By Kevin Hall
Islands around the world are often held up as microcosms of unchecked climate change’s disastrous effects. From Puerto Rico and Easter Island, to archipelagos throughout the South Pacific and Indian Ocean, these isolated areas are sounding loud alarms about our potentially devastating future.
But where they fall short as reliable augurs is their lack of industrial development. None of these islands is a major source of carbon dioxide, methane or other greenhouse gas. If anything, they are all innocent victims.
What’s needed for a complete metaphor is a place in the industrialized North, from a nation that bears a grossly disproportionate share of responsibility for climate change, one with the resources to dramatically reduce its carbon footprint and respond effectively to the already occurring environmental and societal disruptions.
The San Joaquin Valley of inland California is one such place. The 250-mile-long region has it all: large oil fields, industrial export-agriculture, natural gas power plants, unchecked sprawl, malleable politicians, powerful corporate interests, extreme poverty, refugees, forest die-off, wildfires, droughts, floods and massive public investments being made in the attempt to create a sustainable future.
Like the planet, the Valley has its own contained, contaminated atmosphere. To reduce ground-level air pollution, the sources of which are nearly identical to those of greenhouse gases, the Valley has a system of multiple local governments unified into a regional agency charged with cleaning the air for the more than 4 million people inhabiting our mountain-ringed micro-planet.
Ultimately, Valley residents’ prospects for healthy air are directly tied to cap-and-trade, a pay-to-pollute approach to lowering pollution in a “business-friendly” manner that relies on a market-based trading system for the earning, buying and selling of pollution credits. Ditto for greenhouse gas reductions because this is the same method California, other states and countries around the planet are banking our future on.
But for all its theoretical merit, at best the system works slowly and often not at all. As baseball’s Yogi Berra once said, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.” For the San Joaquin Valley, in practice the system has led to three decades of delay and failure to achieve even a single health-based standard for clean air. (The air district claims one.)
There are several related reasons for the failure of cap-and-trade, primarily politics, but it raises the ultimate question, can “the market” act fast enough to save the planet in ways it has not saved the Valley?
The hundreds of millions of dollars currently being generated annually by cap-and-trade revenues in California are being distributed through more than a dozen separate state-run funding programs. Designed to be spent on GHG-reducing projects, the state’s priorities reflect a decision-making process dominated by private interests and finger-to-the-wind politicians.
Perhaps no part of the Valley better demonstrates the dysfunctional results of the resulting spending priorities than the intersection of high-speed rail (HSR) and Highway 99. Found on the south side of Fresno near where the cross-topped Orange Avenue Dump’s shuttered landfill rises like a giant burial mound in mute testament to our deadly levels of consumerism, the spot where HSR will soon span the freeway is a crossroads of disaster.
Of the state’s cap-and-trade funds, $100 million per year go directly to the bullet train, but it will be decades¾if ever¾before the project erases the deep carbon debt it is creating during construction. In other words, of the money meant to reduce greenhouse gases, $100 million a year is being spent on a project that increases every type of air pollution rather than reducing them and will do so for years to come.
Living in the shadow of the rising superstructure are thousands of low-income residents, people who work in the fields and warehouses of this area where the city’s industrialized southside meets the countryside’s first orchards and vineyards. Living in these houses, apartments and trailer parks are people who have fled natural and man-made disasters in their home countries of Mexico, Central America and around the world, or whose parents and grandparents fled the South and Dust Bowl states for very similar reasons of terrorism and environmental collapse.
Immediately alongside the intersection of HSR and Highway 99 are a pair of wood-chipping operations. Their yards stacked high with slash and logs from decimated forests of the Sierra Nevada, the businesses are grinding wood to be burnt in the nearby Rio Bravo biomass energy plant, a gross polluter in the heart of Malaga. All thanks to a $5 million cap-and-trade subsidy from Governor Jerry Brown resulting in, again, much more pollution for the most vulnerable people in the Valley.
This area really has it all, including a symbol of hope for the future. Despite living in neighborhoods with the state’s worst levels of environmental and economic impacts, residents won a significant victory last year when they wrested $30 million away from Brown’s preferred projects near the downtown rail station and redirected it to West Fresno. They continue to organize and fight the city’s attempt to approve massive new industrial developments without evaluating impacts to human health and the environment.
Likewise, climate activists are preparing worldwide for actions this Sept. 8 with the Rise for Climate Jobs and Justice campaign (ca.riseforclimate.org), including a huge march in downtown San Francisco being held in advance of the Global Action Climate Summit the following week. Progressives are calling for 80% of all known fossil fuel reserves to stay in the ground, while the other side is counting on the deadly brew of cap-and-trade and free trade to do the job.
A quick trip to Fresno would help anyone see the fallacy of the latter approach.
Kevin Hall is the host of Climate Politics, airing on the fourth Friday of every month, 5 p.m.–6 p.m., on KFCF 88.1 FM, and the content director of Valley Climate, advocates for government transparency and accountability. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.