If you’re poor in the United States, chances are you live in a neighborhood with higher amounts of harmful air particles than communities with higher incomes. That means more stress, more health problems and more medical bills eating away at your monthly paycheck, according to California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA).
So when Nicole Capretz, executive director of the San Diego-based Climate Action Campaign, and other environmental leaders sat down to pen the city’s Climate Action Plan (CAP), they knew that to lift disadvantaged communities out of the smog, they’d also have to plot a way to lift them above the poverty line.
The CAP, which debuted in December, got wall-to-wall coverage for being the first municipal climate plan in the United States to make its goals legally binding.
But after the plan’s architects wrapped up the technical part, which promises a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gases and a city that’s running on 100 percent renewable energy by 2035, Capretz says it felt clear that something was missing.
“From then it was: How do we factor in historical disinvestment in [disadvantaged] communities, and making sure we’re protecting and serving the most vulnerable communities from climate change?” she says.
The answer was to devote an entire component of the plan to social equity, with a big focus on infrastructure investment and job creation. Low-income communities in San Diego, the plan declares, will not only be the first to see drops in pollution from greenhouse gas emission reductions, but community reinvestment initiatives in infrastructure and job access to cleantech jobs, one of the city’s booming industries.
In other words, with each CAP-backed project — solar installations, energy-efficient construction, bike lanes — will come work opportunities for the very neighborhoods these projects will benefit the most.
San Diego County is home to more than 3,000 cleantech companies that handle construction, like solar panel installation and retrofitting houses to make them more energy efficient. That’s according to 2014 data collected by the San Diego Workforce Partnership (SDWP). When the survey was conducted, one-third of those companies said they were expecting their labor demands to increase in the coming year; SDWP predicted they would add 3,285 more jobs by 2015.
“And that was before the Climate Action Plan was released,” says Tina Ngo Bartel, director of business programs and research at SDWP. While SDWP hasn’t yet polled cleantech companies in 2016, Ngo Bartel expects the demand for laborers in the industry to get a big boost from CAP projects.
SDWP already has cleantech job training and placement programs that cater to youth ages 16 to 24 and adults from low-income communities. For someone who completes those programs, local job options run the gamut from solar panel installers to electricians, energy auditors to sales representatives.
These jobs can pay anywhere from $22 to $34 an hour. Compared with the city’s other four priority sectors identified by SDWP — advanced manufacturing, healthcare, information and communication technologies, and life sciences — they may also be the most obtainable for people who’ve struggled to access higher education. Nearly 65 percent of cleantech work opportunities highlighted by the SDWP in their 2015 priority sector report required a certificate, a high school diploma or less.
Ngo Bartel says with the Climate Action Plan in place, “there’s going to be a lot more government emphasis [on these jobs] because of funding.” The CAP and a city council policy from 2014 that prioritizes reinvestment in disadvantaged communities in San Diego will act as the framework for deciding which local areas get priority for state and federal funds. There’s also help from OEHHA’s CalEnviroScreen tool, which maps out California neighborhoods with the highest percentages of air pollution, poverty, educational attainment, unemployment and other indicators.
In San Diego, that means neighborhoods like Barrio Logan and City Heights. They’re ethnically dense, low-income and crossed with freeways. Blueprinting projects like tree canopies or solar panels in those parts of town will help San Diego secure more money from resources like the HUD’s Community Development Block Grant, and the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF), a state fund that’s filled by emissions allowances purchased by companies through California’s cap-and-trade program.
Between 2014 and 2015, the state invested $272 million from the GGRF into disadvantaged communities — a sum that helped pave the way for 400 jobs and provide solar panels for 2,000 low-income families in California.
But even though the CAP is being hailed as a national model, the city still has to make sure it produces tangible results on the ground. To that end, they’ve been coordinating meetings with SDWP, environmental justice leaders and industry to map out the first stages of the plan. In November the city will release a report that outlines how many jobs have been placed and how much has been reinvested back into low-income communities. So far, the city expects $127.3 million to benefit, directly and indirectly, CAP’s goals for fiscal year 2017, though it hasn’t fully outlined the mechanisms or specifics for how all of that money will get doled out.
When it comes to cleantech, most employers in the construction and electrical fields are happy to take on entry-level workers, but not if they don’t have any previous job experience. So when SDWP came to the CAP table, they brought a few ideas on how to get started. The first, which isn’t finalized yet, is to work with major solar companies in San Diego to create solar panel installation training centers where trainees can get access to hands-on experience. The second is through providing on-the-job training funds to employers by reimbursing 50 percent of every paycheck they give to cleantech hires from SDWP, up to 1,040 hours.
As it stands, there’s enough interest in linking sustainability with social equity at the state level to make these things a reality, according to Alvaro Sanchez, environmental equity director at the Greenlining Institute, a racial justice advocacy group based in Berkeley. It’s a trend he’s been tracking throughout California.
“[State grants] incentivize applicants to generate job opportunities for low-income individuals or train folks with barriers to employment to do actual physical work,” he says. The state has already helped cities like San Francisco and Sacramento create jobs in urban forestry, affordable housing construction, solar panel installation and home weatherization programs.
Although the CAP still has a long way to go before it can be deemed a success, Capretz is equally optimistic. She says cities across the country are getting adjusted to this idea of wedding environmental issues with economic development, but they’re embracing it all the same.
“It’s new to everybody, to city employees, to bureaucrats, to consultants, to elected officials and frankly even to the environmental professional world,” she says. “It’s taken a long time, but it’s now coming to the fore in a really positive and meaningful way.”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Johnny Magdaleno is a journalist, writer and photographer. His writing and photographs have been published by The Guardian, Al Jazeera, NPR, Newsweek, VICE News, the Huffington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and others. He was the 2016-2017 equitable cities fellow at Next City.