Last year, California observed its hottest summer on record as wildfires engulfed almost as much land as the size of Connecticut. On the brink of what may be another brutal summer in Southern California and a destructive wildfire season, the impacts of climate change are undeniably pressing and clear, especially for low income communities of color.

As California’s annual budget process comes to a close amidst a historical $98 billion surplus, the Golden state is poised to devote substantial funding to climate resilience. However, we must ensure those funds meaningfully reach the frontline communities that are hit first and worst by the impacts of climate change. These frontline communities are often low-income communities and communities of color that have been historically shut out of policy decision-making processes. Developing community-led advisory bodies to actively guide implementation of California’s climate resilience policies and programs provides a path forward to make this a reality.

In recent years, low-income communities of color have been hit devastatingly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic in addition to facing disproportionate impacts from climate change. These communities are more likely to work in outdoor occupations that increase their exposure to extreme heat and wildfire smoke, live in areas that will see the greatest rises in deaths due to extreme heat and poor air quality exacerbated by climate change, and are less likely to have access to air conditioning to stay cool on hot days or a car to escape heat or wildfire. These disparities are interconnected and didn’t occur by accident. They stem from a legacy of racist government policies that have led communities of color to live in neighborhoods with the greatest pollution, climate risk exposure, and limited access to wealth building opportunities. 

In California, decision-makers are beginning to take more active steps to address these uneven climate impacts. In April, the state released its updated Climate Adaptation Strategy, which aims to strengthen protections for climate vulnerable communities, among other important strategies across numerous agencies to prepare our communities, natural systems, and economy for the impacts of climate change. Additionally, the state dedicated an unprecedented $3.7 billion for 2021 to 2024 in last year’s budget and the Legislature proposed $19.3 billion over five years in this year’s budget for climate resilience measures ranging from urban forestry to drought resilience. The exact details for how that $19.3 billion will be spent are still up in the air but one thing is clear: the state is deploying more dollars for climate resilience efforts than ever before.

This investment is both necessary and long overdue. However, it’s important to note that California’s inflated budget is the result of our broken economic system which allowed for the wealthiest in the state to grow even wealthier through capital gains made during the pandemic, while frontline communities were sidelined.

Three climate activists of color

Despite this swell in attention and funding for climate resilience efforts, targeted action is still needed to ensure the most vulnerable communities can reap the benefits of these crucial investments. When the Gender Equity Policy Institute analyzed the Legislature’s proposals for last year’s almost $4 billion climate resilience budget, they found that the largely White, rural North Coast region stood to benefit far out of proportion to their population size. Meanwhile, the LA region, where nearly half the state’s total population, a majority BIPOC (Black Indigenous people of color) population, and one of the poorest California counties resides, was projected to receive only 21% of available funding. In this historic moment, we need a more comprehensive vision of climate resilience that is grounded in equity and centers the voices and priorities of low income communities of color.

To advance a more holistic, equitable vision for climate resilience in California, and in a way that centers community leadership, ten primarily frontline environmental justice and social equity groups across California have come together to form the Community Resilience Working Group (CRWG). 

The CRWG member organizations include:

The CRWG will work together through summer of 2023 to shape critical state climate adaptation and resilience initiatives. Instead of focusing on legislative or budget advocacy, which is already underway in other coalition spaces, the CRWG will intentionally fill a gap in the landscape by working on agency implementation of resilience programs to ensure that the state’s resilience dollars actually reach vulnerable communities. In order to accomplish this equitably, we need to center the input of frontline communities. Fatima Malik, Lead Organizer with the Del Paso Heights Growers’ Alliance highlights the CRWG’s pivotal role in achieving this: 

“The CRWG is vital because it creates space for people who are experts in their lived experiences to identify community priorities as well as new ideas for addressing deeply rooted systemic problems in ways that advance equity in climate resilience policies, build trust, and strengthen larger social networks."

In the coming year, the CRWG will help shape multiple resilience initiatives including the Vulnerable Communities Mapping Platform and Community Resilience Centers programs. The Vulnerable Communities Mapping Platform is a new mapping tool that the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) is developing that will allow policymakers to identify the communities most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and who should be prioritized for climate resilience resources. Meanwhile, the Strategic Growth Council and the California Department of Food and Agriculture will administer separate Community Resilience Centers (CRC) programs. Community resilience centers are hubs at trusted community institutions that can offer comprehensive services in times of climate crisis (air conditioning, backup power, water etc.) and year-round services (workforce development resources, health supplies and services, educational programming, etc.) to support the ongoing health and economic wellbeing of communities. Without centering community priorities, these tools and programs will, at best, have a muted impact, and at worst, could exacerbate existing inequities, which is why the work of the CRWG to elevate community voices is so critical.

While we still have a long way to go to shift California’s approach to climate change so that it prioritizes resilience for low-income communities of color, the CRWG offers a blueprint for where to start. Stay tuned for a future blog post that will explore the legacy of climate resilience advocacy in California and how that history offers a roadmap for the CRWG and other formations to come.

Nicole Wong GLI Headshot

NICOLE WONG IS A CLIMATE RESILIENCE PROGRAM MANAGER AT THE GREENLINING INSTITUTE. FOLLOW HER ON LINKEDIN.