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An incomplete sidewalk along Elm Avenue in the Nestor neighborhood. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

There’s a lot of data – 41 different categories – behind San Diego’s Climate Equity Index, its attempt to identify poorer neighborhoods that are more vulnerable to climate change so it can funnel money to them.

It could be that there’s too much data, as one researcher I talked to said.

“There’s so much going on as far as the different indicators across different scales,” said Greg Pierce, an urban planner who studies climate and environmental inequities at UCLA. “I’m not really sure what it’s saying at the end of the day.”

He may have a point.

Governments need science-based tools to understand where hazards from a warming planet will fall so they can spend money to protect vulnerable people. But the Climate Equity Index also assesses risks from hazards that aren’t really related to climate change, like a neighborhood’s proximity to hazardous waste or pesticide use or solid waste sites. Climate hazards are usually produced in the form of extreme weather events like heat waves, droughts or floods.

That might be why, in the case of the older and poorer Nestor versus the richer and newly developed Ocean View Hills, the tool flagged the latter neighborhood as one deserving extra support.

According to the index, Ocean View Hills is more prone to risks from hazardous waste and solid waste facilities. It also scored higher on the urban heat island effect – meaning it suffers more from extreme heat that occurs around built environments with lots of heat-trapping concrete and pavement. That’s probably because the census tract where Ocean View Hills is located is adjacent to a large landfill; there’s a small airport to its south which can increase pollution; and it’s also home to a handful of car and truck recycling yards.

But the idea behind climate equity is identifying whether the people in an area have enough in their pocketbooks to deal with those risks. Of the aforementioned problems Ocean View Hills faces, the urban heat island effect is most related to climate change. As the planet warms, hotter places will likely get hotter. So, what is this tool really measuring — climate risks, or proximity to pollution resulting from land-use decisions by people in power?

Air pollution is one issue inextricably linked to climate change. A warming planet causes changes in air temperature, humidity and rain, which can change the concentration of dust, ozone and other air pollutants in the atmosphere. (Dust is a bigger problem than you might think. Photos from space show expanding dust plumes from drought-stricken western Africa hitting U.S. shores, and big dust particles can attract other types of pollution – even carry COVID-19.)

Carolina Martinez, climate justice director at Environmental Health Coalition, said she had to fight for inclusion of air pollution data in the city’s index – which the city added in its updated version released this year.

“Historically air quality has been disregarded by mainstream environment groups as an issue of climate,” Martinez said.

Martinez represented EHC among 35 different community organizations the city worked with to create the Climate Equity Index. But EHC wasn’t in favor of the city creating its own tool in the first place. One already exists, Martinez said, and that’s the CalEnviroScreen tool created by the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

Like San Diego’s Climate Equity Index, the state’s CalEnviroScreen tool maps “disadvantaged communities” by census tract. It looks at pollution burden and health risks communities face, distinguishing the 25 percent that face the heaviest burden. That’s what the city of San Francisco uses to determine eligibility for millions of dollars in funding for job programs, housing development opportunities and environmental clean-up efforts, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. But the newspaper pointed out that even the state tool missed some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

During a Dec. 14 council meeting, San Diego City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe said CalEnviroScreen “leaves out” a lot of very vulnerable communities in her district, too. And city staff said that’s part of the reason why San Diego opted to create its own tool in the first place – to capture more communities of concern.

Pierce, from UCLA, said the CalEnviroScreen gets used well beyond the purpose for which it was created back in 2000 – to identify populations vulnerable to pollution. But to advocates like Martinez, it’s the best and most refined tool available for identifying communities at risk from environmental harm.

“It does the job,” she said. “Now it’s time for the city to move on its responsibility to deliver solutions to the community immediately.”

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