Since I’ve finished writing this post, another climate change-fueled disaster has struck: Hurricane Laura. Our hearts go out to the people of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the Gulf Coast. We will not stop working for accountability and a just recovery for survivors of climate disasters from coast to coast.
About 10 days ago, I got a wake-up call. I heard a sharp crack in the middle of the night. My body tensed as I processed what was happening: A once-in-a-decade freak lightning storm. Thousands of lightning strikes ignited the dried grasses and brush left by our state’s historically dry winter, and its historically hot spring and summer. More than 600 fires have since erupted across my state. The climate crisis is at my front door.
As I write this, Californians are mourning the loss of loved ones, homes, and the ability to go outside without having to breathe unhealthy, smoky, air. We’ve been anxiously checking our to-go bags and wondering which way to evacuate when there are fires in every direction. The most marginalized among us have been wholly unable to escape the fire’s impacts, like the farmworkers still picking lettuce and strawberries under fiery skies, and the incarcerated people left behind in evacuation zones.
If any good can come from this fire season, let it be that it serves as a wake-up call for our politicians. We must end the cycle of putting fossil fuel interests before public health and safety — right here, and right now. As the world’s fifth-largest economy, California can set the standard for environmental policies across the country. If we sharply reduce emissions, we show the rest of the US what’s possible.
Our politicians have ignored previous wake-up calls. In the two years since the Camp Fire incinerated the town of Paradise, Governor Newsom has issued thousands of oil and gas drilling permits. Just since lifting a moratorium on fracking in April, he’s granted 48 new fracking permits. Every single new permit perpetuates the growth of the fossil fuel economy, and makes the climate crisis worse. Every single new permit plays a part in making California’s normal fire season longer, fiercer, and more damaging.
Newsom is far from solely responsible for our state’s environmental policies; our state legislature also plays a critical role. Some of its members continue to take money from fossil fuel interests and place the wishes of oil and gas companies over the needs of the people they’re in office to serve.
Earlier this month, the state senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water voted down AB 345, a bill that would have allowed California to consider instituting 2,500-foot setbacks between oil and gas drilling and the places where people live, work, and play. Those setbacks would help protect the people who live near oil and gas drilling — who are overwhelmingly people of color — from its health impacts, which include premature births, asthma, and cancer.
State senators didn’t just kill the bill. They did their best to ignore the wake-up call environmental justice advocates and concerned Californians had come to deliver. They lavished speaking time on industry and the building trades unions who back it, while denying dozens of Spanish-speaking callers the chance to talk about their support of a rule that would protect their communities. Senator Bob Hertzberg even belittled and attacked environmental justice advocate Katie Valenzuela.
But as people who care about the future of this planet, we need to continue to use our voices to amplify nature’s wake-up calls. We can’t let ourselves be silenced, because there are so many forks in the road between here and climate catastrophe, so many opportunities to reduce emissions while improving public health, creating good jobs, and increasing access to delicious, healthy food.
For example, the California Energy Commission is in the process of revising its statewide building code. To date, it has yet to issue a strong ruling mandating that all new buildings be powered only by electricity. All-electric new construction would reduce the health impacts of the poor air quality caused by using gas for cooking and heating — and attack one of our state’s largest emissions sources as its root.
We have to demand that the Energy Commission take the right fork in this road, and make a definitive break with the practice of putting fossil fuel interests before health and safety. Because until every agency official and every politician does so, we won’t even get commonsense, bare-minimum protections like oil and gas setbacks. We certainly won’t get a just transition away from fossil fuels that protects workers and communities. All we’ll get is more droughts, more heat waves, and more deadly fires. That’s why I hope you’ll join the Sierra Club in holding them accountable to preserving the things we love most — our homes, our communities, and our wild places — instead of the fossil fuel economy that powers their campaigns, and this crisis.