California Keeps Climate Action Alive
Learn more about NRDC’s response to COVID-19.
Just as Earth Day turned 50 this year, so does NRDC. Here in California, we have come full circle. From the past—the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill spurred the modern-day environmental movement, and to the future—California’s climate, equity, environmental and public health programs are national models that lead the way.
I’ve had the good fortune to work here for close to 40 of those years and I’ve seen our organization grow and change to adapt to emerging issues, new science, changing political conditions and more. Today, as we all focus on protecting public health and soon, to rebuilding a healthy sustainable economy, NRDC’s work during the COVID-19 pandemic is multifaceted, focusing on both the public health dimensions of the crisis as well as continuing work on issues exacerbated by both the crisis and governmental actions taken in response.
Here in California, we’re working on several fronts, with an overarching goal of making sure the needs of the most vulnerable communities are addressed. Here’s an update on progress we’re seeing.
Restoring utility access
As job losses mount, many California residents are having trouble paying their bills, threatening their access to safe, clean water and electricity. NRDC joined a number of other conservation and environmental justice groups in calling for a moratorium on utility shutoffs and service restoration for those already affected.
We were heartened when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that water service would not be cut to residents during this crisis, and that service would be restored to those who had it cut off for lack of payment since the statewide emergency was announced on March 4.
“People are under enormous pressure economically and the last thing they need to worry about now is not having access to water,” my colleague Steve Fleischli, told the Los Angeles Times.
This order should also discourage people from hoarding bottled water, which is important since people in some communities with unsafe tap water need to be able to buy bottled water.
We’re working with a broad coalition, Energy Efficiency for All (EEFA), which released a Pandemic Response Guidance for local and state policymakers to help protect vulnerable workers, expand access to Internet and phone services, and protect residents from utility shutoffs, evictions and other denials of essential services.
Fighting efforts to weaken or suspend clean air and clean water rules
NRDC is fighting federal environmental rollbacks every day. We’ve filed over 100 lawsuits against the Trump Administration’s misguided proposals and have won over 90% of those resolved so far. We’re working with the State of California and others to defend federal mileage standards, based, in large part, on California’s pathbreaking clean car law AB 1493 (Pavley, 2002).
Meanwhile, here in California, some of the state’s largest polluters are trying to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to weaken clean air and clean water rules that protect public health. Industry groups and their friends in the legislature have asked California officials to delay or modify environmental rules because of the economic strain caused by the pandemic response.
Giving into these demands would be a deadly mistake that would harm California’s most vulnerable residents. Increased air pollution, especially, could worsen the impact of COVID-19, as my colleague Ann Alexander explained in her recent blog, followed up by a letter from NRDC's Climate and Clean Energy team to the California Air Resources Board urging members to preserve environmental regulations and continue working on protective rules.
“As our healthcare system strains in response to COVID-19, CARB regulations that improve public health are essential,” she wrote. “Moreover, air pollution disproportionately harms the most vulnerable among us, including children, seniors, low-income communities, and communities of color. Many of these communities are also disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.” And we joined others calling on the State to ignore calls to weaken water quality rules.
Cal-EPA reaffirmed its commitment last week to maintaining existing environmental and public health regulations, with some case by case analysis.
Mass layoffs and other economic disruptions in the wake of the pandemic are drastically increasing the number of people at risk of homelessness. This is especially true in California, which was coping with a homelessness crisis and a severe housing shortage before COVID-19 became an issue.
NRDC and our partners have consistently supported planning efforts, policy changes and legislation that facilitate higher density housing (especially affordable housing) near transit as an essential strategy for cities to meet climate change goals by reducing building and transportation emissions.
As the pandemic strikes hardest in densely populated cities, we must also guard against taking the wrong lessons from the pandemic. This virus may spread more readily in areas of dense population, but such density also helps strengthen a community’s resilience and ability to respond to many different kinds of stressors, including public health emergencies.
California’s public transportation system has taken a huge hit from the COVID-19 pandemic. Ridership has plummeted with so many residents forced to stay home—and even essential workers are avoiding public transit out of fear. The result has been a 90 percent decline in some areas.
We’ve been urging state government to work both to shore up the transit system’s current finances and to be thinking about long-term strategies to ensure the system can do as much as possible to help California rebuild its economy when the epidemic has passed. As our economy recovers, we’ll need accessible and safe transit options to get people back to work and school.
Ensuring Public Health and Safety
For NRDC, part of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic is ensuring that still-important priorities don’t fall under the radar. One of those priorities is protecting California residents from the health impacts of oil drilling. AB 345 by Assembly Member Muratsuchi would direct the state to require buffer zones to ensure safe distances between homes and schools and oil and gas drilling activities. We’re also keeping an eye on the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) as it works under Gov. Newsom’s direction to establish rules that do more to protect the more than 5 million Californians who live near oil and gas drilling sites.
Constitutionally, the state budget must be passed by June 15. Even in the midst of the ongoing emergency, NRDC will be working to protect programs that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution—including funding for electric vehicles, wildfire prevention, and energy efficiency and weatherization for low-income homes. We’ll work to ensure that the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund continues to support community, climate-friendly projects across California.
Ensuring Public Participation
As the legislature and state administration adapt to remote work, NRDC is adapting new advocacy tools as well to enhance our remote communications—we will start video conferencing with legislators and staff, hosting webinars for our members and increasing the digital tools we already use—action alerts, social media, calls, etc.
It may not always feel like it, but we will get through this. The pandemic will end. We will be able to mourn the lost and begin working towards a semblance of normalcy. But the economic recovery won’t be easy. Millions of Americans will have suffered through months of unemployment—with the most vulnerable workers often hurt the worst. They’ll be digging themselves out of deep financial holes, as will state and local governments.
We are urging policymakers to enact policies that will help ensure the recovery is just and equitable and includes investments that will create broad economic prosperity while also helping deal with the other major public health crisis we face: climate change.
As historically damaging as this pandemic is, climate change has the potential to be far worse if we don’t make significant progress eliminating greenhouse gas emissions in the next few years. We will embrace and promote solutions that will lead to clean energy and healthier communities.
Clean energy is the fastest-growing jobs sector and powering that economic engine will be one of the best ways to speed the nation’s economic recovery. Governments can do that by expanding clean energy incentives for solar, wind, energy efficiency and electric vehicles; help utilities upgrade and modernize the energy grid; increase job training funding for clean energy jobs; and boost electric vehicle infrastructure.
The road ahead requires us to work together more than ever, to have each other’s back, to listen and learn—to (re)build a better tomorrow.