Let’s talk climate justice: Oregon vs California

By Stephanie Kaza

Last year the Oregon legislature took up, but did not pass, a comprehensive bill to cut carbon emissions and support a clean energy future for the state.  It’s likely to be on the docket for 2017 as well.

The Oregon Healthy Climate Bill included provisions for climate equity and was based on a model used in California.  It turns out that model may not work as well here in Oregon.

Climate equity or climate justice addresses the so-called “climate gap” – the obvious fact that not all people will feel the same impacts from climate change. People of color, low-income households, seniors, and children tend to face the greatest climate insecurity.

Urban seniors, for example, are less likely to have air conditioning relief during summer heat waves. Low-income people have fewer options for choice of housing and transportation, leaving them vulnerable to flooding, fire or stranding.

A policy that cuts carbon emissions without addressing the climate gap may only add to existing disparities. Oregon, like California, is looking for a way to both cut pollution and address inequities.

California has figured out that the communities most likely to suffer climate impact are those where poverty, people of color, and pollution overlap.  They have worked out a systematic approach to collecting climate pollution fees and distributing 25% of that revenue to the areas most impacted for new transit projects, affordable housing, and other pollution reduction projects.

Oregon’s Healthy Climate bill attempted to set up a similar system, but it turns out that poverty, populations of color, and carbon pollution do not overlap quite so clearly in our state.

We can’t simply identify the top 25% of Oregon census tracts with these traits as California did; people of color and low-income people are too widely distributed across the whole state. That is problem #1 with the California approach for Oregon.

Problem #2 is equally tough. The Oregon constitution requires that revenue from a climate pollution fee (or a cap and trade program) be deposited in the Highway Trust Fund.

According to the Oregon Supreme Court, this means such funds can only be spent on roads.  Projects such as affordable housing, electric vehicles, bike shares, tree planting – all of which could reduce carbon pollution – would not be eligible for funding.

In a recent report, the Sightline Institute, a top sustainability research center in Seattle, suggested another approach for Oregon, given these challenges. They call it a “home grown approach” which would allow us to be more creative in distributing the carbon pollution revenues.

The basic idea is to send the collected funds to cities and counties for local allocation and then require community oversight in decision-making.  This would permit spending on such needed things as neighborhood road maintenance and “complete streets” that are safe and accessible to all users.

One way to pursue this in 2017 would be through a statewide transportation investment package.  Legislators are under pressure to pass a bill next year that includes a state gas tax increase in order to cover basic state needs.

Since this topic will be a highlight in the next legislative session, it offers a potent opportunity to develop creative solutions to address the glaring climate gap in our state.

We will be keeping a close eye on these legislative developments as part of the “Let’s Talk Climate” series in January-April 2017.

For more information, see letstalkclimatepdx.org/p/about.html or ask to join the mailing list at contact@letstalkclimatepdx.org.

Stephanie Kaza is professor emerita of University of Vermont where she taught for 24 years and most recently served as Director of the Environmental Program. A native Portlander, she has returned home to add her voice to local climate and sustainability actions.

Let’s talk climate justice: Oregon vs California

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