UC ANR symposium focuses on climate change policy and environmental justice

Nov 14, 2019

On a crisp fall morning at University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources' Elkus Ranch, a group of scholars and practitioners gathered for a daylong public symposium on “Advancing Climate Change Policy and Environmental Justice in California.” Against the sunlit backdrop of rolling golden hills and leaves just turning color, Dr. Leah Stokes of UC Santa Barbara delivered a keynote address on the current crowded landscape of federal-level climate change policy proposals.

As Stokes explained, the much-discussed Green New Deal is currently a broad, vaguely defined resolution, and so it "lives in the democratic primaries." For details on what something like it might entail, one must look to the Democratic candidates' climate action plans, Stokes said. Most of the proposals reflect a shift in the conversation about what kinds of emissions reductions need to be met and on what timeline — out of recognition that current targets are insufficient — as well as a new focus on strategies that go beyond carbon taxes.

Particularly relevant to UC ANR, Stokes noted a growing interest amongst policymakers in climate smart agriculture. For the first time, she said, policy wonks and mainstream media are picking up on terms like “regenerative agriculture” and “soil carbon sequestration” as important components of a climate policy. Yet Stokes' own polling data shows that “natural carbon storage” is still not a concept that resonates with the public as an important issue — most likely because many don't know what it means.

Here, then, lies an opportunity for UC ANR — to educate and share these ideas so the public might become more familiar with these kinds of climate mitigation strategies. Particularly amongst rural communities, Stokes reminded us that we can play a role in demonstrating how climate smart agriculture can provide benefits, such as income generation and job creation through managing land for carbon sequestration.

After a robust Q&A session with Stokes, we moved into our panel, “Advancing Equitable Climate Change Policy: Practitioner Experiences From the Field,” which featured four practitioners working at the interface of environmental justice and climate change policy  — Federico Castillo of UC Berkeley, Sylvia Chi of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Janaki Jagannath (formerly) of the Community Alliance for Agro-ecology, and our own Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, a UCCE small farms advisor in Fresno County.

The crux of their conversation rested on a tricky question that underlies the concept of a “just transition”— or how to create policies and programs that balance the long-term need to reduce resource extraction with the immediate needs of disadvantaged populations. As a clear example, the recently passed Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) has a laudable goal of aiming to reduce groundwater overdraft and curtail groundwater pumping, but questions remain.

For example, when groundwater limits are imposed, it's unclear what will this mean for smaller farmers who can't compete with larger farmers that often have additional resources to compensate for their groundwater loss. Or as Castillo pointed out, what happens when solar farms reduce jobs for farmworkers? Dahlquist-Willard's work has been addressing these kinds of questions directly, as she helps small-scale farmers access Climate Smart Agriculture state funds (SWEEP in particular) to develop water infrastructure on their farms, many of which suffered from wells that ran dry in the recent drought.

As Jagannath noted, it is helpful to take an expansive view on why soil carbon sequestration — the goal of “climate smart agriculture” — is important. She noted that it involves agricultural practices that contribute to carbon mitigation, but that also improve how agriculture is currently done. That can, in turn, mean less pesticide use, improved soil quality, and reduced pollutants leaching into groundwater — all of which matter greatly to the health and well being of disadvantaged communities, particularly those living near agricultural areas.

The afternoon featured a virtual keynote delivered by Tamara Toles O'Laughlin, the North American director for 350.org. As an environmental advocate focused on equity, access and community, she gave a compelling vision of the kind of political action we need to protect all people and the planet. Notably, she introduced our group to a number of climate justice organizations that may be relevant for own work within UCCE.

We concluded the day with a truly inspiring panel made up of four female scholars on the rise in the world of climate action: Mackenzie Feldman of Data for Progress (and UC Berkeley alum), Jessica Rudnick of UC Davis, Clarke Knight of UC Berkeley, and Kripa Jagannathan of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

Each of these young scholars is taking a unique approach to their engaged scholarship, from democratizing the collection of climate data by involving farmers (Jagannathan and Rudnick), to jumping into the fray of writing policy briefs about agriculture for the Green New Deal (Feldman), to showcasing the viability of green jobs in the popular press (Knight). Their panel made clear that there is much for even seasoned UC ANR colleagues to learn about linking research to policy from emerging scholars within our institutions.  

As the day concluded, members of the UC ANR had the opportunity to enjoy seasonal snacks together, reflect on the day and wander up the road to visit the resident Elkus animals — chickens, sheep, goats, horses and a particularly ornery llama.

By Clare Gupta
Author - UC Cooperative Extension specialist