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What is environmental justice? 

Environmental justice is one of those things most readily understood, and keenly felt, in its absence.

As we all embark on the first year of what may be a pivotal decade in human history, this seems like a good time to have a conversation about environmental justice. The Sierra Club will be hosting one such conversation at 7 p.m. on Jan. 15 in the third floor auditorium of the Copeland Pavilion, located behind the French Medical Center at 1823 Johnson Ave. in SLO.

If you're unsure as to the meaning of "environmental justice" and have never felt it, you should ask someone who has. Here's Dr. Rosanna Esparza:

"I moved from Pasadena to Kern County in 2014 to take up the fight against oil and gas development in the belly of the beast, Kern County. I left my life as a gerontologist and hit the ground running as an organizer and front-line environmental researcher in Lost Hills. Chevron frack towers are less than 50 feet from the 'Wonderful Academy' charter school. This is the sixth largest oil field in Kern County, the eighth largest in California. The population center is less than one-quarter mile from the forest of pump jacks and processing plants. It's a place where the noise never stops, and residents are trapped in the world of a company town. Volatile organic compounds plus heat equals a bad, bad day."

You could also ask the residents of Oceano who can't afford to live anywhere else, can't safely use their beach, and face a future of inundation if motorized recreation on the Oceano Dunes continues to be prioritized over their welfare, continuing to stunt the prosperity of their town and grind down the only natural barrier between their community and rising seas.

Oceano is a local poster child for the kind of injustice that has increasingly made economically disadvantaged communities, tribal communities, and communities of color the primary victims of climate change, with the fewest resources to prepare for or recover from its harms.

The state amended the California Coastal Act a few years ago to give the California Coastal Commission special authority when it comes to environmental justice.

Part of the commission's new mission is to "strongly encourage local governments to amend their local coastal programs to address environmental justice issues, develop a guidance memo for local governments to assist with the incorporation of environmental justice policies, and develop a list of best practices to help reduce disparate impacts on vulnerable communities."

On the national level, about 20 years ago, the Sierra Club's board of directors adopted an eight-point environmental justice policy supporting the right to a clean and healthful environment for all people. In summary, that means we support:

• The right to democracy, which means constraining corporate influence over governments to stop the erosion of the peoples' right to govern themselves and governments' ability to promote the general welfare.

• The right to participate in the development of rules, regulations, and plans at every level of environmental decision-making.

• The right to equal protection and the redress of environmental inequities, because laws, policies, regulations, or criteria that result in disproportionate impacts are discriminatory, whether or not such a result was intended.

• The right to know, with information being necessary for informed environmental decision-making.

• The right to sustainable environmental benefits, because people are entitled to enjoy the aesthetic, cultural, educational, sacred, subsistence, and other environmental benefits of natural resources, and actions that degrade the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community are unethical.

• The right to equity, which means the right to a safe and healthful work and home environment.

• The right to generational equity, which is the fundamental right of future generations to enjoy the benefits of natural resources, including clean air and water, and to receive a heritage of wilderness and a functioning global ecosystem.

• The rights of native people, including their sovereign powers to protect the environment and establish environmental justice.

Last summer, for the first time, leading U.S. environmental justice and national environmental groups advanced an Equitable and Just National Climate Platform (ajustclimate.org), highlighting a shared vision that calls for national climate action that confronts racial, economic, and environmental injustice while enacting deep cuts in climate pollution and accelerating a pollution-free energy future that benefits all communities.

The broad coalition signing on to the platform agrees that, "all people and all communities have the right to breathe clean air, live free of dangerous levels of toxic pollution, have access to healthy food, and share the benefits of a prosperous and vibrant clean economy."

Unless justice and equity are central aspects of our climate agenda, the inequality of the carbon-based economy will be replicated as we build a new clean and renewable energy economy. We are committed to working in partnership to define new policy ideas that tackle climate change and address environmental injustice, and ensure that those ideas become reality. That means regular collaboration in shared forums.

If you're ready to think globally and act locally, please join us, along with Jeremias Salazar of Food and Water Watch, Cynthia Replogle of Surfrider, and Carmen Bouquin of the Sierra Club's Santa Lucia Chapter at the Copeland Pavilion on Jan. 15. Δ

Andrew Christie is the director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Send comments through clanham@newtimesslo.com or write a letter to the editor and email it to letters@newtimesslo.com.

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