As pandemic aid ends, California families face brutal new year

By Nigel Duara

In late 2017, a house fell on Jacques Gene.

The construction foreman in Cool, east of Sacramento, was inside a half-finished home when the rolling trusses that make up the underside of the roof fell, collapsing the whole house. Gene, 46, suffered broken ribs, a punctured lung and a concussion. When his coworkers sorted through the rubble, he says, they didn’t expect to find him alive.

But he found work again, earning $70,000 annually as a foreman to support his wife, their two kids and two children from a previous marriage. Then the pandemic hit and work dried up. Gene exhausted his state unemployment benefits and relied on Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation payments to survive until those, too, ran out.

Now he’s hoping the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program picks up the financial slack, for at least a month. Both of those pandemic assistance programs are both slated to end Dec. 26.

As for the family having a roof over their heads, Gene makes late rent payments of $1,400 on a two-bedroom house to an understanding landlord — but he wonders when his landlord’s patience will run out.

The state eviction moratorium lifts on Jan. 31, and once again, Gene feels the walls buckling around him.

“Right now, I don’t know where I’m going to find money,” Gene said. “If I was a single guy, I’d figure something out, live in my truck, crash on people’s couches. But I’ve got kids I’ve got to think about.”

Absent last-minute federal and state legislation, Californians counting on pandemic assistance dollars to stay fed, and an eviction moratorium to stay housed, will be in for a rough new year.  The day-after-Christmas expiration of federal benefits will affect more than 750,000 of them, according to a study by the California Policy Lab at UCLA.

Little more than a month later, California’s eviction moratorium lifts, meaning people who have been paying less than 25% of their rent after Sept. 1 can be evicted for non-payment. A separate analysis of Census survey data from the UC Berkeley found that Californians in more than 700,000 households could face eviction when the statewide moratorium lifts.

The number of repeat claimants of unemployment insurance now makes up 80% of all claims, a signal that people aren’t losing jobs for the first time, but rather entering the labor market and experiencing another layoff.

The number of new claims has tumbled from a high of 1.05 million in the last week of March  to 30,000 in the last week of October. But the number of “additional claims” — workers who reentered the workforce but were then laid off again — has remained relatively steady: a high of 178,000 in the third week of July, and about 160,000 in the last week of October.

The results of the UCLA analysis are a “mixed bag,” said Till von Wachter, faculty director of UCLA’s California Policy Lab and lead author of the study. It’s a good indicator of economic recovery that there are fewer new entrants to the unemployment system, but the persistence of people re-filing for unemployment is concerning.

“To me, that means the job matches that are formed are not stable yet,” von Wachter said. “It means, one, business has not quite returned to normal and there’s uncertainty in the economic outlook, and two, it just generally takes time for workers to find jobs that are good and stable.”

How does it help anybody to increase homelessness in the middle of winter in the middle of a damn pandemic?


Even early in the pandemic, it was easy to guess that an unreliable labor market would persist into late November and beyond, said Bruce Mirken, spokesman for the Oakland-based nonprofit Greenlining Institute, which advocates for racial and economic justice.

“We’ve been screaming since March that something more long term and serious needs to be done to help people on the margins who are really just hanging on,” Mirken said. “That means more long term assistance for renters, continuing cash payments, and if people can’t work, let them stay home. How does it help anybody to increase homelessness in the middle of winter in the middle of a damn pandemic?”

As with most impacts of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the ill effects of the stagnant labor market fall disproportionately on workers of color, specifically Black Californians. According to the California Policy Lab analysis, more than 80% of the Black labor force has filed for unemployment benefits since the onset of the pandemic. By the middle of October, about one-third of the Black labor force in California filed a continuing claim.

More closures mean more people out of work, especially in hospitality, California’s hardest-hit industry. Kurt Petersen, co-president of the hospitality worker union Unite Here Local 11, said the union represented 30,000 members at the outset of the pandemic. On Tuesday, only 3,000 of them still had jobs.

“We see a tsunami of evictions and a loss of housing on the horizon both because (unemployment) is running out and the eviction moratorium expires,” Petersen said. “There have been failures at every level of government. I don’t see anyone stepping up to do what is necessary to help these people.”

Von Wachter, author of the UCLA study, said Californians at risk of eviction and the end of their pandemic assistance benefits should prepare now to receive CalFresh benefits, formerly known as food stamps.

“I think it’s really important for individuals to start now and see what they might be eligible for,” von Wachter said. “Because it’s possible that many individuals in the group of people who are running out of benefits never considered themselves being at risk of having to plan to use those benefits.”

That process, said Los Angeles Regional Food Bank CEO Michael Flood, can be intensive, “kind of like filling out your taxes.”

Food banks have already seen an enormous uptick in usage — the Los Angeles food bank has increased distribution by 145% since the onset of the pandemic — and Flood predicts that number will only grow as pandemic aid ends in California.

Gene, the out-of-work construction foreman, said he’s worried about taking a retail job: He doesn’t want to expose his 7-year-old son, diagnosed in April with Type I diabetes, to the coronavirus. Like many out-of-work Californians, Gene is waiting to find a job comparable to the one he had before the pandemic — one of the reasons von Wachter says the labor market is stagnating.

All the while, Gene’s bills are mounting: $2,000 to Verizon, $1,800 to the power company. Debt collectors call from new numbers every day. He knows the bills will all come due at some point, and may be a matter taken to small claims court. But Gene said he can’t worry about that now, while his family’s livelihood is at risk.

“To be honest,” he said, “I would do whatever it took to get something close to what we need to survive.”

This article is part of California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

California Black, Latino, Native American Borrowers Get Fewer Home Mortgages than Whites Regardless of Income, New Research Shows

Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 415-846-7758 (cell)

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – Black, Latino and Native American borrowers continue to receive far fewer home purchase loans in California than Whites, according to a new analysis of federal home loan data released today by The Greenlining Institute.

“In our society, homeownership remains critical to building wealth and financial stability,” said report author Rawan Elhalaby, Greenlining’s Senior Economic Equity Program Manager.  “The racial discrepancies we see can’t be explained simply by differences in income. It will take a concerted effort by banks, non-bank lenders and financial regulators to overcome the systemic disadvantages that Black, Latino and Indigenous borrowers still face.”

Home Lending to Communities of Color in California is based on data for 2019 reported under the federal Home Mortgage Disclosure Act. Among the report’s key findings:

  • Black and Latino Californians’ shares of home purchase loans were only about 60% of what would be expected based on their percentage of the state’s population, while Whites were overrepresented. Native Americans’ share of home mortgages was about half of what would be expected based on their population.
  • Even among low-income communities, Black and Latino borrowers lagged behind Whites in their share of home purchase loans, indicating that the racial and ethnic discrepancies can’t be explained solely by income differences.
  • Women of color make up 30% of California’s population but received only about 8% of home loans.
  • Non-bank lenders, which operate similarly to traditional lenders but are not regulated by the Community Reinvestment Act, are gaining market share without making community commitments common among traditional banks.
  • In the Los Angeles/Long Beach/Glendale Metropolitan Statistical Area, Latinos make up nearly half of the population but received less than 23% of home purchase loans. The Black community represents 7.76% of the population and received 4.04% of home purchase loans.
  • In the San Francisco/San Mateo/Redwood City region, the Black community makes up. 3.6% of the population but received just 0.73% of home purchase loans. Latinos, nearly 20% of the population, got only 4.18% of home purchase loans.

 To learn more about The Greenlining Institute, visit


A Multi-Ethnic Public Policy, Research and Advocacy Institute

A Quick Look at the Biden-Harris Clean Energy Plan, and its California Connections

By Melanie Curry
StreetsBlog Cal

The Biden-Harris Clean Energy Plan is a 400-plus-page project of “Clean Energy for Biden,” a group of clean economy leaders, advocates, policymakers, and former government officials that came together in April to help formulate a platform and help get a new president in the White House. The plan is really a series of policy papers on what is required to transition to 100 percent clean energy in the U.S. It covers workforce development, necessary investments and incentives, transportation issues, rural development, the encouragement of new technologies, and strengthening the energy grid itself.

The oil industry is creaking its way to obsolescence, in one breath claiming that a Biden win will cause a deep depression, the loss of millions of jobs, and six-dollar-a-gallon gasoline, and in the next that they’re not in the least worried about a Biden presidency because they’ll be able to “get his staff on board.”

The industry will do whatever it can, as New York Times reporter Hiroko Tabuchi reports. Her recent investigation found that the industry has invested in an increasingly sophisticated and underhanded game plan to influence policy, creating industry-backed organizations that pretend to be “grassroots,” fake Facebook profiles, misleading initiatives and campaigns, and “news sites” that promulgated pro-industry “news.”

Meanwhile, the Biden-Harris plan, Building Back Better: Policy Recommendations for an Equitable Clean Energy-Powered Recovery and Achieving a 100 Percent Carbon Neutral Economy by 2050 [PDF], is based on science resulting from years of work by numerous organizations.

Streetsblog USA already provided a general summary of the plan here. It includes discussion of ways to end reliance on fossil fuels and build a just transition to clean energy, which must be a core principle of fighting climate change if that fight is to succeed. The plan starts a national conversation that has already begun in California: how to stop investments in infrastructure projects that further reliance on fossil fuels.

California has no answer on that question yet.

One particular chapter in the Biden-Harris plan, “Strengthening Climate Justice and Expanding Equity,” contains insights from a number of California organizations working in this area. Among them are The Greenlining Institute, which has issued a Mobility Equity Framework to guide California agencies towards more equitable outcomes from their transportation, energy, and climate policies.

To start, this country must focus on investing in frontline communities – by recognizing and beginning to undo this nation’s history of ignoring and marginalizing low-income communities and communities of color. These communities are subject to some of the worst effects from climate change, air pollution, and COVID, a triple threat that is due to years of underinvestment.

Says the plan:

Black and Hispanic communities in the U.S. are exposed to far more air pollution than they produce even though they drive less, use less electricity and consume fewer goods and services. By contrast, white Americans experience better air quality than the national average, even though their activities are the source of most toxic air pollutants.

If the Biden-Harris promise to base policy on science is kept, these irrefutable facts should guide investments towards those people and communities who most need them.

The plan also addresses the connections between community health, COVID, and transportation. One chapter, “Improving Frontline and Vulnerable Community Health and COVID-19 Resistance Through Transportation,” incorporates recommendations from The Greenlining Institute’s Mobility Equity Framework, such as improving “cash for clunkers” and electric vehicle rebate programs so they are available to more people and provide incentives that work for people who don’t make a lot of money. The chapter recommends replicating California programs such as Clean Mobility Options, the Sustainable Transportation Equity Pilot, Clean Mobility in Schools, the state’s “one-stop-shop” platform bringing all clean energy incentive applications, including solar infrastructure, onto one site, and supporting carsharing and micromobility hubs at affordable housing developments.

The entire plan focuses on benefits each of these policy recommendations would have in terms of job creation, and climate and economic benefits. For example, says the plan,

Switching from gasoline to electricity saves consumers money. During 2018, rural drivers in the following states saved by switching: $763 in Arizona, $748 in Florida, $770 in Iowa, $673 in Michigan, $1,011 in Nevada, $684 in Ohio, $741 i n North Carolina, $674 in Texas, $668 in Virginia, $733 in Pennsylvania, $552 in Maine, and $ 635 in Wisconsin.

The plan includes specific discussions on reducing the energy burden for disadvantaged communities via affordable and accessible solar and energy efficiency, cost savings and  other benefits from clean energy in affordable housing, and making America’s schools healthy and resilient. May of these recommendations will seem familiar to those who have been following the conversations in California about specific cap-and-trade funded programs, or the Active Transportation Program, for example, which have been called to address racial equity and environmental justice in ways that other programs, like highway funding, have not.

That’s an important reminder: these are policy recommendations, and they are just the start of a conversation.  For example, the “Biden Plan to Secure Environmental Justice and Equitable Economic Opportunity” makes the recommendation to mandate pollution monitoring in frontline communities. But what data to collect, how to collect it, and how to use that data are open questions, left for later, that could be undermined and distracted from by players that don’t want attention on that information.

Because data is power, but it is only data. If the new Biden-Harris team lets itself get mired in the kind of pointless, distracting discussions that have taken place in California around A.B. 617, progress will be too slow.

The fossil fuel industry wants you to believe it’s good for people of color

By Sammy Roth
Los Angeles Times

The letter to Mexico’s energy minister offered a glowing review of a fossil fuel project in Baja California.

Writing in July, three U.S. governors and the chair of the Ute Indian Tribe praised the Energía Costa Azul project — which was seeking approval from the Mexican government — as “one of the most promising [liquefied natural gas] export facilities on the Pacific Coast.”

The letter was arranged by Western States and Tribal Nations, an advocacy group that says it was created in part to “promote tribal self-determination” by creating easier access to overseas markets for gas extracted from Native American lands.

But internal documents shared with The Times reveal that the group’s main financial backers are county governments and fossil fuel companies — including Sempra Energy of San Diego, which received approval this month to build the $1.9-billion facility in Baja. In fact, the group has just one tribal member, the Ute Indian Tribe.

Read the full text here.

The ‘war on coal’ is over. The next climate battle has just begun

By Sammy Roth
Los Angeles Times

The night Barack Obama claimed victory in the Democratic presidential primaries in 2008, he predicted future generations would look back and say, “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

That turned out to be wrong. Earth kept getting hotter, the oceans kept rising, and Donald Trump spent four years undoing many of the clean energy policies adopted by his predecessor.

Tackling the climate crisis will once again take center stage under Joe Biden, but with an important shift. Although the energy politics of the last dozen years were defined by coal — with President Obama working to accelerate its decline and President Trump trying and failing to revive it — the fiercest battles of the Biden era are likely to revolve around another fossil fuel, natural gas.

Read more at Los Angeles Times.

What Does it Take to Meet State Climate and Equity Goals?

By Melanie Curry
Streetsblog Cal

This week, three state agencies that make policies and funding decisions about transportation, air pollution and climate change, and housing – the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the California Transportation Commission (CTC), and the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) – met to find ways they could work together and align their programs so they don’t conflict.

It’s the second time the three agencies have met. The joint meetings are required by legislation, with the goal of forcing the agencies to talk, so that their policies and actions stop undermining state goals that are larger than any of their individual mandates. Wednesday’s meeting was a demonstration of the progress the agencies have made since that first awkward joint meeting between CARB and the CTC two years ago.

It was also remarkable for what was said. That is, there was general agreement that, in order to align the work of the three agencies, a change in investment priorities will be necessary. That is, investments that continue to encourage reliance on single occupancy vehicles and fossil fuels need to end, and the agencies must focus state investments away from business as usual and onto equitable, sustainable projects.

How to make that shift – especially how to shift investment away from highway expansions that have been long in the planning stages – was not so clear.

Still, that there was general agreement on this notion is a pretty big change.

There’s a serious reckoning taking place at California state agencies at all levels, from the court system to these agencies themselves. Longtime movements for racial equity and environmental justice are gaining new traction and momentum. California’s present and historical inequities worsen problems like bad air quality, reliance on fossil fuels, climate change, wildfires, and this global pandemic.

The many ways these issues intertwine makes it difficult to think about them and talk about them, let alone sum them up succinctly. Many injustices are baked into the ways that California plans and regulates housing, transportation, and air quality. The necessary retooling of these processes will be difficult.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of people and organizations who have been doing that work for a long time.

And they have a lot to say.

Two such organizations spoke at Wednesday’s joint meeting. ClimatePlan and The Greenlining Institute have both conducted analyses of the effectiveness of state plans and policies, on whether they are helping meet state climate goals, and on whether they are benefiting the Californians most in need of help. Maybe the state agencies themselves should be be doing this analysis, but they are not required to. In the past few years, ClimatePlan and its partners completed two analyses of Southern California’s Sustainable Communities Strategies, several detailed reports on ways to plan a California transportation system that serves everyone and reduces emissions and traffic, and principles for integrating planning for land use and clean water.

The Greenlining Institute has released numerous reports on health, environmental, economic, and energy equity, completing detailed analyses of California programs aimed at clean energy and transportation.

Representatives from both of these organizations told the jointly assembled agencies that solutions to these interconnected problems already exist. The Greenlining Institute’s Hana Creger pointed to three existing programs that she said could set standards for equitable investments while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle miles traveled. They could all be models for aligning program goals, and should be supported and invested in by all three agencies, she said.

But currently between all three they receive only a small portion of overall funding available.

The Clean Mobility Options Program (CMO), the Sustainable Transportation Equity Project (STEP), and the Active Transportation Program (ATP) all help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase mobility, and they do so in ways that help build community capacity. Each have requirements around involving community members from the beginning in planning projects that will meet program goals, but are flexible enough that they leave room for the communities to come up with the projects that they want. They do this by providing technical assistance and guidance, for example, and money for local organizations to conduct meaningful public outreach.

All three programs are also very popular, but only a portion of the applications to them can be funded. That is, only about 18 percent of the STEP applicants will get funding, and maybe sixty percent of the CMO projects will. The ATP usually funds around a quarter of the projects that apply. This is true even though the efforts that goes into applying, including collecting community ideas, creating and prioritizing projects to meet program goals, are considerable.

That means that “detailed, community-centered plans have been formed and are ready to go,” according to Creger, but they cannot be funded unless these programs are increased.

Nevertheless, they receive only a small portion of the overall funding that is available. The clean transportation equity incentives only receive a total of twelve percent of the funding for the Low Carbon Transportation Program, which itself is only a portion of total Greenhouse Gas Reduction Funding from cap-and-trade. “These programs are only scratching the surface of what they could do,” said Creger. Yet they more than pull their weight in terms of results, producing not only community-centered plans but communities that are engaged and interested and ready to work.

For example, while the ATP has seen steady growth in the amount invested in it – and work is being done to increase the funding available for active transportation in other transportation funding programs – California is still spending billions of dollars every year on projects that increase single-occupant vehicle use, reliance on fossil fuels, and that destroy homes to make highways ever wider and, in the end, more crowded.

But all state funding programs need to both encourage community engagement and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“We need to move funding away from programs that continue our reliance on cars and fossil fuels,” said Creger, and her words were echoed throughout the afternoon.

When asked by CalSTA Secretary David Kim to also analyze programs that need improvement, Creger agreed that it was needed, and had one quick answer: the Clean Vehicle Rebate program, which offers rebates on the purchase of electric cars and is pretty much limited to people who can afford these expensive vehicles. Not only does that program not do anything for equity, she said, it furthers dependence on cars instead of increasing options for everyone, especially those who need them most.

There was much, much more to glean from the day-long meeting.

Nailah Pope-Harden from ClimatePlan made everyone hungry with an extended metaphor about equity, which cannot just be “sprinkled like salt” onto programs but must be marinated and basted into programs to ensure those programs are nourishing communities. UC Berkeley Professor Karen Chapple offered ideas on the need to realign state policies to support infill, preserving housing affordability and avoiding displacement, and the eventuality that, one way or the other, “the conversation about reparations is going to happen, and it would be good to get out ahead of it.”

In the afternoon, Darwin Moosavi, Deputy Secretary for Environmental Policy and Housing Coordination at CalSTA explained the ongoing work on a Climate Action Plan for Transportation Infrastructure being formulated by the California State Transportation Agency. CalSTA recognizes that the transportation sector is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, and that the huge emission reductions needed mean that vehicle miles traveled must be reduced in addition to other work like increasing the portion of zero emission vehicles.

That means, for one, funding infrastructure that encourages transit, walking, and biking. It also means focusing on a “fix-it first approach” that prioritize projects that do not increase vehicle travel.

What the next steps are, and what the concrete actions in the “Climate Action Plan” are, was left for another day, as was the question of what to do about highway expansion projects that are already in the pipeline.

It was a start.

Greenlining Institute Joins Call to Count Every Vote

“Americans of Color Know What It’s Like to Be Disenfranchised”

Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 415-846-7758 (cell)

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – With the Electoral College outcome still in doubt as vote-counting continues, The Greenlining Institute has joined the national call to count every vote. Greenlining President and CEO Debra Gore-Mann made the following statement:

“Every legally cast vote must be counted, period. Americans of color know too well what it’s like to be disenfranchised, and we must not let that injustice repeat itself. When we hear politicians claim that simply counting votes somehow equals ‘cheating,’ it brings back memories of poll taxes, literacy tests and other deceptions that kept Black Americans from voting for generations. Our democracy must be built on the idea that each American gets a vote and each vote must be counted.

“Let’s also remember not to assign too much significance to today’s rising stock market, which isn’t an indicator of anything except the fact that this form of American capitalism is built to protect its own corporate self-interests, which requires the exploitation of labor and working-class folks. The only thing that matters today is:

“Count the votes.

“Count the votes.

“Count the votes.”

To learn more about The Greenlining Institute, visit


A Multi-Ethnic Public Policy, Research and Advocacy Institute

Racial Justice on CA Ballot Brings Victories, Uncertainty

Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 415-846-7758 (cell)

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA –  While still waiting for clarity on the presidential election, Californians voted on a variety of issues with racial equity implications and produced a mix of encouraging results and disappointments, with several races still in doubt, The Greenlining Institute said today.

In a huge win for criminal justice reform, Voters approved Prop. 17, which will allow persons convicted of felonies who are on parole to vote in California elections, and rejected Prop. 20, which would have rolled back recent, successful reforms. As the racial inequity of the criminal justice system has finally become more apparent, Californians faced a choice between advancing reform or returning to failed policies of mass incarceration, Greenlining Institute President and CEO Debra Gore-Mann noted.

“Our old felony disenfranchisement law was a remnant of the 150-year old effort to keep Black and Brown citizens out of the voting booth, and kept citizens from having a voice in this democracy,” Gore-Mann said. “We’re heartened that voters got rid of this repugnant holdover from state and local laws that enforced racial segregation, and that California took a decisive step towards rejecting a return to the disastrous days of mass incarceration. Black and Brown communities, and indeed all of California, will be safer because of these votes.”

Other results were mixed, and in some cases still uncertain. Proposition 16, a key priority for racial and gender justice advocates, continues to trail although the outcome has not been called.  “Whatever the final outcome, California needs to restore affirmative action and rebuild our efforts against systemic racism and sexism,” Gore-Mann said. “We are working hard to create a more just society that spends its public dollars to create equal opportunity for women and people of color. You can’t solve problems rooted in race and gender by ignoring race and gender, which is what the law now requires. However this finally turns out, you can count on Greenlining to fight the good fight.”

Greenlining was also disappointed by the passage of Proposition 22. While Prop. 22 wasn’t always characterized as a racial justice issue, Greenlining noted that over three quarters of ride-hailing drivers are people of color.

“We’re disappointed that voters were persuaded by the massively financed and devious campaign by wealthy companies designed to permanently keep their most essential workers in a status comparable to sharecroppers,” Gore-Mann said. “This terrible new law continues to allow corporations to relegate their workers into categories that service their financial bottom lines. We must continue fighting to protect our gig workers to be sure they are not exploited, and we will continue to work in solidarity with this workforce.”

As of Wednesday morning, Proposition 15 remained too close to call. “Despite a grossly dishonest campaign against Prop. 15, millions of Californians made clear they want to fix an unfair corporate tax break and provide critically needed funding for schools and other priorities vital to California’s communities of color,” said Gore-Mann. “We’re still hopeful for passage, but whatever the result we won’t give up working to shift the burden from low income working families to wealthy corporations so that they pay fair share to support vital public services.”

To learn more about The Greenlining Institute, visit


A Multi-Ethnic Public Policy, Research and Advocacy Institute

The Biggest Fight Over Cap and Trade Isn’t About What You Think It Is

By Nathanael Johnson

Imagine Joe Biden is wrapping up the first year of his presidency, and long-awaited legislation to address climate change is just shy of the finish line. It’s been a slog, with swing-vote conservatives bargaining to water down the bill, protect their pet industries, and add pork-barrel projects. Then, before the final votes, a batch of progressives, who had hoped Bernie Sanders would win the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, threaten to sink the legislation: They argue that Democrats have given away too much to win over a few centrists — and hate that the bill puts a price on carbon.

This isn’t just speculative fiction. It’s exactly how politics played out in California in 2016 as the state struggled to reauthorize its keystone climate-change law. The legislature managed to pass the reauthorization the following year, amid a furious debate that didn’t end when Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill.

It’s a debate over priorities, global versus local. California’s system for capping and trading greenhouse gases is aimed at a global crisis, climate change, but the argument over the scheme centers on a local issue: dirty air spreading within neighborhoods surrounding polluting factories and power plants. On one side are advocates for climate action. On the other side are activists for environmental justice, the movement to reverse the historical trend of dumping pollution on poor people and Black and Hispanic communities. At the surface, the struggle is over facts — over whether pricing carbon makes local air pollution worse — but there’s also a deeper and much more significant disagreement: Most environmental justice advocates aren’t fundamentally opposed to putting a price on carbon; they are opposed to the political pattern, repeated several times over, where politicians trade away working local air pollution laws to tackle the global problem of climate change.

This struggle could easily repeat itself at the national level if Biden wins in November. After all, the term “environmental justice” was a term relegated to environmental circles until the recent Democratic primary, when it was on the lips of nearly all of the major candidates.

“If a Democrat is headed to the White House in November, environmental justice concerns are going to be front and center,” said Meredith Fowlie, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley. “There is something that we can learn from California, and it’s crucial that we learn it.”

A similar story to California’s has already played out in Washington state, where three efforts to put a price on carbon have failed in recent years. The first was a ballot initiative that didn’t muster enough support from environmental justice activists or voters; the second effort died in the legislature; and the third, in 2018, was led by justice advocates and would have directed money to vulnerable communities. Voters still rejected it.

The fissure over cap and trade in California started with a distrust of markets, said Alvaro Sanchez, the environmental equity director at the nonprofit Greenlining Institute (and a member of the 2019 Grist 50). The idea behind cap and trade, as well as carbon taxes, is that putting a price on carbon emissions will allow the market to do work that would normally be reserved for government regulators; in this case, cutting pollution. But the market doesn’t care about protecting the vulnerable. So activists and experts expected cap-and-trade programs would turn many Black and Latino neighborhoods into dumping grounds.

“It’s hard to trust the market when the market has never brought justice to these communities,” Sanchez said.

There’s some evidence that smokestacks pumped more pollution into the lungs of people living in gritty industrial areas after cap and trade went into place. A preliminary study of the program — coauthored by Grist board member Rachel Morello-Frosch — found that in the first couple of years under cap and trade, localized greenhouse gas emissions had increased in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

In 2018, when the same team that conducted the preliminary study of California’s cap-and-trade scheme’s early years published an updated and peer-reviewed version, it seemed to further confirm the fears of environmental justice advocates. The researchers examined how pollution had changed from 2013 to the end of 2015, the first three years of cap and trade. Some activists called it the “I told you so report,” because it again showed that pollution had gone up in poor and non-white neighborhoods near smokestacks.

While this 2018 study found that the air quality had gotten worse, according to the paper’s lead author Lara Cushing, it didn’t actually show that cap and trade had made it worse. There was no evidence of cause and effect. Several changes could have been responsible — the economy was booming and polluting gas plants ramped up sharply when San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station shut down in 2013.

“It’s really hard to disentangle whether changes can be attributed to a program or not,” said Cushing, an environmental health professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “There are all these other things going on. We had a huge recession in 2008 so emissions were down relative to where people thought they would be in 2013 — so the cap greatly exceeded the amount of pollution that was being emitted because the economy was still recovering.”

Meredith Fowlie says the bulk of studies on cap and trade doesn’t support the conclusions of environmental justice advocates. “The weight of the evidence contradicts the idea that cap and trade hurts Black and brown people,” she said.

Back in 2012, Fowlie and two other researchers published a paper showing that an early pollution-trading scheme in Southern California — think of it as a proto-carbon price — lessened pollution across all neighborhoods, regardless of who was living there. A few years later, another study critiqued Fowlie’s research and refined the methods, but largely came to the same conclusions.

A new addition to the research Fowlie mentioned is a working paper (which means it hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed) in the National Bureau of Economic Research, which tackled the question of cause and effect directly. “We don’t know from an empirical point of view whether cap and trade was helping or hurting,” said Danae Hernandez-Cortes, an economics graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, or UCSB, and lead author of the new paper.

California polluters have been spewing less grit into the air in recent years, but it’s hard to tell if that’s due to changes in the weather, the economy, or cap and trade. To zero in, Hernandez-Cortes and Kyle Meng, who researches environmental economics at UCSB, compared the giant refineries and power plants — which have been regulated by cap and trade since 2013 — to small factories that aren’t constrained by the state’s scheme.

They found that, as soon as cap and trade kicked in, the big emitters began polluting less. But who benefited from that improvement — everyone, or just those who lived further away from point sources of greenhouse gas emissions? Meng and Hernandez-Cortes figured out where the wind was blowing dirty air by plugging their pollution data into a weather model. After the computers did a lot of high-powered number crunching, they had their result.

The model suggested that California’s cap-and-trade program had decreased pollution and distributed it more equitably throughout the state. But models are never spot on — they return a spread of outcomes of various likelihoods. And just under half of those results suggested there might have been some concentration of emissions in poorer parts of the state under cap and trade. In other words, Meng and Hernandez-Cortes think it’s most likely that cap and trade reduced pollution more in poorer, browner locales than in richer, whiter neighborhoods, but they can’t be certain. And according to the research, no one can.

This paper has its critics. Danny Cullenward, an energy economist at Stanford, was scathing in his assessment, calling it a “hit job” designed to “dunk on” environmental justice activists. He had big problems with the paper’s methods, but the thing that really made him angry was the framing. It’s not surprising that cap and trade is better than nothing, he said, but the choice was never between cap and trade and nothing. In California, when lawmakers passed the cap and trade law, they bartered away more direct regulations on sooty smokestacks.

Meng and Hernandez-Cortes said their focus wasn’t tied to a political agenda; they were simply looking where they had data. The pollution policies pre-empted by cap and trade never happened, so there’s no data on how they would have cleaned up the air. The economists could only compare what happened before and after the scheme was implemented.

“If you want to call it a weakness of the paper, it’s something we totally own up to,” Meng said

Katie Valenzuela, the policy and political director of the California Environmental Justice Alliance, had a front-row seat in the statehouse in 2016 and 2017, as the top advisor to the politicians hammering out California’s climate change policies. She watched as the lawmakers scrapped pollution controls, including a new law about to go into effect, and a rule to force Bay Area refineries to slash emissions by 20 percent to get cap and trade reauthorized.

“If we had chosen a path of more prescriptive, direct emissions reductions, we likely would be seeing far more emissions reductions at the source, and far more improvements for EJ communities than we’re seeing under cap and trade,” Valenzuela said.

Even some of the people who supported continuing California’s cap-and-trade package now think it might have been a bad bargain. Back in 2016, David Pettit, a lawyer with the National Resources Defense Council who sues polluters, cheered the reauthorization because it came packaged with another bill, AB-617, aimed directly at curbing local pollution and stopping polluters from dumping on poor people. But that legislation hasn’t turned out as well as he had hoped.

“While there have been a lot of community meetings, nothing has happened in terms of strengthening local regulations or helping to clean up polluting facilities,” said Petit, who explained that he’s still glad to have cap and trade to address the global climate crisis — even though the jury is still out on how effective it is.

Pettit holds out some hope that AB-617 is just a late bloomer. So does Berkeley’s Meredith Fowlie, who argues that it relies on grassroots organization: A key element of AB-617 is that it empowers people living near polluters — and that’s starting to happen. For instance, the priorities of community members in San Bernardino are guiding the law’s crackdown on idling Amazon warehouse trucks and providing funding for air filters at schools. That bottom-up approach takes time.

Step away from the squabbles over what might have been or the merits of one study over another, and it’s clear that almost no one thinks that putting a price on carbon is inherently evil. The real concern of environmental justice advocates is that carbon pricing efforts like cap and trade just aren’t as effective as straightforward laws that restrict pollution — especially for the communities they represent.

So what does California’s experience teach us about federal climate policy? Let’s return to our speculative future where AOC and The Squad are deciding if they should kill Biden’s climate bill. Texts fly across Washington, D.C., and a frazzled posse of staffers meets on Zoom to see if there’s any way to salvage a deal.

If the aides were paying attention to what was going on out West, they’d know that the problem with California’s approach, Fowlie said, was that it promised to do everything through carbon pricing. “It was trying to address two fundamentally different issues with one instrument.” That instrument, cap and trade, is simply not a good way to control local pollution.

A better path, Fowlie said, might be to bundle cap and trade with other policies in one legislative package that gives local communities more authority to regulate air pollution. That way, all these different tools can complement each other. “Carbon prices are a great way to raise revenue, which could be earmarked for those fenceline communities,” Fowlie said.

For Stanford’s Cullenward, the devil’s in the details: “Is it carbon pricing and all the other things that are going to do most of the work? Or is it carbon pricing instead of some of the things we really need to do the work? If carbon pricing is on top of everything else: Do it, do it, do it! If it brings in extra voices and political support, you grab anything that does that.”

In the end, the lesson from California may be a cautionary one: If you have to trade away regulations that are already driving down emissions in exchange for an industry-supported price on carbon, it’s probably a hard pass. If, on the other hand, the carbon price is just part of a larger omnibus bill that maintains and strengthens existing pollution laws, progressives and environmental justice advocates might come around to support it.

Whatever the solution you recommend, if you start with the history and evidence from California, you’ll be a lot more likely to save the day, and maybe the world.

AT&T’s Move to Disconnect DSL Customers Shows Harm of Deregulatory Agenda

By Public Knowledge

October 14, 2020 – Today, Public Knowledge, Communications Workers of America, National Digital Inclusion Alliance, Next Century Cities, Common Cause, and Greenlining Institute filed an ex parte warning the Federal Communications Commission that its deregulatory agenda leaves consumers vulnerable to losing broadband service during the pandemic.

The ex parte follows AT&T’s recent decision to discontinue national DSL broadband service. By disconnecting its 469,000 DSL customers — including many without access to another AT&T wireline internet service — the company abandons consumers without any broadband alternatives. Worse, this number could grow as more providers follow AT&T’s lead. The FCC filing stressed that this is just the beginning of legacy carriers phasing out DSL, potentially leaving millions of rural customers with no reliable broadband connection.

As explained in the filing, this demonstrates the flawed reasoning in the FCC’s draft net neutrality Remand Order. The Order would affirm the 2017 decision to reclassify broadband as a Title I information service on the grounds that whatever harms this might do to public safety, or how it might impact access for rural and poor Americans, are “outweighed” by the benefits of deregulation. But as AT&T’s action shows, deregulating broadband actually reduces the availability of broadband to the poorest and most rural Americans. The Chairman should withdraw the Order and restore the FCC’s oversight authority over broadband.

The following can be attributed to Harold Feld, Senior Vice President at Public Knowledge:

“As Public Knowledge and others have repeatedly stressed, the ‘net neutrality’ proceeding is about more than paid prioritization. This proceeding goes to the very basis of FCC authority over broadband. Under the current ‘information service’ classification, the FCC cannot even tell how many broadband subscribers are losing their subscriptions daily because of the economic hardship caused by COVID-19, let alone stop these disconnections.

“The FCC’s stubborn insistence on protecting corporations from oversight — rather than protecting subscribers from harm — reaches its natural conclusion in the agency’s draft Order reaffirming its classifying broadband as a Title I ‘information service.’ Repeatedly, the draft Order affirms that whatever harms happen to the American people, this FCC considers it acceptable to keep the current broadband monopoly deregulated.”

You may view the ex parte for more information.

Public Knowledge is a Washington D.C.- based public interest group working to defend consumer rights in the emerging digital culture. More information is available at