SF Sierra Club puts politics over the planet

I bleed green. I started a company making biofuels, then another working on biodegradable plastics.

I’ve worked with London Breed as she passed: the strongest Styrofoam ban in the country, drug take-back legislation that’s kept 38 tons of pharmaceuticals out of the Bay or landfill and 2015’s Proposition H to protect CleanPowerSF — the clean energy program Breed helped launch.

I am a proud Sierra Club member, grateful for all the national organization has achieved. Which is why I am so frustrated by the bewildering anti-environmentalism of our local Sierra Club leaders.

Unlike most clubs in The City, our Sierra Club chapter’s decisions are not made by the members; they’re controlled by a handful of NIMBYs who put their personal agenda above the environment.

The Bay Area is projected to grow by almost two million people in the next 25 years, meaning we’ll need 600,000 new homes.

Building multi-unit, transit-accessible homes in San Francisco, instead of single-family houses in Tracy or Fairfield, means less car travel, less water and energy use, lower emissions and more land for carbon sequestration. A study by Energy Innovations estimated that if by 2030 California builds 85 percent of its new housing within existing cities, then each year: carbon dioxide emissions will drop by up to 28,000,000 tons, pollution-related health costs by $1 billion, water use by 27,000 gallons per home and households will save $2,000 per year on gas, water and energy.

The national Sierra Club’s official land use policy urges “‘infill’ residential and commercial development” with “densities and mixtures of uses that encourage walking and transit.” It warns of suburban sprawl, “a pattern of increasingly inefficient and wasteful land use that is devastating environmental and social conditions.”

You cannot be pro-environment and anti-urban housing.

Yet in the last few years alone, our Sierra Club Chapter leaders opposed the Candlestick Point/Hunters Point Shipyard plan, bringing 12,000 new homes with about one-third affordable, a major environmental cleanup, and the rebuild of Alice Griffith public housing. They opposed Parkmerced, with 5,679 new homes and transit improvements for a car-dependent area once billed as “suburban living in The City.”

Chapter leaders opposed the Treasure Island plan, with 8,000 new homes, the country’s first congestion pricing program, and acres of parks and wetlands. They even opposed the Giant’s Mission Rock, turning parking lots into a transit-rich, mixed-use neighborhood with 1,500 new homes. Time and again, chapter leaders hedge their opposition with statements like, “We support infill development, just not this plan.” But if you oppose every plan, that hedge rings awfully hollow. And the environment loses.

Chapter leaders’ political endorsements likewise deem environmentalism an afterthought. In June’s Democratic County Central Committee election, they endorsed 17 candidates from the “Reform Slate” and only one from the opposing “Progress Slate.” Did the Reformers have a monopoly on environmentalism? Consider this example.

Chapter leaders endorsed Jane Kim for DCCC but not her state Senate opponent, Scott Wiener.

Jane Kim benefitted from $40,000 in PG&E money and proudly boasts the endorsement of PG&E’s union. This is a company and union that fought San Francisco’s transition to clean energy for a dozen years. Tooth and nail, they’ve opposed our most important climate change initiative.

Wiener, on the other hand, earned the endorsement of the California League of Conservation Voters, who cited his record of “championing environmental initiatives … including water recycling, clean energy, and sustainable transportation and housing,” calling him “a key partner in helping the environmental movement.”

Yet our Sierra Club leaders endorsed Kim over Wiener, just as they endorsed David Campos over David Chiu, and Breed’s opponent over her; not because the candidates are stronger on environmental issues — they aren’t — but because their politics better align on other issues.

There may be valid reasons for opposing housing, even for political tribalism — but not in the name of environmentalism. Not under the Sierra Club banner. That’s just hypocrisy. And it’s a disservice to the environment we Sierra Club members are fighting to protect.

Am I saying this as sour grapes because chapter leaders endorsed someone with zero environmental record over my boss? No, I’m not upset as a Breed supporter. I’m upset as an environmentalist.

I bit my tongue when one chapter leader obstructed our CleanPowerSF ballot measure for weeks. I stayed out of the campaign against these leaders last year. But at some point, as an environmentalist, we have to call out those who harm the movement.

Our marquee organization has been commandeered by a misguided few.

The San Francisco Sierra Club’s name will grace thousands of glossy campaign mailers this fall (an ironic use of dead trees). Please take them with a grain of salt. And if you’re a fellow Sierra Club member, in the next chapter election, please vote for people who put the planet above politics.

Conor Johnston is chief of staff to the president of the Board of Supervisors, London Breed, and co-founder of the East of Twin Peaks Neighborhood Association. The views here are his own.

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