need to choose between people, the planet, and the economy.

As our state continues to move forward, it’s imperative that we move forward together. In California, we know all too well that lower-income people face more than their fair share of pollution and health hazards, and they are hit first and worst by climate change. Some of the most polluted counties in our state are also the poorest — 26 percent of school-aged children in the San Joaquin Valley suffer from asthma. Pollution can have a lifetime of consequences on a growing child. The Southern California Children’s Health Study found that those who grew up in more polluted areas face the increased risk of unhealthy lungs from which they may never recover. Moreover, the top ten percent of California communities most impacted by pollution are overwhelmingly communities of color: more than 18 percent of Latinos in our state and 17 percent of African-Americans reside in one of these communities, compared to less than three percent of whites. That’s why I founded an Environmental Justice Bureau at the California Department of Justice in February 2018. The Bureau — the first of its kind in the nation — is a team of attorneys working day in and day out for families on the front lines of climate change.

We’re fighting on all fronts to protect the most vulnerable Californians from pollution, up and down our state. We worked with the City of Jurupa Valley in Southern California to ensure that its residents would be protected from air pollution spewed by dirty diesel trucks. We fought to reduce hazards from oil and gas operations in the San Joaquin Valley city of Arvin, helping secure an ordinance that requires new oil and gas sites to be located more than 300 feet from residences, schools, hospitals, and parks. When the Bay Area city of Oakland took steps to protect its people from coal and petroleum coke in their backyards, we filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support.

Engaging with the people who are most impacted by climate change isn’t just the right thing to do — it can yield some great ideas. I have always believed hardworking people like my parents, a construction worker and a clerical worker, are some of the best environmentalists, because they can’t afford not to be. When we think “environmentalist,” we tend to think of someone who drives an electric vehicle, not someone who rides the bus. But low-income people are not heating and cooling mansions or making unnecessary trips in their gas-guzzling cars. They’re telling their kids, “¡apaga la luz!”, or “turn off the light,” and making sure they clean their plates at dinner time. After all, the average American’s carbon footprint is roughly ten times that of the average person in Colombia, Fiji, or Peru.

Tomorrow, I will be opening a session called “Building a More Just World through Climate Action.” I’m going to call on the impressive group of activists and advocates to keep bringing all environmentalists to the table. Low-income communities can be our greatest allies in the environmental movement, not just because they have so much at stake, but because they already are environmentalists. But if we don’t make room at the table for them, we will lose out on their fresh perspectives and new ideas.

In California, we’re going to keep holding accountable the Trump Administration for their reckless actions to take us backwards. To date, we’ve filed 23 lawsuits against them in federal court to protect the water we drink and the air we breathe. We’ve had 14 victories in these cases so far (with most of them ongoing.) And we are going to keep engaging with vulnerable communities and looking to them for solutions. The fight against climate change is too important to leave anyone on the sidelines.