Heat waves, which will worsen with climate change, make the San Francisco skyline foggy.
Photo: AP

California is officially going to start targeting systemic racism, discrimination, and injustice as it addresses climate change.

The state has been releasing climate change assessments roughly every three years since 2006 that lay out potential impacts from climate change and how it should respond. California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment, released Monday, includes sections on climate justice and tribal and indigenous communities for the very first time. This addition will, in theory, help the state better prepare its most vulnerable communities for the impacts of climate change. That includes low-income communities, communities of color, and Native American tribes.

Advertisement

Measuring vulnerability to climate change can be a bit subjective. It requires taking a look at the stresses people already face—especially around public health—and how the changing climate could worsen them. The state laid out some factors, including economic status, pollution levels, tree coverage, and history, that policy-makers can use to help determine what places are among the most vulnerable.

For tribal and indigenous peoples, in particular, history has a lot to do with the climate change impacts they face. The report states:

Prior to European contact, tribes were the land managers of North America. Tribes used a wide array of techniques to maintain an environment capable of supporting large, thriving human populations. These practices varied from tribe to tribe, but generally focused on ecosystem interconnectivity, respecting the carrying capacity of land, and viewing humans as an integral part of the environment. Much of that interconnectedness has been lost, and few tribal members are able to engage in their cultural traditions as a livelihood today.

Advertisement

Now, tribes are limited to reservations, which makes it difficult for them to relocate if global warming makes their land uninhabitable. That process can take years and sometimes even decades.

Non-indigenous communities will struggle with this global crisis in other ways. The greatest threat to human life from climate change in California is heat, according to the report. Mortality due to heat is expected to increase, especially for agricultural workers, rural communities far from hospitals, areas that lack public cooling centers, and families that can’t afford air conditioning.

With this potential reality in mind, the state has launched Cal-Heat, a tool that’ll help inform health departments when the temperature is too damn high so they can properly warn relevant regions. In addition to dehydrating people and sometimes causing heat stroke, the heat can increase ozone levels as the sunlight and emissions from power plants or vehicles chemically react. For places where pollution is already a problem, this is bad news.

Advertisement

While California deserves a pat on the back for highlighting all the ways climate change is set to fuck over poor and non-white communities, acknowledgment isn’t enough. That’s why this year’s assessment includes suggestions on how to further study the matter. Though this assessment included 44 new peer-reviewed studies, researchers still have work to do if the state wants to help marginalized populations adapt.

Future research is set to include mapping tools and traditional ecological knowledge. Indigenous people have held customs that allowed them to live harmoniously with their environment, and researchers are finally starting to take these traditions seriously. California plans to work closely with tribes to support them in leading this important work.

Ultimately, these climate assessments are supposed to help inform state agencies tasked with crafting policy and programs. There’s hope that this year’s assessment will guide the implementation of  AB 2800, a bill passed in 2016 that requires agencies to consider climate change as they operate, maintain, and plan infrastructure projects.

Advertisement

Advocates in the climate justice space have long criticized Governor Jerry Brown’s disregard for communities of color and the state’s consumption of fossil fuels, whose production in California often takes place in the backyards of black and brown families. Brown’s also been a champion on renewables, but many have argued he’s ignored the communities suffering at the hands of Big Oil.

It seems like state leaders have been listening. Earlier this year, California launched a Bureau of Environmental Justice. The assessment’s newfound attention on climate justice is another step in the right direction. Climate change is coming, and all people need to be ready.