In summary

The Legislature is hammering out exactly how it will allocate $3.65 billion budgeted for climate resilience, but measures on the table involve investments in projects to protect wildlife, fish and natural lands, dwarfing those needed to protect people and human health.

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By Nancy L. Cohen, Special to CalMatters

Nancy L. Cohen is president of the Gender Equity Policy Institute,

This year’s unprecedented budget surplus provides a historic opportunity to help protect the people of California from deadly heat waves.

As Californians brace for more extreme heat, the Legislature is hammering out exactly how it will allocate $3.65 billion budgeted for climate resilience. But without a significant reorientation of priorities, the state’s climate resilience plan threatens to overlook the needs of millions of Californians who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Early in the legislative session, with an austerity budget limiting climate adaptation funding, bond measures were introduced to fund dozens of projects on water, wildfire prevention, sea level rise, wildlife protection, land conservation and extreme heat. 

Whether these measures would have made it to the ballot is an open question, but they are relevant because the projects and funding levels contained in the bonds became the blueprint for the Legislature’s negotiations with the governor’s office on climate resilience in the final budget.

The Gender Equity Policy Institute analyzed these measures to estimate their effects on Californians by gender, race and region. Our research found that the benefits and investments would be distributed in a radically unbalanced and unequal manner. 

Investments in projects to protect wildlife, fish and natural lands dwarfed investments in measures to protect people and human health. Only 9% of funding was dedicated to addressing extreme heat, the No. 1 health risk associated with climate change. (Extreme heat could result in an additional 6,700 to 11,300 additional deaths per year in California, one study estimates.) Of the billions of dollars for wildfire prevention, none were dedicated to addressing the effects of smoke on the health of agricultural workers and Central Valley communities. 

With the heat effects of climate change comparatively neglected and investments heavily weighted toward projects on wildfires and sea level rise, regions that are disproportionately white and male stood to gain outsized benefits, while regions with the majority of the state’s women and people of color were shortchanged. For example, the north coast region was projected in the Assembly’s bond measure to receive 13 times as much per capita as the heavily urbanized counties of Southern California in the Los Angeles region.

Regional funding inequity translated into gaping gender and racial inequity. The only two regions projected to receive less than a fair share of funding, Los Angeles and the Sacramento Valley, are disproportionately female. The biggest beneficiaries— the north coast and Sierra Nevada regions — are disproportionately male. Similarly, the north coast and Sierra Nevada regions have the lowest percentage of people of color in the state. By contrast, 70% of people in the Los Angeles region are people of color. Half of all Black and Latino Californians call the region home.

Putting California on the right track on climate action is a simple proposition. For example, funding for cool roofs, cool streets and cool school playgrounds would mitigate the urban heat island effect and protect millions of urban dwellers. Funds to California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (CalOSHA) to hire more officers would increase the agency’s ability to protect warehouse workers, construction workers and farmworkers from climate-related exposures. Yes, California needs more firefighters. But we also need more public health workers and resilience centers.

A larger share of the three-year climate resilience budget must be directed toward projects and policies to protect Californians from extreme heat and the health effects of wildfires. Doing this would largely correct the gender, race and regional inequities in the Legislature’s current blueprint for climate resilience.

California has been a global pioneer in taking action on climate change, innovating equitable policies to tackle the wide-ranging crisis. The budget surplus offers a once-in-a-generation chance to protect all Californians from the most devastating consequences of climate change.

All Californians are suffering from the effects of climate change; all should benefit equally and be provided the needed resources from the state to fight these challenges. The California legislature must change tack to ensure the equitable distribution of climate resilience investments. Californians can make their voices heard during this critical stage of negotiations by contacting legislative leaders.

The good news is that there is still time for the Legislature to make the smart and fair choices. 

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