Reflections on the Intersection of Climate Change, Justice, and Equity

By: Toshi Ishihara, SD350 board member and member of the Transportation Committee.

Climate Change is real, and we know that the world needs to come together to reduce and eventually eliminate greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the worst impacts of Climate Change. The challenge from shifting from our fossil fuel-based economy to one powered by renewable energy is a huge challenge in our political environment both domestically and globally. Unfortunately, the above was my entire limited understanding of the climate change problem when I started volunteering with SD350 in the fall of 2018. The  equation was simply “GHG Emissions = Climate Change”.

But, then things changed. About a year ago, upon a request from SD350, I started working with the San Diego Transportation Equity Working Group. SDTEWG is a coalition composed of the Environmental Health Coalition, City Heights Community Development Corporation, Mid-City Community Advocacy Network, the Center on Policy Initiatives, and San Diego 350. Each of these organizations, except SD350, are deeply rooted in environmental justice communities, communities of color, and other communities of concern. The coalition works to influence local governments and public agencies to provide convenient, affordable, and equitable solutions to their communities’ needs of transportation while addressing climate injustice. 

Since “Justice” and “Equity” were not commonly used words at the companies I worked for except as in “pay equity”, my learning curve as a new member of the SDTEWG planning group was extremely steep. However, as I learned little by little the environmental injustices that those communities had been struggling with for generations, it became clear to me that as a climate change advocate I needed to study and work on the intersection of climate change, justice, and equity and also to look at the climate change actions and solutions from a different perspective. Climate solutions that only reduce GHG emissions are no longer acceptable to me today.

Pushing for 100% renewable energy, emission-free transportation systems, and fightingthe fossil industry are good goals that will uproot the major cause of climate change and help the renewables industry flourish. 

But, what then? A superficial transfer of wealth from the fossil fuel industry to the renewable energy industry (especially given how many fossil fuel companies are accruing financial interests in the renewable sector) won’t change systemic economic inequity or environmental justice. 

It would be naive to think that renewable energy companies, once they gain dominant political influence and financial power, won’tl continue to exploit communities of concern as the fossil fuel industry has for decades. 

While some environmental organizations have accepted this tradeoff as a necessary evil to bring atmospheric CO2 levels down to 350ppm, I am proud that SanDiego350 has stood with environmental justice groups to demand solutions that prioritize frontline communities and equity. 

I very much enjoy working with the SDTEWG folks, and I regard them as my teachers on the intersection of climate change, justice, and equity. They may not think they are teaching me, but I am definitely learning some very important life lessons.

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