Activists in the Pacific Northwest have warned for years that communities of color and other marginalized groups are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change, and less well-positioned to take advantage of jobs and other benefits likely to result as the region’s economy moves away from fossil fuels.

For evidence, look no further than the fire that ripped through southern Oregon last September. People in the relatively affluent town of Ashland received faster and clearer warnings to evacuate than people in less-well-off towns nearby, say grassroots-organizing groups in the area.

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“People were clueless and our Spanish-speaking community was left out,” said climate activist Niria Garcia, of Talent, Oregon. Damage would ultimately prove more extensive in Talent than in Ashland. Fortunately for Garcia, she took off when she saw smoke in the distance.

Related: Their mobile home parks burned. Now rent is due.

Or take the example of rooftop solar-power panels. An interactive tool created at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that combines federal data on solar deployment and census data shows that for Washington and Oregon, the upper half of households by income account over 80% of those states' residential solar systems.

Recently Oregon’s Department of Energy also documented how state tax credits to incentivize solar installations have historically flowed disproportionately to areas with more white residents.

“The benefits for clean energy were not evenly distributed among Oregonians,” said Janine Benner, director of the energy department.

Now, though, some activists on the issue of climate and equity say the powers that be are starting to hear them, they told InvestigateWest as part of the news organization’s ongoing project, “Getting To Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia.”

“One day I woke up and everyone was finally listening to what I had to say,” said Adrienne Hampton of Seattle’s Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition.

The Duwamish Coalition is one of many groups across the Pacific Northwest fighting to move the economy away from fossil fuels to renewables without burdening already-marginalized communities, or leaving those communities without benefits. For example, they want to protect low-income people from rising transportation and energy bills that could result from climate policies. And they want all communities to have affordable access to cleaner options such as public transit and home retrofits, as well as new jobs in the renewable energy sector.

Despite progress, activists from small rural towns like Talent to the diverse urban landscape of South Seattle say governments still are learning how to consult with the long-marginalized communities that are feeling the biggest effects of climate change.

The Almeda Fire destroyed about 90 mobile homes at Talent Mobile Estates on Sept. 8, 2020. The more affluent community of Ashland was largely spared.

The Almeda Fire destroyed about 90 mobile homes at Talent Mobile Estates on Sept. 8, 2020. The more affluent community of Ashland was largely spared.

April Ehrlich / JPR News

Example: When the city of Seattle set out several years ago to discover what residents of southern Seattle wanted from the transition to a low-carbon economy, some signals got crossed, said Yolanda Matthews, climate justice organizer with Puget Sound Sage, a Seattle-based group advocating for social justice.

Puget Sound Sage was hearing that the community wanted an expansion of public transit, better access to weatherization programs for homes and to build energy-efficient affordable housing. Community members were primarily interested in “having lower energy bills, having energy-efficient appliances, and keeping a roof over their heads,” Matthews said. However, the city thought that the South Seattle community wanted solar panels and incentives on electric vehicles, Matthews said.

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“We constantly needed data to back up everything we said,” Matthews said.

Puget Sound Sage surveyed the community to try to understand what residents thought an equitable transition to renewable energy would look like. The resulting report sought to speak the mind of the community.

“The city tends to think that what works for one community will work for the other,” said Matthews. “That’s why we needed the report, to really prove what our community was thinking and needing.”

The most significant example to date of the movement to decarbonize the Pacific Northwest economy running headlong into aspirations for people of color to be part of the so-called “just transition” to a carbon-free future came in two Washington ballot initiatives.

Here’s how that happened: Progressives in Washington splintered their organizing efforts in two ballot initiatives in 2016 and 2018 designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by taxing the emissions. At the heart of the disagreement was whether tax revenues raised from levies on, for example, carbon dioxide emissions from an asphalt plant should be returned to taxpayers, as happens with British Columbia’s carbon tax, or whether those revenues should instead be used to invest in clean-energy jobs and other community benefits.

Both measures failed by substantial margins. And now the split is happening again, as progressives clash over Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s latest effort to pass so-called “cap-and-trade” legislation ⁠— another mechanism to put a price on carbon emissions ⁠— in the Washington Legislature. Grassroots community groups working on climate change and racial-justice issues are fighting the bill, saying it would go too easy on carbon polluters and offer too little to help marginalized communities. Under the cap-and-trade system, polluters can purchase the right to keep releasing pollution ⁠— not just greenhouse gases but also soot and other pollutants that sicken neighboring communities. The grassroots activists say the pollution needs to be ended instead.

Although the activists aren’t convinced, Inslee says he is taking other measures to “put environmental justice and equity at the center of climate policy,” and provide green jobs.

Despite their differences with Inslee, grassroots groups continue to spotlight the possibilities for the transition to a low-carbon economy to benefit previously marginalized groups. For instance, there are solar panels to install. Wind turbines to be erected. Energy efficiency retrofits to be put in.

“We’re really interested in getting to a regenerative economy,” said Hampton, of the Duwamish Coalition.

While this story doesn’t have a happy ending yet, there are signs of hope. For example, remember the rooftop solar incentives? After discovering how their distribution was weighted toward white and relatively wealthy Oregonians, that state’s energy department is making changes, said Benner, the department director.

Oregon’s long-standing tax credits did achieve their primary goal helping transform solar panels into a cost-effective energy source. Providing equity was not an explicit program goal, and it is not surprising that the credits came up short on that measurement. As Benner put it: “People with low incomes don’t have a lot of tax equity, and so credits don’t really work for them.”

That is no longer acceptable in 2021, the state and climate justice activists agree. Benner said the state is now designing programs with equity in mind from the start, as directed by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown last year and guided by an Environmental Justice Task Force. Solar and home energy storage incentives offered last year in a $1.5-million program provided rebates that help everyone and reserved a quarter of the funds for low- and moderate-income households and installers.

Benner called it “a modest step toward equitable distribution.”

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Peter Fairley contributed to this report.

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Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia is a yearlong project by nonprofit news organizations in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia led by Seattle-based InvestigateWest. To be notified when stories in this series are published, subscribe to a weekly newsletter for updates: bit.ly/invw-newsletter

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