I woke up Wednesday Sept. 9 and thought my alarm had gone off too early. The sky was the color of blood oranges, and ash was falling. It was not my alarm that was off, but the climate. The Earth was demanding that we pay attention.
That day redoubled my resolve to pass Measure HH, Berkeley’s Climate Equity Action Fund.
We have now broken so many climate-related records in 2020 that it’s hard to keep track: heatwaves in California hitting 130 degrees, over 4 million acres burned, 44 Spare the Air days in the Bay Area, and more.
The climate crisis is now here, and is going to get much worse if we don’t act fast.
The impact of climate change is compounded for those of us who do not have the luxury of working from home, or even indoors, and those who do not have an indoors at all. I think of Berkeley’s essential workers collecting garbage, delivering food, and doing construction in the heat, the smoke and, now, ‘dark days.’ I worry about how the elderly, disabled, and immuno-compromised will deal with the dual impacts of it being too hot to stay indoors, and too smokey to open the window.
These impacts are another assault on top of the historic inequities and systemic racism inherent in existing health, education and housing disparities — disparities that have been laid bare as COVID-19 takes a disproportionate toll on Black and brown communities. It is clear that waiting for Washington to lead will not make us safe, and state leadership is not enough to address the significant gaps in our local response.
To date, most of our local climate approaches, based on incentives that are advantageous to better-off homeowners, have failed to address renters and are cost-prohibitive for low-income property owners. They typically do not center the needs of low-income and communities of color. While some of us can afford an electric vehicle and the needed charging infrastructure, many working people must continue to drive older cars or take (increasingly less regular) public transit.
The most energy inefficient residences in Berkeley are older homes and apartments without sufficient insulation or heating; these are the same homes that produce the most greenhouse gasses. Improvements here can reduce residents’ energy costs, improve comfort and literally insulate vulnerable children and elders from the direct impacts in their homes — and protect the rest of us by reducing greenhouse gasses.
Measure HH envisions a combination of specific programs from subsidized transportation — shuttles and memberships in scooter and bike share programs — to programs to reduce the climate impacts of our residences through energy efficiency programs that also hire community members into good green-collar jobs. Other programs could include free or subsidized air purifiers for vulnerable populations, and KN95 masks for day laborers and the unhoused.
Over the past year I have worked with my colleagues on the City Council, city staff and community advocates and agencies to explore how we can raise funds specifically to slow climate change, protect those most vulnerable to its ravages and advance equity. A change in the Berkeley Utility Tax is the clearest and most directly relevant route. Measure HH exempts the lowest income residents from the existing 7.5% utility tax, saving these households hundreds of dollars a year, and increases this tax for others in a “use more, pay more” model of $2.50 for every $100 of energy expense. Annually, it will generate approximately $2.4 million that we can, with community input, leverage for significant impact.
Measure HH establishes a Climate Equity Action Fund and a renames the Energy Commission as the Climate Action and Energy Commission. This revised commission has additional specific commissioner qualifications like expertise in social and racial equity and new oversight responsibilities to make recommendations to the City Council on how to allocate funds deposited into the Climate Equity and Action Fund. The Council has kept faith with the spirit and intent of the Sugar Sweetened Beverage Tax and will do so here.
Many have said now is not the time: our society is facing a raging pandemic, economic collapse, police brutality, displacement and homelessness; they believe we can not afford another measure increasing even minimally the cost of living. To them I say we can not afford to wait. We can begin now or pay much more — in lives, homes, livelihoods and dollars — later. This modest increase in energy taxes is a small down payment on the much deeper and more dramatic necessary changes. Let’s get started now on long overdue efforts. We can begin to slow down the climate crisis and we can certainly begin to protect those most impacted.
I hope you will join me, the Ecology Center, the Sierra Club, SEIU 1021, Green the Church, 350 Bay Area, the League of Women Voters, Energy Commissioners, East Bay Working Families, Transition Berkeley, Physicians for Climate Now! and many others in supporting Measure HH.
You can find out more, donate, and get involved at Climate Equity Action Fund.