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Climate Change and Social Change

Oakland's ambitious approach to solving the climate crisis combines environmental action with a focus on equity. Can they fit together?


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In 2018, Oakland adopted a Climate Emergency Resolution that committed the city to a mobilization that "reduces citywide greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible toward zero net emissions." In declaring a climate emergency, Oakland joined a growing number of Bay Area cities in displaying a sense of urgency about efforts to address the crisis.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that we need a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to avoid runaway climate disaster. The national Climate Mobilization calls for a "World War II-style" mobilization for a rapid reduction of greenhouse gases. A new youth climate movement echoes Greta Thunberg's call to "act like the house is on fire."

Now Oakland is entering the final months of a year-long process to develop a 2030 Equitable Climate Action Plan. The plan's target is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 56 percent of 2005 levels by 2030. It's divided into chapters on transportation and land use, buildings, reducing waste, adaptation to climate change, removing carbon, and actions by the city and the Port of Oakland. It promotes increasing energy efficiency and phasing out natural gas and other sources of greenhouse gases. The carbon chapter calls for planting trees and increasing green spaces, since plants absorb carbon dioxide. An innovative section on materials consumption and reducing waste considers not only Oakland's greenhouse gases, but also those emitted in producing the goods that Oaklanders consume.

At the same time, however, the plan calls for measures that also tackle the crisis of economic inequality. Each chapter includes a section on "centering equity," calling for a "fair shift to an economy that is ecologically sustainable, equitable, and just for all its members." Equity is not only central to the plan's goals but also to its development, which has included an extensive process of community input. And some activists who participated in the process believe the city's draft falls short of its equity goals by failing to include top community priorities.

The plan's goal, according to its introduction, is "to fight and adapt to climate change without exacerbating displacement ... to reduce emissions while helping existing Oaklanders to stay rooted in their homes including in cases of climate disasters and major changes to the built environment." So the section on buildings also sets goals including "avoiding bill increases, ensuring benefits to renters, and local green jobs." The carbon removal chapter specifies that tree-planting should reduce inequities in shade by planting more trees in neighborhoods that lack them — crucial for preventing health-threatening "heat islands." The section on transportation calls for reduced car use and the electrification of vehicles, including ideas for sharing electric vehicles and working toward free public transportation. The materials component calls on the city to support the development of a repair industry so residents can fix rather than discard household items, simultaneously saving people money and creating jobs. Similarly, the plan calls for diverting edible food from landfills, where it is a major source of heat-trapping methane, and creating systems to get the food to people who need it — another source of job creation.

These commitments put the city squarely within the growing movement to bring climate and social justice action together — most famously in the Congressional Green New Deal resolution backed by Sen. Edward Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Such calls for "climate justice" are partly a response to the opposition sparked by measures intended to combat climate change.

All across the globe, well-intentioned efforts to stop climate change are being met with resistance from opponents who say these measures add burdens to those who can least afford them. Recently in Ecuador, protests and riots greeted a government decision to reduce fuel subsidies. Last year the "yellow vest" movement in France tied up the country for weeks in protests over an increase in fuel taxes.

Closer to home, last year in Washington State, voters rejected the second of two ballot measures aiming to create a carbon tax to combat climate change. Opponents of the tax — financed by the fossil fuel industry — outspent proponents by two to one, according to an article in Mother Jones. But the "no" vote also was fueled by worry that "voters, rather than large-scale polluters, would end up paying for the costs of climate change."

Meanwhile, media have given a lot of attention to labor opposition to climate action, including union support for building oil and gas pipelines that environmental activists oppose. Unions representing fossil fuel workers are often skeptical about how they would fare in a clean-energy future. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is famously quoted as saying that "just transition" is just "an invitation to a fancy funeral."

Climate activists are responding to these concerns. The Climate Mobilization, a national organization calling for a transition to zero greenhouse gas emissions for the entire economy over a decade or less, adds that the transformation "must be a democratic, equitable, and just transition for workers and frontline communities."

Still, what does a commitment to equity actually mean? Some see it simply as call to make sure climate actions do not cause harm. For example, advocates of a carbon tax often include plans to use revenues from the tax to provide rebates to offset rising fuel prices. Many call for programs to provide income and retraining for workers displaced by the decline of fossil fuel.