Q & A interview with Courage California’s Angela Chavez on Climate Justice

Alan Kandel: Angela, Courage California is the organization you represent. What is Courage California’s purpose and what is your role?

Angela Chavez: Courage California is a statewide multi-issue advocacy organization. We believe in a progressive, equitable, and representative California, powered by our people. By providing accessible digital tools, such as our California Voter Guide and Annual Courage Score, we work to unite and equip Californians to hold leaders accountable and take courageous action for change.  

I’m the Communications Director at Courage California, overseeing internal and external communications for our advocacy and educational efforts. I’m in charge of developing and disseminating our legislative, electoral, and issue-based messaging and working with partners around the state to develop effective local and statewide narratives on issues our members care about.

Last year we surveyed our membership, asking which issues are most important to them, and two-thirds said climate change and environmental justice.

AK: Climate change impacts everyone. There is no one who is in some way not affected by the impacts of a changing climate. Turning attention to environmental justice with regard to those living in disadvantaged communities, what makes people living in such communities especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, more so than what is typically the case with those not residing in these neighborhoods? Can you please speak to that?

AC: Communities on the frontlines of climate change – low-income communities and communities of color – are severely impacted because they are more likely to live in areas with oil wells, warehouses, and other sources of pollution; water, air, and land.

This year our sister organization, Courage California Institute (CCI), conducted statewide polling to learn about the diverse experiences and views Californians have with climate change and found that these frontline communities have a higher belief in climate change, have noticed the effects become more severe, and see the effects more broadly, especially in pollution and health.

Due to varying factors, Californians in these communities are more likely to hold jobs where they’d be exposed to the elements. For example, Latinx residents make up 39.4% of the California population, but make up 92% of farm workers here, according to the California Latino Legislative Caucus. They are more likely to experience heat stroke and other heat illnesses on the job, and with climate change, every summer gets hotter.

Lastly, frontline communities are rarely at the table when the decisions are made that impact them most, including when elected leaders approve harmful projects despite community objections and demands. Such communities don’t have the scale of resources that wealthier communities and corporations have, which impedes their ability to lobby at city halls, Sacramento, or D.C. to prevent harmful developments in their neighborhoods, secure funding to clean up toxic waste, or ensure that they can afford and access programs or products that can help them safeguard their homes or workplaces.

AK: How can the calculus be changed so that those populations that are marginalized become less so?

AC: Frontline communities should have the ultimate say in decisions that impact them. That means electing more leaders from these communities, elected leaders going into communities to work directly on their vision for environmental justice, and limiting the outsized influence of billion-dollar corporations whose bad actions leach into every part of our communities.

Policy-wise, it’s imperative that Californians defeat the oil and gas industry referendum on the 2024 general election ballot. If passed, the referendum would overturn the current ban on new oil and gas operations within 3,200 feet of neighborhoods and other sensitive areas. We must also put real worker protections in place for people whose jobs are more dangerous due to climate change and advocate for bills that invest in climate solutions in frontline communities and hold polluters accountable.

Courage California actively works across all these important areas of advocacy, endorsing environmental justice champions for office, developing our California Voter Guide so voters know who and what they are voting for in 2024, lobbying for critical climate and worker bills, and holding elected officials and corporations accountable. Some of our biggest campaigns have been with our members helping Amazon drivers fight for air conditioning in their vans, pushing for OSHA to have national heat standards for farm workers, and calling on state legislators and the Governor to pass and sign bills on corporate climate disclosures and divesting from fossil fuel companies.

AK: In a similar vein, regarding the unhoused-population situation, in what ways are the lives of the unhoused impacted differently? And what can be done to help lift at least some of the burdens that impact this one demographic off their collective shoulders, a segment that is often particularly hard hit? Can you speak to this?

AC: California has the largest unhoused population of any state, a staggering 172,000 adults and children – and climate is an emergency for them that requires immediate attention. Our state has seen record snows and freezing temperatures in the winter, floods in the spring, the hottest summer ever recorded, and the trend is expected to continue. Under these unprecedented conditions, our unhoused community members are especially vulnerable to the extreme elements and experience the negative impacts tenfold. Whether during freezing or record-high temperatures, those without housing and resources are exposed to the unforgiving elements, and lives threatened.

Some burden can be lifted by understanding the housing crisis is also a climate crisis, and addressing it as such, quickly. To start, our leaders must increase the availability of safe and long-term shelter for the unhoused and place restrictions on exploding rent prices so we don’t continue to increase the population of unhoused.

AK: What do people living in environmental justice (EJ) communities say they would like to see changed that would make their communities more resilient to climate-change’s effects?

AC: Californians want to see solutions that directly impact their daily quality of life. From the CCI poll, we know that translates to several approaches: investing in clean water infrastructure so they can drink safely from their taps, providing efficient and inexpensive public transportation, and punishing corporate polluters. Additionally, advocates have long demanded the closure and clean-up of toxic plants and oil drilling operations, and free and subsidized home and facility improvements so that the places they live, work, and gather are safe and comfortable with the deepening effects of climate change.

AK: Many in disadvantaged communities are at loss in terms of access to either an automobile or adequate public transportation. How may the playing field be better leveled so that such access to said folk can be improved?

AC: People are living further and further from where they work, and our transportation systems are outdated and unaffordable. We need to expand public transportation, focus funding on electric vehicles and charging stations in lower-income communities, and build an affordable statewide infrastructure for people to quickly and easily use electricity that is not sourced from companies responsible for wildfires and blackouts.

AK: Even within EJ communities there is considerable disparity. What does that disparity consist of or look like, what demographic is the most impacted and what will it take to help ease those limiting conditions that hinder improvement?

AC: Polling shows a considerable demographic disparity among those who feel impacted by climate change and how they feel impacted. More people of color have noticed the effects of climate change become more severe – 88% of Asians, 80% of Black respondents, 79% of Latinx – compared to just 66% of Whites. Black voters see the greatest effects in health (32%) and Latinxs in pollution (28%), as do residents of the Inland region, where we’ve seen rapid expansion of warehouses. Legislators need to prioritize the communities affected the most.

AK: With regard to the numbers, can you break it down further?

AC: In addition to racial disparities, there is also a notable difference in how climate change is perceived by gender (81% of women vs. 66% of men) and by political leanings (37% of conservatives vs. 97% of progressives vs. 75% of voters who don’t think of themselves in terms of political ideology) – in terms of who notices the increasing severity of climate change.

AK: What else is there about the area of EJ that you would like readers to know or understand that maybe was not discussed in this question-and-answer exchange?

AC: The results emphasize how important it is that we approach climate change with a holistic framework that includes economic justice and the right to basic needs like clean and safe water, shelter, and health care. Climate change is still too often framed from a lens that takes these basic needs for granted and focuses on solutions that don’t serve the most urgent and immediate environmental needs of frontline communities. We must be more visionary in our environmental justice work and bring more communities together to address climate change at the scale we need now.

One of Courage California’s primary initiatives is to educate and build capacity throughout the state. Through raising awareness and empowering all Californians, we can do our part to unite voters to vote for real change!

AK: Finally, gender or socio-economic status notwithstanding, what can people do to learn more?

AC: People can learn about California’s legislative, electoral, and court processes by following our blog at https://couragecaliforniainstitute.org/blog/and our advocacy work at https://couragecalifornia.org/.

Source: “Environmental Justice Q & A with Courage California’s Angela Chavez,” conducted by Alan Kandel and posted on Oct. 25, 2023 at The Daily Kos.

Update: Oct. 27, 2023 at 3:42 p.m. PDT.

Corresponding, connected home-page-featured image: Collection of Alan Kandel