Climate change has become a more prevalent issue as more scientists and
environmental organizations call for urgent adjustment to environmental policies. Climate change is defined as “significant and long-lasting change in the Earth’s climate and weather patterns.” It is closely linked to increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide produced by the excessive use of fossil fuels, in recent centuries. It affects every species on the planet, and humans are not exempt.
The Advancement Project released a policy brief in 2019, Kern County’s Future in the Face of Climate Change, which outlines the expected effects of climate change in Kern County. By 2050, winter temperatures are predicted to increase by 3–4 degrees Fahrenheit and summer temperatures by 5–6 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat waves will be longer by 3-5 days. Precipitation (rain, sleet, and snow) will decrease 1-2 inches. The brief says this trend will continue and worsen by the year 2100.
“Frontline communities” is a term used to describe the groups who have the tendency to experience the first signs of extreme weather events and climate disturbances. The most vulnerable to health impacts are children under 5, seniors, low-income individuals, the disabled, and individuals with language barriers. Health-related factors include heat-related death or illness, air quality, extreme weather events, and vector-borne illnesses (spread by insects). Water quality or access, and well-being are also prime considerations. High toxins in water supply or drought affect both food security and health. “Extreme weather events also have the potential to harm individuals through displacement, isolation, disability, and or death,” the report said.
Vulnerable communities become at risk for these factors doing normal day-to-day tasks. For example, outdoor field workers, student-athletes, and public-transit users are susceptible to all.
Additionally, communities with no green spaces, individuals with no air-conditioning or economic hardships, and those who have underlying health conditions will struggle the most. It is recognized that vulnerable communities already face multiple inequities that increase due to climate change. Therefore, the policy brief highlights that lawmakers need to engage with and incorporate these communities in climate change strategies.
UC Davis Center for Regional Change conducted the 2017 report, Kern County: Geography of Inequity and Opportunities for Action. “Harmful pollutants accumulate in the environment, contributing to some of the worst air quality in the U.S. Kern County had the highest levels of particulate matter of any county in the nation, and ranked third in terms of ozone pollution, for the years 2012-14.11 Water quality and quantity impacts from agriculture and other industries exacerbated by drought and climate change threaten the health of Kern residents and the county’s economy,” it stated. The geography of the county, being surrounded by mountains on three sides with a major transportation corridor running through, exacerbates these issues.
Kern County economically derives most of its wealth from agriculture, oil, and other industries, but these resources do not benefit all residents. Research shows that people of color and immigrants are most likely to experience environmental injustice.
Kern Sol News interviewed Juan Flores, a community organizer with The Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. It is a national environmental justice organization providing legal, organizing, and technical assistance to grassroots groups in low-income communities and communities of color. We asked how can Kern County shift worries about the economy or job loss to the environment, and if there is a point of intersection. He replied, “We need to diversify the economy, and invite environmentally-friendly companies to invest in our community.”
Flores explained how the Kern County Board of Supervisors need to look at other cities and counties around the state of California whose initiatives have provided beneficial jobs to the community while also protecting the environment. In doing so, we can shift the historic narrative of the deeply-rooted oil industry and generate highly paid good jobs.
It should be noted that by 2035, Kern County will hold 1.3 residents. Nearly 54.6 percent of the county’s population is Latino. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one in three residents lives within one mile of an oil or gas well. That’s more than 290,000 people. Disproportionately, 64 percent are Hispanic/Latino residents.
An NRDC analysis underscores the need for a time-out on fracking and other dangerous oil and gas stimulation methods in California to allow for a full evaluation of their risks and determine how to protect against them. However, former California governor, Jerry Brown ignored called to ban or limit fracking.
Governor Gavin Newsom has approved drilling permits for more than 1,400 new oil and gas wells this year. In April, he ended a moratorium, a temporary prohibition of an activity, on fracking permits. Since then, he has granted 48 fracking permits and because each permit allows an operator to frack the same well multiple times, the actual number of fracking events authorized is 360. The fracking will occur in Kern County.
“Approving these permits is especially dangerous now after multiple studies have shown air pollution increases our vulnerability to coronavirus. Each new well and fracking event is another step backward for public health and climate change,” stated Hollin Kretzmann, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Flores urges that residents of Kern County to send a message through the polls by showing Newsom they will elect progressive officials.
“The biggest hurdle in Kern County, when it comes to combating climate change is our politicians,” Flores said. “They have forgotten they were elected to protect the people, not the industries.”
Senate Bill 1000 requires local governments to identify environmental justice communities (called “disadvantaged communities”) in their jurisdictions and address environmental justice in their general plans. However, in many of these plans, community members are not included.
Flores explained, “Instead, they turn to the industries that pollute and ask them how they will fix it. Obviously, their main goals are not to fix it.”
He recommends that residents become aware when general planning meetings occur and actively join efforts to promote real change.
Climate change is a real issue and prevalent issue in Kern County, especially to the frontline communities discussed above. There is a lack of real political solutions and harmful decisions continue to be made by government officials. As shown by the reports, Kern County may have
to anticipate the dangerous effects of climate change, that are bound to occur in the next couple of decades, unless progressive action quickly takes place, experts say.