California Considers Community-Based Approach to Climate Resilience

In May, California Governor Gavin Newsom made waves by proposing record state spending on environmental programs, thanks to a $76 billion budget surplus resulting from state tax revenue and federal stimulus money. His proposed $11 billion in environmental spending — a $9 billion increase from his budget draft in January — includes approximately $5 billion for water projects, $2 billion for clean transportation, and a $1.3 billion climate resilience package, with $784 million of the package earmarked for 2021-22.  

In late June, the final version of the state budget was passed by the legislature and enacted shortly thereafter. The approved budget sets aside even more for climate resilience — $3.7 billion over three years. It is yet to be determined how the funding will be allocated, but according to the budget summary, money may go towards projects addressing extreme heat, sea level rise, and infrastructure investments in the most disadvantaged communities, “which are often the hardest hit by climate change and other health, environmental, and economic challenges.

At the press conference where the climate resilience spending plan was initially unveiled, Governor Newsom also suggested that due to the budget surplus and the new environmental spending plans, the state may not need to rely on certain voter-approved environmental bonds that had been tabled in 2020 and revived this year. The two bond measures in question, AB 1500 and SB 45, were introduced earlier in the legislative session, at a time when projected deficits and the previous year’s austerity budget didn’t leave much room for climate adaptation and resilience spending. The measures aim to address climate impacts on communities, with funding for water projects, wildfire prevention, drought preparation, sea level rise and flood protection, extreme heat, and workforce development. The Assembly version of the bill proposes $7 billion for these projects, while the Senate version proposes $5.6 billion.

The two bond measures have not yet passed. But regardless of whether they do, they have the potential to significantly influence how the state approaches resilience spending. In fact, they are being treated as a blueprint for resilience spending, as the legislature works out how it will allocate the $3.7 billion in the budget’s climate resilience package. 

However, there is concern that the bills do not distribute funding in an equitable manner — thus, their serving as a blueprint may advance an inequitable resilience spending framework. According to recent analysis from the Gender Equity Policy Institute (GEPI), funding from the bond measures would overwhelmingly benefit White men, leaving people of color and women (groups who are disproportionately impacted by climate change) behind. 

Ingrained Inequities 

The GEPI report found that the North Coast region of California, which is 71 percent White and disproportionately male, is projected to receive 13 times more funding per capita than the Los Angeles (LA) region, which is 67 percent BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) and disproportionately female. In fact, only 21 percent of funds would go to the LA region, even though it has 45 percent of California’s population and the largest proportion of Black and Latino individuals. Similarly, the North Coast is projected to receive eight times more funding per capita than the Sacramento Valley region, which is the region of the state with the highest percentage of female residents. 

Additionally, the green job creation measures in the bills would mostly create opportunities in fields with preexisting gender imbalances — firefighting, forestry, construction, and infrastructure — without investing in programs to incentivize hiring and training women in these fields. As a result, 92 percent of jobs created by the bond bills are projected to go to men. 

Overall, the report concludes that AB 1500 and SB 45’s proposed investments fail to achieve regional, racial, and gender equity. However, there is still time to ensure the resilience funds are more equitably allocated, and the GEPI report highlights several solutions. 

Opportunities for Improvement

One such solution involves thinking more expansively about what sectors will play an important role in building climate resilience. Currently, for instance, the bills do not include any funding for public health — a sector with a relatively gender-balanced workforce. Allocating funds to CalOSHA, the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, could help the agency enforce policies that protect farmworkers, construction workers, and warehouse workers from extreme heat and other workplace hazards. Funds could also go towards specifically protecting agricultural workers, the majority of whom are Latino, and other outdoor workers from wildfire smoke and poor air quality. 

A greater focus on urban vulnerability to climate change and the impacts of extreme heat are also important to consider in the proposal. Much of the current bond proposals focus on the rural Northern Coast and Sierras, regions where wildfire prevention and restoration projects are already being implemented. However, extreme heat is predicted to have the greatest public health effect of any climate impact, and is already the deadliest weather hazard in the U.S. California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment report found that under a high emissions scenario, there will be 6,700 to 11,300 additional deaths per year in the state by 2050 due to high temperatures. Low-income communities, people who do not own their homes or lack access to air conditioning, and outdoor workers will be some of the most vulnerable to these impacts. And due to the urban heat island effect, where cities experience significantly higher temperatures than nearby rural areas, urban centers are going to face the brunt of this extreme heat. 

However, increasing air conditioning in homes can bring that mortality rate down by 30 percent. By allocating a fair share of resilience funding to California’s urban centers and investing in cooling solutions, the state could potentially save thousands of lives while also reducing the racial and regional disparities in climate resilience investments. 

Community-Led Solutions

Solutions must go beyond establishing cooling centers and hardening infrastructure, though. Amee Raval, Policy and Research Director at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), a grassroots environmental justice organization with roots in the Bay Area’s Asian immigrant and refugee communities, says the GEPI report legitimized concerns they already had about the bond proposals. Specifically, the bills largely focus on natural resource protections and built infrastructure hardening, leaving behind the needs of communities on the ground, especially working class people of color. That’s why APEN has been pushing for the strengthening of social infrastructure for resilience.

One way to do this is through the development of “resilience hubs”: permanent, centralized community facilities that would provide emergency response services,  including “clean backup power, clean air respite, cooling, food storage and distribution, shelter, economic assistance, internet services, and other public health measures.” The hubs would be open and accessible not just during disasters, but on a daily basis, for community members to gather and access various social services.

The idea of resilience hubs originated from the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN), whose research APEN drew from when writing their 2020 Resilience Before Disaster report. In the report, APEN focuses on the need for long-term investments in the resilience of California’s most vulnerable communities and outlines state-level policy recommendations on how to resource and scale these resilience projects, with a major focus on resilience hubs.

There are other solutions being implemented in the state that seem ostensibly similar to resilience hubs. For instance, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) was granted $150 million in this year’s budget to make improvements to fairgrounds, so they can provide shelter and basic amenities during emergency events and evacuations. Across the state, cooling centers have been set up in response to more prolonged and extreme heat waves. However, these services are often temporary, inadequately publicized, and not located close enough to the people who need them most. In most cases, for example, there is only one fairground per county, and California’s largest county is nearly the size of West Virginia. Meaning, fairgrounds can be difficult to access without a car. Perhaps this explains why so many cooling centers sit empty even during severe heat waves.

It’s therefore critical that resilience hubs are neighborhood-based, trusted community facilities, such as places of worship, youth centers, or senior centers — places community members already visit on a regular basis. The services provided by these resilience hubs also need to be determined by the communities they serve to ensure maximal impact. The RYSE Youth Center in Richmond, CA, is a great model for this. APEN has been helping this youth-led resilience hub fundraise for solar and battery storage for backup power. But RYSE isn’t just active during emergencies — they regularly provide mental health services, invest in the arts and entertainment, and organize training and workforce development. 

“That’s really the embodiment of a resilience hub,” says Raval. “It has these functions that can be activated during climate shocks, but it is building ongoing, daily resilience, and meeting the economic, health, and social needs of the community everyday.”

APEN is calling for legislators to put $350 million over three years towards a grant program administered by the Strategic Growth Council, a California cabinet-level council, which has built a reputation for supporting community leadership. The grant money will support the “construction and rehabilitation of community facilities” to complement funding that was allocated towards CDFA and community hardening programs in the budget. Additionally, they want to see $500 million allocated to the Environmental Justice Community Resilience Hubs Program, as proposed by AB 1087 (2021–22), a bill sponsored by APEN and introduced by Assemblymember David Chiu back before the budget surplus was revealed. The bill was held up in committee this legislative session, but may be revisited in January.

Overall, it is clear that the resilience hubs model is a frontline-led solution that offers economic, health and social benefits to people who are most vulnerable to climate impacts — and its approach isn’t without precedent.

Raval explains: “In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw the ways communities came together to protect each other and rebuild through neighborhood assistance, mutual aid networks. Schools were providing fresh, healthy food to families. Libraries were turning into clean air respite centers during the summer when we had a month of poor air quality from the wildfire smoke in the Bay Area. These are all just examples that we’re seeing, of how communities show up for each other during times of crisis, whether that’s the pandemic or climate disasters. Resilience hubs are modeling those examples and operationalizing that.”

Looking Forward

The good news is that some in the California legislature are now aware of the weaknesses in their resilience proposals. In July, Senator Henry Stern organized an oversight hearing on the role of equity in resilience spending after reading the GEPI report and being appalled at the inequities in projected spending. Meanwhile, APEN, along with over 70 other organizations, are pushing legislators to support resilience hubs, which is just one program in a whole suite of solutions that will need to be utilized to help communities prepare for and recover from climate disasters. 

Raval notes that while there’s still lots of educating left to do on the necessity for a holistic, community-based approach to resilience, some legislators do seem to recognize the need to move beyond narrow, one-size-fits-all solutions. With the legislative session ending in September, there’s still time to correct course in the coming weeks as decision makers continue to hammer out how the resilience package money will be spent. 

This year’s climate investments are truly historic. They stir up hope in a time when the state has been getting a devastating glimpse of what climate change has in store — severe drought, record-breaking heat, intense wildfires. While this year’s climate resilience proposals have flaws, the state government still has an opportunity now to uplift community-led solutions and ensure that all Californians see equal benefits from climate investments and equal protection from climate impacts. It’s an opportunity for California to continue to lead on meaningful climate action and take positive steps towards securing a livable future.

Featured Image: Photo by Will Truettner, Unsplash