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Climate change hurts our low-income communities

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In May, the Chevron Richmond Refinery was forced to pay $181,000 in civil penalties for air pollution violations in 2013 and 2014. (Courtesy photo)
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There are few places as close to the roots of climate change as my hometown, Richmond, Calif. Trapped next to the Chevron Refinery, I see plumes of pollution streaming into the air each time I look out my window. In fact, it wasn’t until college that I realized that the city’s alarm-system, tested routinely every month, was unique to my upbringing. Since its opening in 1902, the Chevron refinery has been poisoning the residents of Richmond with a constant stream of contaminants.

In May 2017, the Chevron refinery was forced to pay $181,000 in civil penalties for air pollution violations that occurred in 2013 and 2014. While there have been improvements in air quality over the years, there are still thousands of Richmond residents trapped in a fog of dirty air.

Beyond my doorstep, the burning of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change continue to pose an existential crisis. The effects of climate change will be frighteningly apparent in impoverished cities like Richmond. Changing weather cycles will further drought in an already dry landscape, rising sea levels will threaten coastal property in a region plagued by a housing crisis and rising temperatures will worsen air pollution, stressing the health of low-income communities already struggling without access to affordable health care.

While our federal government turns away from action, leaving the G-20 without an American presence on climate change, states can and need to take the lead on climate action.

California has been such a leader and needs to continue setting an example for the rest of the world. The most effective and efficient way to do this is through a fair and effective price on carbon. Carbon pricing is an economic policy, either in the form of a tax or a cap, which uses market mechanisms to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

More specifically, a tax or cap and trade program, motivates businesses and industries to invest more heavily in cleaner sources of energy, such as wind and solar. Best of all, these policies generate revenue which can and should be returned to residents in low-income areas like Richmond through either dividends or investments.
Carbon pricing is not just a relevant topic because of the increased threat of climate change and the incompetent federal administration, but also because California government recently passed two new bills that extended California’s current Cap and Trade program into 2030.

The two bills, SB 398 and SB 617, received heavy criticism from environmental justice groups for the allowances they gave to big oil and the limits they placed on local communities to regulate air quality. On the other hand, many voices applauded the bills as a necessary step toward both climate progress and clean air.

“California remains a leader by passing Assembly Bill 398 that will keep cap and trade operating until 2030 rather than letting it expire in 2020,” Richmond Mayor Tom Butt said at a recent town gathering. “The legislation will help Richmond continue to meet the goals of our Climate Action Plan and remain a leader among California cities in greenhouse gas reduction and sustainability.”

While the state’s recent success in extending Cap and Trade will drive green investment and decrease carbon emissions, many of the bill’s criticisms are legitimate and need to be heard.

Furthermore, the success of the current Cap and Trade extension is dependent on stringent implementation to protect vulnerable communities. Within neighborhoods like Richmond, centering environmental justice and local air pollution is vital for both our survival and our health.

Gov. Jerry Brown has been a champion for the climate, and while I applaud him for the extension of Cap and Trade, we need to continue to hold him accountable. I understand the challenge he faced in a deeply political moment; however, as constituents, we have the obligation to continue to fight for strong cap and trade programs that will not just curb emissions, but will also improve air quality.

For carbon pricing to be both fair and effective, it needs to prevent corporations from poisoning our most vulnerable communities and provide the lever to move us toward a healthier and more sustainable planet. When I return home, I want to look out my window and know California is fighting for the planet and for my neighbors. Without both, the effort is insufficient.

Miriam Raffel-Smith is a Bay Area native who is studying at Scripps College and working as a field representative for the Put A Price On It campaign.

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