By Shayda Azamian
On a winter’s night in 2019, with bowls of pozole in hand, Fresno residents met to talk about a deathly quiet topic within the Fresno government: climate change.
Spanish and English speakers, hearing-impaired individuals, farmworkers, residents of disadvantaged communities and environmental advocates gathered with an urgent, powerful motivation. They wanted to change how local agencies consider and adapt to climate change to protect the most impacted Fresnans from its health impacts.
The resounding agreement from the gathering and those that followed was that local policymakers have not protected residents from the negative consequences of climate change, and the lack of investment in some south Fresno neighborhoods has made these climate impacts worse.
“The problems are growing…More kids are having more asthma, more allergies, physical activity is decreasing because parents are scared of all the pollution that is around them,” one resident shared.
Another resident shared, “The air needs to be clean. There are many chemicals in the air, we need clean air. They need to plant trees. We feel suffocated in our area.”
Residents also questioned why there are more polluting factories in south Fresno, but more parks, maintained roads and bike trails in other areas of Fresno.
The unfair reality lived by Fresno residents is compounded by climate-related health impacts in south Fresno. What the residents shared in the gatherings begs all policymakers to acknowledge what is clear: that injustice to one community is an injustice to all Fresno communities. It’s no different when it comes to climate change.
These gatherings were organized by partners such as the Leadership Counsel, Building Healthy Communities, the Central Valley Health Policy Institute, the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition and the Central California Environmental Justice Collaborative,
The way residents of south Fresno see it, climate change in the San Joaquin Valley surrounds them every day. It’s in the polluted air we breathe and the depleting water we drink. Equally, rising energy costs, longer and higher exposure to extreme heat, and lasting smoke periods are a few ways our climate has been sounding the alarm for years now due to human behavior.
Existing public health disparities have become much greater threats for residents under these circumstances.
Healthy land use, transitioning to a sustainable local economy and expanding climate-responsive health services have arisen as priorities for community residents due to the interrelated health and climate impacts of air pollution in Fresno, and specifically in communities like south Fresno.
Community members have shared repeatedly over the years their significant experience with asthma and respiratory disease, mental and physical health impacts, lack of green spaces and active transportation—all health impacts stemming from a failure to invest in the resilience of the most burdened communities and start adapting the city to climate change seriously.
But with a changing climate, there has also come a steady, growing awareness among residents of the power they have to influence how we respond. It signals a yearning to flip the page on an era of inaction by those in charge.
Greater Coordination Needed
All too often, we see how one agency’s harmful policies become the burden of the community and a problem for a different agency to solve. The disproportionate and chart-topping air pollution in overburdened communities should have been a sign long ago that we’ve been headed in the wrong direction. This is best witnessed in the harmful, polluting land-use decisions that contribute to serious community health and climate impacts.
The latest extension given to the Valley Air District to continue the toxic practice of ag burning in the Central Valley is an example of how agencies have kept pollution alive while claiming to be preventing it.
Last month, the California Air Resources Board heard from countless residents who stood up against the polluting and unsustainable practice. Despite that, ag burning was extended until 2025 without any greater health-protective measures. Not a week later, residents in Madera County reported smoke in their communities. Former vineyards were on fire. It was all allowed by the Air District.
Envisioning a Different Future in the Valley
As one way to help envision and forge a new path to sustainable land use in the Valley, the Leadership Counsel supports a resident-based group that has begun discussing the sustainable agricultural practices that are needed in the region. In addition to agricultural burning, toxic pesticide emissions and pollution from dairy digesters are top issues that community members want to remove from the Central Valley.
Residents say the way land is used in the Valley has to change. How can we rely on our land and natural resources to keep us healthy when industrial practices continue to cause widespread, lethal health impacts?
To a greater and greater scale, we must reimagine how our society can better care for the land and air that has given us so much so that they can continue to sustain our communities and all future generations.
The need is high to transition to sustainable practices that value human well-being over profit. That time must be now.
Resident leaders have been at the forefront of creating reimagined, integral practices to support a truly just society in Fresno and beyond. Now, the call is upon governments in the Valley to act according to the urgent realities and pervasive injustice of their regions.
Shayda Azamian is the Climate Programs coordinator at the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.