Participants in the workshop "Are You A Climate Change Survivor?" play Climate Justice Bingo to determine the level of risk they face in their neighborhoods.

Credit: Oakland Climate Action Coalition, via Facebook

Changing the Climate from the Streets of Oakland

How a broad-based community coalition influenced the creation of a just, equitable energy and climate plan for the city.

Story by Michael Méndez

Published on

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from “Climate Change from the Streets: How Conflict and Collaboration Strengthen the Environmental Justice Movement,” by Michael Méndez, to be published in January 2020 by Yale University Press. In it, the author explores the perspectives and direct action that low-income people of color have brought to the pursuit of environmental justice, making the direct connection between environmental protection and improved public health outcomes. In this section, he chronicles the coalition-building and community engagement efforts in Oakland that resulted in the city council adopting some of the most climate-change legislation in California.

With a population of more than 400,000, of whom almost two-thirds are people of color, Oakland has a long and rich history of civil rights and environmental activism. As the birthplace of the Black Panther Party, Oakland has benefited from a culture of self-determination and resistance developed through local experiments to improve the living standards of communities of color. Notable among these are the Free Breakfast for Children Program (which would go on to serve as a national model for public schools) and community health clinics to address issues such as food insecurity and limited access to healthcare. Oakland’s culture of capacity-building and experimentation has led its activists to participate in national efforts to disrupt governance practices, deviate from existing rules and contest sources of authority.

The sophisticated culture of activism in Oakland, like that of Richmond, is also derived from a legacy of inequitable development practices. Toxic facility sitings, low socioeconomic status, proximity to one of the nation’s busiest container ports and lack of a fair distribution of environmental goods continue to degrade the built environment in many Oakland neighborhoods. In those neighborhoods, residents face increased exposure to pollution-related public health risks, such as asthma, heart disease, cancer, premature death and neonatal problems. According to CalEnviroScreen, the environmental health screening tool developed by the California Environmental Protection Agency, more than 50,000 Oakland residents live in neighborhoods listed in the top 20 percent of California census tracts for cumulative environmental impact across the state. These communities sit next to a busy shipping container port, airport, railyards or freeways. Residents there are exposed daily to far greater levels of multiple forms of pollution from vehicle exhaust and commercial operations than people living in other census tracts. These pollution sources also often contribute to the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change. In pinpointing such hot spots, CalEnviroScreen highlighted Oakland’s role in global-local environmental health degradation.

Motivated by these disproportionate environmental burdens, the city of Oakland and local environmental justice groups sought ways to link urban planning, public health and climate change. They developed an approach that displaced the expert-driven processes that often characterize climate action plans nationwide. Previous research has shown that, similar to the state of California, local governments develop standards and climate policy through the establishment of task forces populated by scientists, university experts and technical organizations that rarely address public health and equity issues. Bucking these expert-driven norms, Oakland in December 2012 adopted one of California’s highest city-scale greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, following a three-year collaboration with the coalition. In the process, environmental justice groups defined a holistic concept of the environment that identified geographically and socially uneven risks and impacts of climate change and opportunities to promote community-based solutions.

Building the Coalition

The coalition’s strength and success were due to the diversity of its members, who were recruited throughout Oakland’s diverse neighborhoods. Together, they were a powerful force that provided multisector expertise on a host of issues, including transportation, affordable housing, energy, urban agriculture, adaptation planning and community engagement. According to Emily Kirsch, founding coalition coordinator and green jobs organizer for the Ella Baker Center, “Having a diverse coalition with strong expertise is important in these types of policy initiatives…. When you talk about climate change, it’s food, water, transportation, housing, energy, health equity and everything you possibly can think of. So we went around to our friends and allies to find out what sort of climate-related projects they were working on and the type of expertise they could bring to the coalition. Then we strategized how we could get these projects included in the climate action plan and on the books as part of the city’s plans.”

Working with Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, the coalition also built an intersectional campaign around the links between women’s reproductive justice and climate change. They held organizing and educational events questioning how the presence of toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases harm reproductive health and also contribute to climate change. The coalition specifically focused on a holistic life-cycle analysis of chemicals and how pollution exposure in nail salons and electronics factories is impacting the natural environment and women’s bodies.

The coalition’s climate policy development process disrupted conventional climate planning by reducing the primacy of scientific advisors and validating embodied knowledge held by communities.

Photo by Basil D. Soufi

The coalition’s broad range of expertise and priorities, moreover, enabled it to work with the city to move the climate action plan beyond just technical metrics to a community-based plan. In developing the framework for the plan, Oakland officials had initially followed conventional methods. Officials identified greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, environmental priority areas and strategies to address targets by consulting with experts at nongovernmental organizations such as ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, and the private consulting firm Circlepoint, Inc. The city also adopted standard approaches to public participation that environmental justice groups saw as too “top-down.”

Putting the Community Front and Center

The initial city workshops (attended by around 200 people representing the coalition, government agencies, utilities, interest groups, businesses and individual residents) focused on informing the community about the methods that city staff had selected to develop the plan. Early in the process, however, the coalition approached the city and requested more direct involvement. The coalition asked the city not to establish a formal expert task force and to instead allow a community-based approach. The coalition included long-established community members; due in part to their political influence, the city council ultimately allowed the coalition to facilitate and fund a parallel community advisory process. The city’s comparatively small scale (as opposed to the state) made this strategic opportunity possible, through personal connections and closer interaction between influential community members and policymakers. As one coalition member recalled, “The city did host their own workshops, but they are pretty boring and held at 2 p.m…. We attended and gave our input. That is because we get paid to attend. But we wanted to hold workshops that were more accessible to the public and were fun and engaging…. So we hosted a series of workshops in the flatlands of East and West Oakland, knowing that communities most impacted by climate change are often least represented in terms of decision-making.”

Through this collaboration with the coalition, Oakland adopted one of California’s highest municipal greenhouse gas reduction targets: a 36 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2020 and an 85 percent reduction by 2050. Although other California cities have also set such goals, Oakland’s target levels are some of the first to comply with the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Oakland’s targets also surpass California’s statewide requirement to reduce carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and are more than double the state’s recommendation that local governments reduce emissions 15 percent by 2020.

Prioritizing Equity

The coalition strategically pushed for higher reduction targets as leverage for additional measures to address their equity concerns. One coalition member recalled, “We knew if we pushed for a high greenhouse gas target, the more comprehensive the plan had to be. And it could include measures that were community-based, in addition to the standard greenhouse gas mitigation solutions.” As a result, Oakland is also one of the first cities to explicitly link evaluative criteria with benefits for disadvantaged communities when weighing climate policy choices. In this process, the plan’s authors considered whether its benefits outweighed the burdens on disadvantaged communities. For example, they worked to preserve affordable housing in transit-oriented development projects, in a bid to ensure that this greenhouse gas emissions reduction measure would not displace low-income residents.

The coalition argued that transit-oriented development projects (that is, housing, retail and office uses located next to public transit) in existing high-density neighborhoods could be an effective greenhouse gas mitigation measure, but resulting displacement of low-income people, senior citizens and renters could undercut mitigation goals. Lower-income residents might be forced out to cheaper suburbs with fewer transit options if their neighborhood’s older housing stock was replaced with new market-rate units. Many individuals might have to buy a car to commute to work and access community services, thereby increasing the region’s vehicle miles traveled and its greenhouse gas emissions. Oakland was the nation’s first city to link climate change policy with affordable housing in this manner. The coalition also fought to include neighborhood scale adaptation planning in the climate action plan to address the most harmful near-term effects of climate change on socially vulnerable communities. In contrast, conventional adaptation studies at the time often focused only on protecting hard assets, such as vital city infrastructure or ecological systems.

The coalition helped create a climate policy model based not just on greenhouse gas reductions but also on ensuring multiple community benefits in the form of green jobs, affordable housing and health co-benefits.

Photo by Oscar Perry Abello

In addition to its role in promoting community-based policies, the coalition was key in the overall framing of the climate action plan. Garrett Fitzgerald, Oakland’s city sustainability coordinator, praised its efforts: “The [coalition] made my job a lot easier by providing smart, specific recommendations for the plan and doing a lot of work to bring more of Oakland’s voices into the process. It’s rare to find community partners as dedicated and willing to collaborate with city staff as the [coalition].” Even before city staff released their first draft of the climate action plan, the coalition had already developed and presented its own comprehensive plan to city officials, based on the community workshops they had hosted. According to a member of the coalition’s steering committee, “What drew these unlikely partners together is the goal of a just and equitable energy and climate plan for the city. Whether they were a green enterprise looking to grow their business in a green and sustainable way or a labor union looking to ensure jobs in a new economy for their members or an environmental group that has done the research to know the catastrophic effects of global warming — they all had a stake in making sure that the plan was done right for the city of Oakland.”

Through this parallel policy development process, the coalition produced 50 of the 150 greenhouse gas reduction measures and goals in the final version of the climate action plan that the city council adopted. The coalition’s policy committees used research and embodied knowledge to build justifications for specific greenhouse gas reduction measures and public health targets. These committees addressed areas such as transportation, affordable housing and land use; building and energy use; consumption and solid waste; food, water and urban agriculture/forestry; and adaptation, resilience and community engagement. The committees convened several times a month and were led by two cochairs — one from a policy-based organization and the other from a grassroots group — to balance expertise in policy development with on-the-ground experience in their recommendations.

Many municipalities acknowledge that public participation should play a role in formulating climate change risks and strategies. However, officials frequently claim they cannot garner significant public interest because the science is complex and climate change is a long-term and uncertain process. As a result, many cities opt to establish an expert task force and hire environmental consultants instead. Compared to most municipal climate policy planning, Oakland represents an innovative case in six key ways:

  1. It included local, embodied knowledge in the development of climate policy.
  2. Public participation was embedded in the regulatory science and policy processes.
  3. Its understanding of climate risks and impacts focused on the human scale.
  4. Measures were chosen for their potential health benefits.
  5. Adaptation plans focused on socially vulnerable communities.
  6. The climate action plan included explicit references to equity and environmental justice.

The coalition’s climate policy development process disrupted conventional climate planning by reducing the primacy of scientific advisors and validating embodied knowledge held by communities. Oakland’s climate action plan is an innovative case, moreover, because the coalition is officially listed as a major contributor to the plan’s development. This is a rare occurrence. As a long-serving member of the Oakland City Council noted, city collaboration with the coalition produced a plan that stands in sharp contrast to previous environmental documents produced by the city: “I’ve been a Council member for 16 years and I’ve seen a lot of environmental plans. Oakland’s Energy and Climate Action Plan is unique because it lifts the voices of low-income communities and communities of color.”

The work of the coalition to develop, pass and implement the city’s climate action plan makes Oakland a model for what communities across the country can do to shape their climate change policy to local needs. Its direct engagement represents an experiment in how local climate governance can be established and defined. First, the plan focused on socially vulnerable communities with the most to lose from the impacts of climate change and suggested neighborhood adaptation plans, not only mitigation measures. Second, the coalition helped create a climate policy model based not just on greenhouse gas reductions but also on ensuring multiple community benefits in the form of green jobs, affordable housing and health co-benefits. Finally, it brought together a diverse community and created a transformative space to challenge the power relations around climate change policy at the local level.

What Does Community Engagement for Climate Change Look Like?

The coalition influenced climate knowledge, thus transforming a global phenomenon into a local one with practical applications. It did so through community engagement, political mobilization, education and an experimental approach. Taken together, these exceeded the formalities of neocommunitarianism (as in the case of the state’s AB 32 implementation) to involve members of the public in identifying local problems associated with climate change and in finding equitable solutions. The coalition’s work with residents — in particular, low-income families and communities of color — was highly popular and inclusive. This was a key factor in the adoption of the coalition’s recommendations in the final plan.

These collaborative projects aimed to help diverse people and organizations imagine and implement solutions to protect residents from the localized threats of climate change: heatwaves, floods, wildfires, poor air quality and rising utility costs.

Credit: Oakland Climate Action Coalition, via Facebook

To transform how climate change was perceived in Oakland, the coalition convened and funded 14 workshops. These workshops, along with convenings and rallies, engaged more than 1,500 residents to develop local solutions to climate change, compared to the 200 individuals who attended the city-sponsored events. Several workshops were conducted in multiple languages — for example, the nonprofits Movement Generation and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (which has offices in Richmond and Oakland) facilitated Spanish- and Chinese-language workshops for immigrant residents. The inclusive process produced widespread support for and engagement with the plan by Oakland residents most impacted by pollution and poverty.

The coalition used youth engagement programs to further localize climate knowledge. For example, the coalition hosted a solar-powered concert, featuring legendary hip-hop artists Pete Rock and C. L. Smooth, to promote a Climate Adaptation Work Day at Laney Community College. More than 350 Oakland residents, many of them youth, helped install a garden and rainwater catchment system at the college. Coalition member organization Forward Together organized 80 East Oakland high school students in role-playing activities designed to envision what climate solutions in their homes, schools and neighborhoods could look like. A Community Convergence for Climate Action was also held to showcase a theatrical performance by high school girls on climate change, live hip-hop concerts and a report- back session from residents who had attended the coalition’s climate workshops. The Community Convergence event demonstrated the high level of interest from local residents in developing the climate action plan and created a space for them to articulate climate solutions that would make a real difference in their own lives.

The coalition also facilitated workshops on disaster preparedness for low-income communities that focused on the risks and impacts of climate change through interactive games and learning initiatives. These included the “Are You a Climate Change Survivor?” activity workbook; board games such as Climate Justice Human Bingo and Community Resilience Lifeboat and fact sheets with activities designed to raise awareness about climate change impacts. Through such collaborative projects, Oakland set the trend for a holistic approach to climate action planning. These activities aimed to help diverse people and organizations imagine and implement solutions to protect residents from the localized threats of climate change: heatwaves, floods, wildfires, poor air quality and rising utility costs. Brian Beveridge, co-executive director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project and coalition member, noted, “We started by bringing people together and talking about assets and vulnerability — talking about things they want to protect. It starts as a mapping exercise; we look at all the places we are strong before we look at our vulnerabilities…. At the community level, it is not technocratic. You can’t just say there is some technological fix for people, because we are really not protecting hard assets; we are talking about people surviving as a community during a disaster.”

Adapted from “Climate Change from the Streets: How Conflict and Collaboration Strengthen the Environmental Justice Movement,” by Michael Méndez. Copyright © 2020 Michael Méndez. Reproduced by permission of Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.

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Michael Méndez is assistant professor of environmental planning and policy at the University of California, Irvine. He previously served in California as a senior consultant, lobbyist, and gubernatorial appointee during the passage of the state’s internationally acclaimed climate change legislation.

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