May 14, 2021

Guest Column: Low-Income Californians Must Help State Set Climate Change, Economic Justice Goals

By Will Scott Jr.

(Editor’s Note: The following op-ed originally published in The Fresno Bee on April 2, 2021)

As a Central Valley farmer, I experience some of the most serious issues facing our state on a daily basis: climate change-fueled drought, navigating some of the strictest regulations, the painfully high cost of doing business and, most importantly, the erasure of struggling communities. In my fight to ensure African-American farmers’ visibility, I have learned that this invisibility goes far beyond farmers and overwhelmingly affects people of color across California.

Our farmers drive hundreds of miles each week to ensure that folks in need can access nutritious, farm-to-fork food. Many of the people I serve live at or near the poverty line and are otherwise reliant on easily accessible convenience stores to get their food. Finding fresh produce should not be a complicated process, and this experience is, unfortunately, a reality in many people’s daily lives.

Sustained population growth and a changing climate are placing increased pressure on California’s water and energy supplies. To meet the challenge of growing demand, we must adopt policies and diverse technologies that improve our resource and energy management without leaving behind those who often bear the brunt of policy shortcomings.

How can the folks I help feed be expected to shoulder the costs of electric vehicles when they can’t afford a new vehicle because they need that money to pay rent? Our policies cannot leave the most vulnerable community members out of the equation and purely focus on wealthy coastal residents that can otherwise afford a pricey Tesla. And, let’s be honest, where will they be able to charge their car reliably?

Our leadership and regulators have to do more to close the expanding gap between wealthy Californians and disadvantaged, low-income communities. Pushing for a ban on traditional cars, trucks and hybrids—on a seemingly arbitrary deadline—without an accurate idea of how it will affect working people is verging on absurd.

If this state has a genuine interest in tackling climate change issues and economic and environmental justice, it has to go from the bottom to the top. Policy must come from the people who must live with its consequences and not the elitist policymakers enriching themselves at our expense.

Case in point: during a recent legislative hearing, the California Air Resources Board was questioned about the results of a state audit on their programs. The audit supervisor highlighted that of the $42 million in disadvantaged community spending that CARB claimed in 2016, 80% of it took place outside of the disadvantaged communities themselves. CARB’s nonexistent data collection also came to light, being heavily criticized for not bothering to collect “one scintilla” of data to determine the effectiveness of their programs.

We cannot fixate on electrification if we are not helping those who cannot easily afford the rise in their cost of living. Taking care of rent or a mortgage, groceries, medicine, tuition, etc., is already difficult enough for most people—and a sharp rise in utility costs will bury families and cut off their economic opportunities.

Even as a farmer, drought years make agriculture much more energy-intensive, as we have to rely on pumping groundwater when there is not enough water on the surface. The thought of even higher electricity costs in light of California’s already high rates is scary enough. Still, it pales in comparison to my fear of how it will further crush marginalized communities.

To our legislators: Please exercise your oversight to ensure our most vulnerable neighbors are not forgotten in the transition to meet our climate goals. We deserve a real plan that provides a diverse, affordable and sustainable energy future that everyone can rely on. This erasure cannot continue. Everyone is entitled to a high quality of life, but we cannot let this be at the cost of elevating all people along the way.

Will Scott Jr. is a founder of the African-American Farmers of California. He is also a family farmer and organic produce distributor in the San Joaquin Valley.