Soapbox

Cap-and-trade program isn’t working for many poor Californians

Gov. Jerry Brown holds up four climate change bills he signed on Sept. 14 in downtown Fresno, including one directing $900 million in cap-and-trade funds to programs that benefit disadvantaged communities, support clean transportation and protect natural ecosystems.
Gov. Jerry Brown holds up four climate change bills he signed on Sept. 14 in downtown Fresno, including one directing $900 million in cap-and-trade funds to programs that benefit disadvantaged communities, support clean transportation and protect natural ecosystems. sflores@fresnobee.com

As a physician serving South Los Angeles, I see the consequences of bad air every day. I work at a large hospital in the South Bay of Los Angeles County, bordered by the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and peppered with oil refineries. In the emergency department I treat children missing school due to asthma, and whose time for play and sport is limited by the air they breathe.

Thursday, the California Air Resources Board will hear proposed amendments to the state’s controversial cap-and-trade program – a market-based system that caps greenhouse gas emissions and creates a market for polluters to buy and sell allowances. These amendments aim to address some pitfalls of the program, but most important, move to extend cap and trade beyond 2020. As a physician who cares deeply about the health of my patients, I’d like to know why the ARB is fighting to extend a program that does not provide equitable air quality and health benefits for California.

Cap and trade has long been criticized for its inability to benefit communities most impacted by toxic air emissions. If California wants to remain a leader in addressing climate change, our solutions must protect all communities, especially those already burdened by air pollution.

Facilities that emit greenhouse gases also put toxins in the air that damage the health of nearby residents. The burden placed on our mostly Latino and African American population in South Los Angeles is so great that air filters were installed in more than 40 schools to decrease the dramatic rates of asthma in children.

This is not unique. A USC report released last week calls out the health and equity flaws of cap and trade and confirms not only that low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to live near multiple large polluting plants, but also that emissions in these areas are not improving. While cap and trade may gradually reduce carbon emissions, it is not helping communities impacted by dirty air here and now.

The current system is designed in the best interests of polluters, who get loopholes to avoid local emission reductions. Communities on the front lines are disproportionately low income and filled with people of color, with inadequate access to health care. These are the people who are being made to bear the burden of cap and trade’s critical faults.

Assembly Bill 32 set out with the grand promise of tackling climate change and cleaning the air, while maintaining a booming economy. The ARB is legally bound to ensure that disadvantaged communities benefit from state climate policies, but its proposals would enshrine the current system for the next decade – another decade in which children from low-income, predominately African American and Latino communities will grow up with air that doesn’t allow them to reach their full potential.

It’s time to move beyond cap and trade. The ARB urgently needs to explore alternatives to reaching California’s climate goals, options that place people and health over polluters.

Caleb VanderVeen is a family medicine physician doing his residency at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and is a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles. He can be contacted at caleb.j.vanderveen@gmail.com.

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