Thousands of delegates from around the world gather in San Francisco this week for the Global Climate Action Summit. Committed to achieving the Paris Climate Accord’s goal of net zero emissions by midcentury, the international effort is humankind’s attempt to save itself from itself.
For a quick glimpse at their prospects, delegates should come to Fresno. Our city is at the crossroads of California’s climate change policies, in the heart of a valley that has been trying unsuccessfully for nearly three decades to reduce ground-level air pollution to safe levels.
The two efforts share a common feature: cap-and-trade, the market-based system designed to reduce air pollution through the buying and selling of pollution credits like commodities. It’s a trading system structured to ensure economic stability, and it does lead to less air pollution ... only very, very slowly.
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San Joaquin Valley residents have been waiting 28 years and the end is not in sight. How long does the planet have?
For greenhouse gases, California sets a good example. Our efforts to decarbonize are underway, and a long list of courageous state legislators have taken turns leading the effort.
Governors from Gray Davis to Jerry Brown and laws ranging from former state senator Fran Pavley’s 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act to this year’s 100 percent Clean Energy bill authored by Sen. Kevin de León have placed the state on the right path.
These policies are still evolving and improving. That’s to be expected given this is the largest undertaking in California – in human – history and that policymakers face almost unanimous resistance from fossil fuel, industrial, and agricultural interests.
Despite cap-and-trade’s industry friendly approach, for decades lobbyists for these sectors have worked to delay or block every air pollution rule and regulation. From cars’ carbon monoxide and diesel trucks’ toxic fumes to ammonia from dairies and methane from oil fields, we continue to inhale a long list of hazardous pollutants. Countless lives have been damaged or lost.
The response to greenhouse gases has been no different. The stakes are just so much higher now, and we’re quickly running out of time.
Local politicians have proven especially disappointing on this front. In recent years statehouse representatives Michael Rubio and Henry T. Perea, both Democrats, left office early to end up as oil industry lobbyists, and the Fresno City Council has been voting unanimously to ignore state laws requiring industrial developments assess and mitigate ground level air pollution and greenhouse gases.
Most impacted are the residents of Malaga, Calwa, Daleville, La Vina, Lanare, and a long list of other vulnerable communities.
These families already bear the brunt of industrial and agricultural air pollution, water contamination, and toxic emissions, but climate investments in high speed rail, dairy digesters, biomass plants, and more are resulting in even greater impacts.
Take high speed rail. Making and pouring concrete is one of the most greenhouse gas-intensive activities there is, and the greenest buildings are the ones already built. So due to HSR’s many years of construction and demolition, it will be decades before the greenhouse gases emitted now might possibly be offset by reduced passenger vehicle emissions.
Meanwhile, people living alongside the construction route throughout Fresno are inundated with dust and diesel when what they need are basic, electrified transit services which, importantly, would immediately reduce greenhouse gases and criteria pollutants alike.
Even worse impacts are being caused by the state’s headlong rush into biofuels of every type. Dairies are being subsidized to produce methane rather than avoid it. Wood is being ground, hauled, and burned in highly polluting biomass plants rather than being incorporated into soils, spread on dusty roads, or kept in solid form. Again, residents of vulnerable neighborhoods are being assaulted by increased pollution.
Our best hope is for the California delegation to return home from San Francisco – with a side trip through Fresno – with a newfound sense of urgency and commitment to funding a just transition. One that protects life rather than imperils it, prioritizes local jobs in clean energy, and results in a stable atmosphere as soon as humanly possible.
Kevin Hall has lived in Fresno since 1971, where he works as an air quality advocate and community organizer.