The election of Donald Trump shocked and confused much of America. Why did polls fail to predict the outcome, at least in the states that made a difference? Why did a large set of the public embrace an outsider candidate, particularly one who attacked immigrants, stoked anxieties about ongoing demographic shifts, and willfully ignored the realities of climate change? And what did the newly elected president mean for policy, particularly about climate, which has motivated environmentalists and environmental justice advocates alike?
California’s story offers one path through this turmoil, partly because the United States seems to be going through what the Golden State experienced decades before. Nearly a quarter century ago, California voters adopted a similarly anti-immigrant tone, passing Proposition 187, which sought to strip undocumented residents of access to nearly all social and educational services. At the time, California had experienced 40 percent of the national decline in manufacturing employment between 1990 and 1994, a staggering blow to working-class residents and one that fed into resentment of newcomers.1Data calculations by the author using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics at www.bls.gov/data. It is no surprise that civic leaders in California woke up the day after the 2016 vote with a sense of déjà vu—we had already struggled through our own stew of racial anxiety and economic stress. The good news: we came out the other side a bit banged-up but ready to keep working together for a better future, including on the critical issue of climate change.“Contemporary California now recognizes that undocumented immigrants are deeply embedded in the state.”
The Golden State’s shift from despair to hope has many causal factors, but among them were social movements, often led by communities of color, that notched victories on a variety of civic issues. Contemporary California now recognizes that undocumented immigrants are deeply embedded in the state—well over 60 percent of undocumented immigrants have been in America for over a decade—and the state has sought to ease their lives by providing driver licenses, ensuring health care for undocumented youth, and diminishing cooperation with federal immigration authorities. Nudged forward by labor activists and advocates for the working poor, California has tried to address the growing inequality driving economic unease, becoming one of the first states to embrace a $15-an-hour minimum wage and adopting a funding formula designed to steer education dollars to the schools most in need.2Laura Hill and Iwunze Ugo, “Implementing California’s School Funding Formula: Will High-Need Students Benefit?” (San Francisco, CA: Public Policy Institute of California, March 2015). And, driven by the rising voice of environmental justice activists, it insists on addressing climate change and climate justice, with a frustrated Governor Jerry Brown declaring in December 2016 that “if Trump turns off the satellites [to track climate shifts], California will launch its own damn satellite.”
What moved California from its own abyss to what seems to be an enviable acceptance of the need for diversity, inclusion, and environmental protection? Some of it was just the demographic evolution of the state, including an inevitable growth in voters of color who could put some brakes on racialized appeals. Some of it was economic shifts, including the growth of a high-tech sector that is often libertarian in its economics but both liberal in its social attitudes and interested in getting a first-mover advantage on the green economy. Some of it was due to shifts in the political rules of the game, including term limits that led to new, often minority, leadership in high state-level offices, as well as the reworking of the redistricting process that reduced gerrymandering for political favor.
While all of that was important in a variety of arenas—economic, social, and immigrant policy—I argue in a forthcoming book, State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future, that a key ingredient for California’s new reality was a set of sophisticated social movement organizations that learned to mobilize new constituents, marshal research and data to make their case, and propose new policies instead of just opposing clear injustices. Part of this new community organizing is an ability to work with as well as against political figures and agency administrators, a sort of inside-outside game not always associated with progressive change-makers.“The racial disparities in terms of exposure to toxins, poor air quality, and other threats have been well documented, and even politicians have realized the need to address the obvious.”
This new set of social movement tactics can be tracked across labor rights, immigrant integration, de-incarceration, and economic development, to name a few, but the one of interest here is environmental justice (EJ). In some ways, it is no surprise California has been a hotbed of EJ organizing; the racial disparities in terms of exposure to toxins, poor air quality, and other threats have been well documented, and even politicians have realized the need to address the obvious.3→Rachel Morello-Frosch, “Environmental Justice and California’s ‘Riskscape’: The Distribution of Air Toxics and Associated Cancer and Non-Cancer Health Risks Among Diverse Communities,” (PhD diss., Berkeley, CA: Department of Health Sciences, University of California, Berkeley, 1997).
→Manuel Pastor, Rachel Morello-Frosch, and James Sadd, “The Air Is Always Cleaner on the Other Side: Race, Space, and Ambient Air Toxics Exposures in California,” Journal of Urban Affairs 27, no. 2 (2005): 127–48. But oppression and inequality do not always translate into action, and what is remarkable is the growth in organizing capacity and sophistication over time, particularly after the famous 1987 United Church of Christ study, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, and the subsequent 1994 Clinton-era executive order that helped make “environmental justice” a more familiar concept to the public and policymakers alike.4United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, 1987More Info →
For example, in the Central Valley, pesticide exposure of farmworkers and their families has long been a problem.5→Roger A. Bruns, Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Movement (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011).
→Matt Garcia, A World of Its Own: Race, Labor, and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001). But a 1988 proposal to place a toxic waste incinerator in Kettleman City, a small town of 1,100 predominantly Latino residents in the San Joaquin Valley, triggered a revolution in organizing. Kettleman City already hosted one of the nation’s largest hazardous waste landfills, which led the landfill owners to believe they were just more efficiently concentrating risk.6→CalEPA, “CalEPA Environmental Justice Program Update 2014,” 2014.
→Luke W. Cole and Sheila R. Foster, From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2001). Neighbors were not persuaded and raised concerns about cumulative impacts. The resulting battle, assisted by lawyers from the newly founded Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment (CRPE), eventually pushed the waste disposal company to withdraw its proposal to build the incinerator.7Since then, a local community group called El Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpio/People for Clean Air and Water of Kettleman City—with support from EJ and legal advocates like Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, CRPE, California Rural Legal Assistance, and others—has been fighting against proposed expansions of the site. These groups and others across California’s Central Valley have also come together to make up the Central California Environmental Justice Network, which works on issues of environmental racism and economic justice at the regional scale. For more on the origins of CRPE, see Elaine Woo, “Luke Cole Dies at 46; Leading Practitioner of Environmental Law,” Los Angeles Times, June 11, 2009.
Meanwhile, in Southern California, a coalition, initially led by Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) and supported by the Los Angeles–based Liberty Hill Foundation, challenged the local air quality district about the rules governing an acceptable health risk from new facilities. The regulation, called Rule 1402, had been adopted in the early 1990s, with a cancer risk threshold ten times above that recommended by technical staff and even twice as high as businesses had requested. Apparently, in the context of an economic recession, air regulators were worried about anything that might deter investment. But in 2000, after years of struggle, community activists accomplished something remarkable: they persuaded the air district to reduce the cancer risk standard for new facilities by 75 percent.8Los Angeles, CA: Liberty Hill Foundation, September 2004More Info →
The victory had many of the elements of the new model I describe above. First, CBE and others had mobilized hundreds of affected residents to attend district meetings held in a far-flung suburb safely distant from the communities under stress from the decision.9Manuel Pastor, Rachel Morello-Frosch, and James L. Sadd, “LULUs of the Field: Research and Activism for Environmental Justice,” in Collaborations for Social Justice: Professionals, Publics, and Policy Change, ed. Andrew L. Barlow (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007), 81–106. Second, they had utilized sophisticated data analysis: our research team10It consists of myself, Rachel Morello-Frosch of UC Berkeley, and Jim Sadd of Occidental College. worked with the organizers to demonstrate that such permissive pollution regulations led to disparate exposures, making it a civil rights issue.11Rachel Morello-Frosch et al., “Environmental Justice and Regional Inequality in Southern California: Implications for Future Research,” Environmental Health Perspectives 110, no. S2 (April 2002): 149–54. Third, they had an alternative policy in mind, one that better squared with scientific analysis and community health. Finally, they had developed relationships with the regulators, which built their credibility and helped persuade an agency not known for revisiting its prior decisions to do precisely that.
Scaling up to climate“While much of the early wave of environmental justice organizing in California stressed the impacts of localized pollution on neighbors…climate change eventually rose to the top of the agenda for many groups”
While much of the early wave of environmental justice organizing in California stressed the impacts of localized pollution on neighbors—including the deleterious effects of goods movement and port activity in an economy increasingly reliant on international trade—climate change eventually rose to the top of the agenda for many groups. Part of this was opportunity-driven: the August 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act (commonly known as Assembly Bill 32, or AB 32) mandated that California’s 2020 emissions be brought down to 1990 levels and established both an environmental justice advisory committee (EJAC) and an economic and allocation advisory committee, with the former to be focused on distributional concerns and the latter on whether to adopt cap-and-trade, a fee system, or more traditional controls.
That environmental justice was explicitly written into AB 32 was a testimony to the strength of the preceding organizing; that much of EJAC’s advice, particularly warnings about the problems of cap-and-trade and offsets, was ignored spoke to the need to build more power to influence policy.12Jonathan London et al., “Racing Climate Change: Collaboration and Conflict in California’s Global Climate Change Policy Arena,” Global Environmental Change 23, no. 4 (August 2013): 791–99. Interestingly, the opportunity to do so came in response to an attack on AB 32: Proposition 23, a 2010 ballot proposition funded primarily by two Texas-based oil companies. While the proponents of Prop 23 claimed it could save jobs, EJ supporters used research our team helped produce on the “climate gap” that showed how overturning AB 32 was likely to have its worst impacts on communities of color.13Manuel Pastor et al., “Minding the Climate Gap: What’s at Stake If California’s Climate Law Isn’t Done Right and Right Away” (Los Angeles, CA & Washington DC: USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, April 2010). We also pointed out in an accompanying fact sheet that the two oil companies funding the challenge to AB 32 had among the state’s worst profiles of GHG emitters in terms of disparate impacts on communities of color. Building an independent coalition that worked with mainstream environmentalists but focused on its own base in communities of color, the EJ-led effort seemed to strike a chord: while Prop 23 was handily rejected by over 62 percent of all voters, the 57 percent of whites who voted against it was far outpaced by the striking 75 percent of voters of color who rejected the measure.“EJ advocates, having played a sophisticated inside-outside game…gained the credibility and leverage to push for new legislation in 2012.”
As a result, mainstream environmentalists finally realized something that polling data has suggested for several years—Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Pacific Islanders in California were far more concerned about climate change than whites, and also more likely to support efforts to promote clean energy.14→Catherine Lerza, “California’s New Environmental Movement,” Shelterforce, Spring 2012.
→Mark Baldassare et al., “PPIC Statewide Survey: Californians and the Environment” (San Francisco, CA: Public Policy Institute of California, July 2015). Meanwhile, EJ advocates, having played a sophisticated inside-outside game—defending AB 32 even as they continued to criticize cap-and-trade—gained the credibility and leverage to push for new legislation in 2012. Senate Bill (SB) 535 mandated that a quarter of the funds generated from cap-and-trade auctions be devoted to programs that would benefit the most environmentally overexposed and socially vulnerable communities, with a minimum of 10 percent to be spent directly in those communities.
The mechanism for identifying those communities was a tool called CalEnviroScreen, a mapping approach that was an outgrowth of an earlier Environmental Justice Screening Method our team had developed in collaboration with the state’s Air Resources Board and a wide swath of environmental justice advocates. The evolution of the tool was another instance of effectively playing an inside-outside game: community groups kept up a steady drumbeat of critique while we provided agency staff technical advice until most parties felt comfortable with the outcome. By 2014, the tool was adopted as the guide for investment, and by 2015, the state senate and assembly followed up with legislation that expanded the state’s Air Resources Board by two seats and reserved them for representatives of environmental justice communities and organizations. Advocates had literally secured a seat at the table.
What is to be learned
One needs to temper this enthusiastic telling of the EJ movement with the fact that losses have also accrued along the way; EJ groups remain frustrated that cap-and-trade remains in place, particularly as new research has demonstrated that the first two years of these markets seem to have led to increases in copollutants in less advantaged neighborhoods.15Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, 2016More Info → But in 2016, EJ groups managed to ensure that legislation mandating more aggressive statewide GHG reduction goals was coupled with a companion law that took account of copollutants and that prioritized reductions in less advantaged communities. It’s not environmental heaven, but it’s a long way from simple resistance (whether of plans to site a toxic incinerator in Kettleman City, raise the cancer risk threshold in Los Angeles, or gut the federal EPA’s commitment to environmental justice)—and there are lessons to be learned.
The first lesson is that policy is driven not by technical expertise—a sad realization for those of us so committed to good science—but by power. For academics and others, making your policy dreams come true often requires a relationship with community actors hoping to make change. This is not the easiest balancing act: one needs to keep honest to the data and the analytics but also recognize that placing the work in good hands is what might make a real-world difference. This requires long-time partnerships and new forms of university-community collaboration.16This would be a worthy subject for the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) to continue to explore.
A second lesson is that the inside-outside game is key to making change. It is crucial to have the organizing in place as it is people power that ultimately shifts policy. But it’s also the case that there are often people of good will in both political leadership and in our administrative bureaucracies who do want to ease pollution burdens and reduce disparities. Learning how to let one set of actors do their part and another set of actors play another role can be challenging. This creates a particular space for researchers who can work on the inside to gain the confidence of agency scientists, even as community allies pressure to change the entire schema of evaluation. Researchers who are committed to being public intellectuals who can impact policy—and not just critical literature—need to get used to the tensions that come with navigating between two worlds.“CEJA has also worked closely with dynamic organizations defending immigrant communities at risk from both deportation and pollution.”
A third lesson is that struggles for justice that actually drive change are, to embrace a perhaps over-used academic word, “intersectional.”17→Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (July 1991): 1241.
→Ange-Marie Hancock, Solidarity Politics for Millennials: A Guide to Ending the Oppression Olympics (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). For reasons of space, I have collapsed this California story into one focused on environmental and climate justice—but the reality is much more muddied (and vibrant). The main vehicle merging local environmental groups into an effective statewide voice was the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA), itself born in the same process as California Calls, which mobilizes new and occasional voters to address seemingly unrelated (but, in fact, quite connected) issues of fiscal shortfalls and over-incarceration. CEJA has also worked closely with dynamic organizations defending immigrant communities at risk from both deportation and pollution. The concept of sustainability stresses the interconnection of all people and things; similarly, a thick definition of resistance requires that we show up when the government proposes to pull out of climate accords and when the government proposes to ban Muslim immigrants.
The final lesson is that states matter. States are laboratories for experimentation in organizing and policy change. In this regard, what happens in California matters; as the heads of the state assembly and state senate wrote the morning after the 2016 election, “California was not a part of this nation when its history began, but we are clearly now the keeper of its future.” In the coming years, federal attention will surely drift away from climate impacts and climate justice, but there are real opportunities for states to embrace a forward-looking climate agenda and show that another world—one that is more equitable, more sustainable, and more civil—is indeed possible.
→Manuel Pastor, Rachel Morello-Frosch, and James Sadd, “The Air Is Always Cleaner on the Other Side: Race, Space, and Ambient Air Toxics Exposures in California,” Journal of Urban Affairs 27, no. 2 (2005): 127–48.
→Matt Garcia, A World of Its Own: Race, Labor, and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001).
→Luke W. Cole and Sheila R. Foster, From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2001).
→Mark Baldassare et al., “PPIC Statewide Survey: Californians and the Environment” (San Francisco, CA: Public Policy Institute of California, July 2015).
→Ange-Marie Hancock, Solidarity Politics for Millennials: A Guide to Ending the Oppression Olympics (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).