On Thursday, December 17th, 2020, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors voted 3–1 to declare a climate emergency. Supervisors Kennedy, Serna, and Nottoli voted in favor of the resolution. Supervisor Frost voted against, with Supervisor Peters decidedly absent. This declaration commits the county to a goal of complete carbon neutrality, or net zero greenhouse gas emissions, by 2030. It follows the actions of the Sacramento City Council, which voted unanimously to declare a climate emergency in November of 2019, and the SMUD Board, which voted in July to commit to eliminating its reliance on fossil fuels by 2030.
According to the declaration, “Sacramento County is at risk of experiencing the devastating effects of extreme heat and weather events caused by rising atmospheric greenhouse gasses.” These effects include, “Increased frequency and magnitude of wildfires and associated air pollution… economic disruption, property loss, dislocation, housing shortages, food insecurity, gaps in education due to school closures,” and, “increased risk of floods.” The declaration goes on to say that because of this, “The Board of Supervisors of the County of Sacramento does hereby declare climate change an emergency requiring urgent and immediate mobilization.”
The resolution passed on Thursday does three major things in addition to its declaration of emergency. First, it directs county staff to immediately begin determining how the county could become carbon neutral by 2030. It states that the county’s Climate Action Plan, which it is expected to unveil in 2021, will further explain how the county expects to get to carbon neutrality by 2030.
Second, it commits the county to engaging locally, working with other jurisdictions and organizations in Sacramento County, and doing further community outreach around the subject of greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, the declaration provides for the creation of “a permanent Climate Emergency Mobilization Task Force.” This task force will be composed of scientists and members of academia who are well-versed in climate change adaptation measures. They will oversee the county’s climate action planning process and advise it on actions to take in order to mitigate climate change.
At the Board Meeting on Thursday, County Supervisors heard from local advocates and community organizers calling for bold action to stop climate change. “Your job is to protect our lives, our futures, and our one Earth. Saying yes to the climate emergency declaration is taking a large step in protecting the people of Sacramento County,” said one Sacramento resident, a senior at CK McClatchy High School.
The declaration also received substantial support from medical personnel, a pertinent group given the Coronavirus pandemic we are currently living through. Dr. Harry Wong, President of the Sacramento chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility stated, “We enthusiastically support the climate emergency declaration with the  date.”
Supervisor Patrick Kennedy, in support of the declaration, remarked that, “There were some that thought that the goal of 2030 carbon neutrality was a little aggressive. I don’t agree.” Supervisor Phil Serna said, “This is really about doing what’s necessary to protect the planet, protect ourselves, protect the future of our children and their children and future generations.”
Supervisor Frost, in voting against the declaration of emergency, took issue with the financial commitment involved in transitioning to carbon neutrality by 2030. “We cannot ignore that we already have more commitments than revenues, and we cannot afford to act as though we aren’t already balancing our budget on a razor’s edge.” Recent estimates of the cost in lost tax revenue from ignoring the impacts of climate change show that ignoring the issue will cost far more in the long run than acting to prevent it now.
Further, the county has drawn recent criticism for allocating the majority of CARES Act funds meant to respond to the Coronavirus pandemic to the County Sheriff’s Office.
Access Local interviewed Chris Brown, a member of the Steering Committee of the Sacramento Climate Coalition, after the resolution was passed. Please note, the interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What does this declaration mean? What impact will it have on the Sacramento area now that all three major jurisdictions within the county that are responsible for climate emissions have declared a climate emergency and committed to carbon neutrality by 2030?
Well, I think it’s really important because they really do represent the bulk of the population. SMUD, obviously, serves everybody within Sacramento and has the direct responsibility for the five natural gas plants, but also runs a lot of key programs to help people electrify and get off using natural gas in their homes and businesses. But that won’t be enough because there’s a lot of other activities that we do—driving cars, for example—that also emit a lot of carbon.
Transportation is actually the highest emissions source within the region. Having the city and the unincorporated county together will be really important in moving us towards carbon free or really low carbon forms of transportation and programs that will help people deal with the upcoming challenges. I mean, we’re going to continue to get hotter year after year and it’s going to be important that we have things like, you know, food access in neighborhoods that already have a hard time getting food. This would mean programs that basically enable local urban and what they call peri-urban or suburban farmers—farmers that are right on the edge of town—to supply the food, because that’s the lowest carbon food that we have. Also, if they’re farming using regenerative techniques—and the County’s declaration specifically calls for support for that—then they can put carbon back in the soil.
That’s part of the solution. So together, I think we really have the ingredients here. Each one of these declarations commits to working with other local jurisdictions to build something that will be, really, an example for communities around this country and potentially around the world about what it’s going to take in order to move off of fossil fuels.
What’s next for advocates such as yourself? Where do you anticipate groups like The Climate Coalition focusing their efforts to make sure that these policies are passed?
So, in terms of the next steps, we’re going to be having meetings in January to strategize around this, but some of the challenges in front of us are the speed at which the transition happens. You know, with a 10-year goal, you can do some important things in the early years that save a lot of emissions or you can save them for the latter part. Sometimes, you know, agencies may be tempted to wait because it’s a harder step, but we’ll be pushing for them to do the steps that save the most carbon sooner. That’s going to be some heavy lifting, to get people to understand that keeping the emissions out of the atmosphere means you don’t have to go back later and repair the damage that’s been done. That’s not a typical orientation for a lot of these agencies. They typically go after low-hanging fruit first. So that’s going to be part of the challenge.
Another part of the challenge is determining how to work with agency staff to make sure that they’re engaging the community. We already have thousands of people in Sacramento—just as there are millions of people around the world—that are already suffering from climate change. The heat and the air pollution disproportionately affect people in disadvantaged communities. The two power plants that SMUD operates inside the urban core are in those disadvantaged neighborhoods. They have higher rates of asthma, they have higher rates of heart disease, which of course is related to air pollution. That’s going to be a huge part of our work in the next year is to make sure that those communities that are already suffering are prioritized in terms of adaptation strategies. We had a record heatwave this summer. It’s not going to be the last one.
So there’s a lot of moving pieces here in terms of engaging people in planning and taking responsibility for the future. We have people who are concerned about the landscape. We have people who are concerned about air pollution. People who are concerned about resiliency hubs. There’s a lot of moving parts here and as we develop a strategy and work with these local governments, we’re looking for opportunities where we see real willingness to engage with the complexity of this.
Could you explain why environmental justice is so important and what the task force will be used to do?
Yeah. So, what we hope the task force is used to do is to engage with things that typical planning processes don’t do. For example, there’s this climate action planning process that the state oversees once every five years. Well, we can’t wait five years. There’s a lot of activities that can be done in the near term and need to be done every year. The Climate Emergency Mobilization Task Force is a really important structure because it will allow for ongoing interaction with the community and ongoing program delivery.
In terms of environmental justice, as I’ve mentioned before, there are communities already being impacted by climate change, and they’re dominated by People of Color, because of the historic racism in our system. People were forced to buy homes in certain neighborhoods and weren’t allowed to buy homes in other neighborhoods, and, lo and behold, the neighborhoods with trees and with lots of shade are not neighborhoods where Black and Brown people were allowed to buy houses. They’re closer to industrial areas, they’re closer to the two power plants and Procter & Gamble, they have more diesel trucks and train tracks run through these neighborhoods. So the minorities which live in these neighborhoods are exposed to diesel pollution in addition to other air pollution.
And so, part of it is how do we change our systems so that we begin to deal with those problems on the front end, not wait and deal with them later. For example, very specifically, there’s already technology built—semi-trucks and buses that do not emit carbon and PM 2.5, the particulate matter that comes from diesel soot—and yet, the traditional way of looking at these things has been, ‘we’ll use the market and we’ll sell a lot of individual family EVs and then that will eventually lead in the right direction.’ Well, that’s not going to help with environmental justice. We need to switch the big motors that do the most polluting, like buses and trucks, faster. So, those are the kinds of policies where environmental justice has a direct impact.
One other example of an issue involving environmental justice in Sacramento is with SMUD and their electrification programs. They need to design their programs so they can be delivered to people who are renters and not just homeowners. In most of the programs, the first question they ask you is, “Do you own your own home?” And if you don’t own your own home, they don’t even talk to you anymore. And yet so many of the people in these disadvantaged communities are renters. We have to have programs that help them out too.
Do you think you could address how the climate emergency affects health, and how it’s tied into the COVID-19 pandemic?
It’s tied into the pandemic in three ways. The first two are a little bit more obvious. COVID-19 has had a much bigger impact on People of Color and low-income people because, of course, they’re sensitive to air pollution. They already have diseases like asthma or heart disease that are more sensitive to air pollution. Turns out COVID has a bigger impact on those folks because it attacks the lungs.
In terms of the response, we’ve just seen—and you know, there’s pluses and minuses here—the impacts of COVID in terms of people’s behavior. Calls for people to work from home really did show a noticeable drop in carbon emissions, when people learned how to not commute. Some of those savings are still there, but over time people have reverted back to just using their car. So we see that, oh, it’s not enough to get people to do something one time. You have to keep repeating that messaging. And look at what happened with COVID because people got tired of the emergency response. We have much higher levels of COVID now, because people have gone back to behaviors that they were used to and they’re not being cautious anymore. They’re not being safe. So we’re seeing a resurgence and much worse numbers of COVID.
And then the third one. This was a discussion that we had with supervisor Kennedy which was really interesting. One of the members of the Physicians for Social Responsibility group is a psychologist. There is a mental health impact, both of climate change and COVID-19. Climate change in terms of the threat to humanity and the threat to the environment, you know, people have to live with that every day. This is something that psychologists and other mental health professionals have already noted—that, you know, younger people are more affected by depression now. But they’re also affected by things like the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions—being isolated in your home and not being able to associate in the community has negative impacts as well.
As part of our process moving forward, we need to figure out ways to build community and to build that sense of connection that we need as human beings in order to be mentally healthy and resilient. We’ve already seen the heat waves and the wildfires. We need to develop skills and the facility to respond to danger in a way that is supportive of each other and supportive of our future.
If people wanted to get involved in some of the organizing that’s happening in the county or the city, who should they get in contact with? Where should they go?
The resolution was supported by the Sacramento Climate Coalition, Sierra Club Sacramento Group, Environmental Council of Sacramento, Physicians for Social Responsibility Sacramento Chapter, Sunrise Movement Sacramento, Fridays For Future Sacramento, and the Sacramento Citizens’ Climate Lobby.