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?

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.

But the Green New Deal goes far beyond such measures to include broader social-justice goals such as universal health care, universal access to healthy food, clean-up of hazardous waste sites, "stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression" of indigenous communities and communities of color, and more.

Critics of this approach fear that it will undermine urgent efforts to reduce greenhouse gases by tying them to a politically controversial social-change agenda. They note that comprehensive social change takes a long time — time the planet does not have. Perhaps the most notable local skeptic is Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who famously lectured a group of youthful climate protesters that there is no way to pay for all of the items on the Green New Deal wish list. Meanwhile, members of the Republican Party ridicule the approach symbolized by the Green New Deal as nothing more than a utopian, socialist fantasy.

When it comes to stopping climate change, is the perfect the enemy of the good? If the stakes are nothing less than the health of the planet, does Oakland's sweeping approach threaten the prospects of those reforms that absolutely must occur?

Shayna Hirshfield-Gold, who's leading the effort for the city, believes Oakland's approach is essential to finding the common ground necessary to unite society around fighting global warming.

"It's not about stopping and remaking society," Hirshfield-Gold said. "But if we don't ensure that as many people as possible are on board, we're going to fail. If, in our rush to move quickly, we just create cool stuff that only wealthy people can afford, the uptake will only be at the margins. For example, we have to make sure programs for solar and storage are affordable and available to as many people as possible. And the kinds of transformations we're looking at need to have a robust workforce. We have a lot of people out of work, underemployed, or employed in businesses that are part of the problem. We need robust, accessible, attractive pathways to good green jobs with possibilities for upward mobility. If you only look at the tip of the iceberg you miss all the interconnected changes we need."

In Oakland, any disagreements about the new climate action plan are largely occurring among progressives dedicated both to a sweeping transformation of our relationship toward fossils fuels and also a major effort to overcome historic injustices.

Oakland Sustainability Manager Daniel Hamilton pointed out that Oakland's proposed climate plan, while "centering equity" also has greenhouse-gas-reduction goals "that go significantly farther than California or other cities. It's one of the most ambitious plans anywhere on the planet. There are realistic ways to go deeper faster."


The Oakland Approach

While Oakland's approach is part of a larger trend to combine climate and social-justice action, the city's process is unique. Hirshfield-Gold recently returned from a meeting with counterparts in other cities and reported, "We are the only city with a consultant team dedicated to the equity side of things."

To develop Oakland's plan, city staff have been consulting with experts in greenhouse-gas reduction as well as a team of "equity facilitators." After an extensive process of gathering community input through an online survey, meetings in every city council district, and more, the equity facilitators came up with a list of community priorities for what should be in the plan.

The city's draft 2030 Equitable Climate Action Plan explained that disadvantaged communities "are more at risk from the threats of sea-level rise, industrial pollution, poor air quality, and more." That means communities hardest hit by injustice should be "robustly represented" in decision-making and the first to benefit from improvements.

The plan's focus on equity grew out of a longstanding connection between city staff and a coalition of social-justice organizations, the Oakland Climate Action Coalition, which came together ten years ago to promote grassroots priorities in the last climate action plan. That coalition contributed more than half of the goals in the current plan, according to Colin Miller, one of the coalition's leaders.

This time around, Miller and fellow equity facilitors Marybelle N. N. Tobias and David Jaber recruited and trained a 23-member "neighborhood leadership cohort," people who knocked on their neighbors' doors, recruited participants, and helped facilitate community workshops to give input into the plan. A total of 400 workshop attendees discussed and voted on proposals. Their responses, along with those of 800 people who participated in an online survey, were compiled in a report that ranked the proposals according to the number of votes they got.

The widespread discussions not only contributed ideas to the plan, but helped build support for climate action. "If we're going to survive as a species, we need to have all hands on deck," said Lil Milagro, part of the neighborhood leadership cohort. Dan-iel Drakes, another of the neighborhood leaders, said before she got involved in this process, "I wasn't interested in climate. My passion is housing. I can't think about anything else until I get my basic needs met. Then I can think about the environment." Now, she said, "they convinced me it was important. If you pull one strand the whole web is destroyed."


Not Enough Equity

Participants at a November 2 "town hall" held to discuss the city's draft plan, one of two such meetings, generally seemed to like most of the measures it includes. But many speakers said the plan left out or shortchanged some of the top priority actions from the community engagement process, especially those focused on meeting the needs of "frontline communities" — low-income communities and communities of color, where the impacts of climate change hit hardest. Many participants pointed to additional priorities that they believe should be included to make it work for the city's most vulnerable residents.

In a presentation at the beginning of the meeting, Miller said "51 percent of Oakland's population is low income, and to move forward with equity we have to confront the past." He described a history of real estate discrimination that concentrated people of color in the most polluted neighborhoods, pointing to "a classic example of environmental racism: trucks are not allowed on 580 or 13, so they all go on route 880 through East and West Oakland."

After initial presentations, town hall participants broke up into groups, each focused on one section of the plan. Participants in these discussions pointed to several ways they felt the plan fails to live up to its promise of preventing increased burdens for vulnerable people. For example, the plan calls for developing and concentrating new housing near transit, along with measures to "encourage and incentivize" affordable housing. But it stops short of calling for "inclusionary zoning," which would require builders of housing near transit to include units for all income levels. Some of the groups in the Oakland Climate Action Coalition recently campaigned for an inclusionary zoning ordinance, which failed to pass. Its absence in this plan was a source of skepticism.

In another example, the plan calls for various ways to reduce car use and sets a goal of free, zero-emission public transportation. But Lina Ghanem, a member of the Neighborhood Leadership Cohort, said in an interview, "if we're going to reduce car use, how can we do that in a way that doesn't punish seniors and people with disabilities? And what about people who don't feel safe on public transportation? And there are many parts of Oakland that buses and BART don't go to."

The city's draft plan does not mention one of the participants' top ten priorities: "improving public transit with more frequent, reliable service, public safety at bus stops, more destinations, more amenities." In addition, despite a general statement of support for "active transportation," the plan's action items include nothing about another priority in the top ten: designing streets to be safer for bicyclists and pedestrians. And the group discussing transportation took issue with the plan's timeline for creating free public transportation, to be available to low-income communities by 2030, to everyone by 2040. "That's too long!" several participants said.

Much criticism at the town hall focused on the almost complete absence of urban agriculture as a strategy, for which many speakers wanted stronger support. The city's draft plan presents it as a possible way to absorb carbon dioxide, but its carbon impact goes far beyond that, argued Kelly Carlisle of Acta Non Verba Youth Urban Farm Project. Community farms also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Carlisle noted, "by growing food locally as opposed to trucking it in." Other speakers pointed out that local agriculture is also part of resilience in a future of climate change, when disasters and drought may interfere with current food supply chains.

Another gap noted by several participants was the lack of support for another top community priority: "community-owned solar that allows renters and neighbors to benefit financially from shared solar installations." Hirshfield-Gold said city staff did not emphasize this goal because it wouldn't reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. She pointed out that East Bay Community Energy, which supplies Oakland's electricity, says its power will be 100 percent carbon-free by 2030.

Tobias, one of the equity facilitators, said in an interview, "A lot of people want to see more policies that help with local resilience — wealth-building and other components of resilience." The plan's adaptation section calls for "resilience hubs," defined as "physical spaces with supportive infrastructure and resources ... to help people prepare for and recover more quickly from an adverse event." The group discussing this section at the town hall generally seemed to feel this was an important goal but complained that the plan aims to create only three by 2025.


Environment and Economy

Miller articulated a perspective that's gaining traction among climate activists. "The real driver of climate change is the extractive economic system that's the source of greenhouse gas emissions," he said. "We can't just change fossil fuels to renewable energy and keep the same power structure intact. It's not just climate change. We're in a wholesale ecological crisis, with the fastest extinction rates ever. The nature of our economic activity has to be more holistic, centering the people most impacted by the way the extractive economy is working. We can't just switch the fuel source. We have to remake the structure of how the economy works and who is in control."

Such talk scares critics of Oakland's approach, or that of the Green New Deal. Writing in the online magazine Politico about the federal proposal, Michael Grumwald noted that some Democrats "would prefer to focus on cutting the emissions that threaten the planet, arguing that transforming energy use will be a heavy enough lift as it is." He quoted Rich Powell, executive director of Clear Path, an organization that "pushes conservative solutions to climate change," saying "There's a lot of distrust of these home-run giga-packages. It's been a lot more effective to try to hit some singles and doubles."

Grumwald and others worry that this is a case where the perfect is the enemy of the good. He cited the concerns of Alex Trembath of the Breakthrough Institute that "the vague and gauzy climate goals of a Green New Deal will get lost in a partisan and ideological war over capitalism and the economy." He predicted a "disastrous political blowback" from "fossil-fuel interests and the Republican Party."

Case in point: Former Republican White House aide Sebastian Gorka has compared the economic transformation at the heart of the Green New Deal to the approach favored by Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin, memorably quipping: "They want to take your pickup truck. They want to rebuild your home. They want to take away your hamburgers."

Advocates of the "climate justice" approach respond that major changes are necessary to stop runaway climate disasater. They argue that it will be politically impossible to make changes on this scale without the engagement of movements for economic and racial justice — historically the political forces behind major progressive change.

But such criticism is not slowing down the movement. Los Angeles and Seattle have already enacted ambitious "Green New Deal" policies that include equity measures along the lines of those Oakland is considering. And all across the globe, some unions and social-justice organizations are campaigning to integrate their agendas into climate action — and to recruit their constituents to join in.

Many union locals and several national unions, including the Service Employees International Union, the second largest in the United States, have endorsed "a green new deal with strong labor protections," as have the central labor councils in San Francisco, Alameda County, Los Angeles, San Diego, and more. The national Labor Network for Sustainability is leading efforts to bring unions into the climate movement and also get the climate movement to focus on labor rights and good jobs. In Alameda County, the Climate and Environmental Justice Caucus of the Central Labor Council held a day-long "convergence" on climate and labor last spring, and both the Alameda and Contra Costa labor councils endorsed the youth-led climate strike September 20.

Another national coalition, the Climate Justice Alliance, brings together environmental justice organizations in "frontline communities," mostly low-income communities of color, that have been most polluted by fossil fuel and other industrial operations. The Alliance includes Bay Area organizations such as Communities for a Better Environment and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, which are also members of the Oakland Climate Action Coalition.

While calling for a just transition for workers displaced from the fossil fuel industry, the Climate Justice Alliance emphasizes that, in addition, "this transition must be just for communities that live on the frontlines of extractive and toxic, polluting industries, and who have been putting forth local solutions that can be scaled for the benefit of a new economy for all," specifically, "building local community wealth that is democratically governed." Number one on the list of community priorities for the Oakland Climate Action Plan --- but missing from the city's draft — was creation of a public bank, which could facilitate this local economic development.

In the town hall and in interviews, participants in the planning process reflected the debate occurring nationally and internationally within the climate movement. "When you just focus on lowering greenhouse gas emissions, you focus on what's more easily measured," said Noni Sessions of the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative. "Some sources are not easily quantified." For example, the ongoing pattern of displacement of low-income residents from Oakland "means people are pushed out to Antioch, Stockton. This has a huge impact on vehicle miles traveled and thus greenhouse gas emissions," but because it's harder to calculate, it's not included in the city's greenhouse-gas-reduction figures.

Another example of the connection between equity and greenhouse gases: Oakland's draft plan emphasizes the importance of building housing near transit. A study by the nonprofit Transform showed that housing near transit reduces greenhouse gas emissions more if it includes lower-income people, who make greater use of the transit.

Noting that climate change hits hardest in low-income communities and communities of color, Miller said "building strong, local, and regenerative local and regional economies designed to meet the needs of everyone will make frontline communities more resilient. Producing things locally is also important because so much carbon and diesel pollution are emitted shipping and trucking products long distances."


The Path Forward

Oakland officials generally welcomed ideas for promoting community wellbeing as part of the climate plan. But Hirshfield-Gold cautioned that, "a lot of things are important to do, but this plan is focused on the climate aspect of things. City governments don't do well with theories of everything. When you're taking about an action plan you need to focus."

And the city has real financial limitations. "We're doing a deep dive financial analysis after we go through the town hall process," Hirshfield-Gold said. "We'll likely be looking at prioritization and a whole ecosystem of funding and financing with a broad web of partners."

Oakland City Councilman Dan Kalb is a champion of the climate action plan. But he too notes that money is finite. "There's a financial limit to the city's own budget — the city council has to prioritize and make sure the money is there to do things." Still, Kalb said he is excited by the plan. "I think we're going to see some robust strategies with a focus on emissions reductions and building on top of that, co-benefits, environmental health benefits in reducing pollutants." The community input process is important, he said, in "gathering data about what people want to see. To the extent that people put out ideas that have a clear relationship to greenhouse gas reduction and sustainability, they will be incorporated. If they're tangential then perhaps they will be dealt with in other ways."

But other participants don't want the city to be held back by financial or jurisdictional limitations. "We want the city to be aspirational," said environmental consultant Beth Teper. "Don't just talk about what the city controls," added colleague David Ralston. "Also talk about what you can influence and advocate for." Some sections of the draft plan do include an "advocate" to-do list.

Some participants in the community discussions said more imagination and political will could lead to creative solutions. For example, Sheila Islam of Clean Water Action described the "Dudley Street Neighborhoods Initiative" program in Boston. The city used eminent domain to take land that developers were sitting on waiting for the market to go up. They then turned the land over to community organizations for projects like urban agriculture. And several participants suggested that more money would be available if the city shifted budget priorities — less for police and more for community programs.

A central theme in the town hall public comments was concern that the ambitious vision described in the plan might not really happen — especially the parts related to equity. The current city plan, adopted in 2010, set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 36 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. By 2017 it had cut greenhouse gas emissions by 23 percent.

Hirshfield-Gold listed some of the current plan's other accomplishments: a composting program including all buildings in the city and creating good union jobs, an end to city subsidies for employee parking, and the creation of an environmental stewardship program through which more than 100,000 volunteers participated in cleaning and greening projects. But city staff and community advocates agreed that many of the green jobs the plan projected never materialized.

Still, some participants in the town hall pointed to a gap between the draft plan's language describing the goals and the "actions" listed as steps for achieving those goals. Several key equity action items, including those on free public transportation and prevention of increased housing costs, simply call for the city to "develop a roadmap" to reach the goal.

In response, Hirshfield-Gold explained, "There's a difference in 'cityspeak' between an action plan and an implementation plan. It's about what we're going to do, not how we're going to do it. The action items aren't the specific policies that will be implemented. The staff is going to have to sit down to craft policy and develop projects."

As that process goes on, "How is community engagement going to be built into the plan going forward?" asked Phoenix Armenta of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project.

Hirshfield-Gold replied, "We want to maintain rich and deep community engagement over the implementation period. We're still trying to figure out what that's going to look like." She said the first step was creation of the plan. Implementation is the next step.

That's not good enough, Armenta responded. To ensure community oversight during implementation, "Write that into the plan! It can't be secondary. A protocol for community engagement has to be written into the plan." Her comment was the only one greeted with spontaneous applause during the town hall. Hirshfield-Gold called Armenta's comment a fantastic insight.

No matter how specific the plan gets, another key issue is "enforceability." Tobias said some people have suggested that the climate plan be incorporated into the city's general plan to give it teeth, as other cities have done. One measure the city is considering, she said, is creating an "online dashboard" with updates on actions taken, so anyone in the community can track implementation of the plan. In some other cities, including LA and Seattle, the climate action plan has created an oversight body with decision-making power.

Hirshfield-Gold emphasized in an interview that the current document is only a draft. "Now we have this public draft and we have time for a deep community dialog," she said. "Tell us: Did we get this right? If not, let's figure out together how to make it better." In addition to the November 2 town hall and another held November 13, the city has posted the whole plan online at oakland2030.com, configured so that anyone can click anywhere in the document to submit a comment. That page will be available until December 13. In addition, people can attend and make comments at an upcoming meeting of the Climate Action Plan's community advisory committee, scheduled for December 12. There's also an Oakland 2030 Equitable Climate Action Plan Facebook page where people can discuss the issues. And the Oakland Climate Action Coalition will continue working on the plan with city staff.

"This is probably the most crucial phase of community engagement," Hirshfield-Gold said. The city plans to release the final plan in late February or early March and the city council is expected to vote on it in April.

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