Opinion: Vote ‘yes’ on Berkeley’s Measure HH to support action on climate change

It will create the Climate Equity Action Fund, a $2.4 million fund that will focus on local, practical, equity-focused solutions to climate change.

This year has shown us that equity and climate change are the fundamental challenges of our time, as police brutality and racism, wildfires and hurricanes roil the nation.

As every Californian knows, climate change is no longer a future problem — it is here now, in our faces and in our lungs.  Like COVID-19, climate change is a problem for us all, and something we can’t solve without collective action, and without addressing past and ongoing injustices in our society.

This fall, Berkeley voters will have the chance to do something tangible about these daunting problems. Measure HH would create the Climate Equity Action Fund, a $2.4 million fund to support action on climate change, with a focus on equity.

But what does it mean to tackle both climate and equity together?  What do we mean by climate equity?

We think it means three things.

First, the impacts of pollution fall first and worst on low-income communities, which are often communities of color. Pollution hot spots in the Bay Area are near highways like the often congested stretch of I-80 in West Berkeley, refineries, the Port of Oakland, and other industrial polluters. Thanks to a legacy of redlining and discrimination, these neighborhoods are overwhelmingly black and brown and suffer disproportionately from asthma, lung disease, high blood pressure, and other pollution-related ailments.  The Climate Equity Action Fund will help cut pollution, preventing asthma attacks, saving lives, and creating healthier communities for all.

Second, Measure HH will eliminate utility taxes for low-income households who sign up for PG&E’s rate discount programs, CARE and FERA. Currently, all utility customers in Berkley pay the same local utility tax rate of 7.5%, regardless of income. It would be more equitable to tie utility taxes to wealth, as we do taxes on income, investments, and housing.  Measure HH would exempt low-income customers from the utility tax for the first time, saving about 5,000 Berkeley households an average of $162 per year, at a time when they are hit hard by the COVID pandemic and recession.  (Find out here if you are eligible for CARE and FERA.)

Measure HH would raise the utility tax for other customers but at an average impact of only $4.33 per month, or $2.50 per $100 of a gas and electric bill.  For renters or people in efficient homes, the cost will be considerably less. The proceeds, about $2.4 million per year, will be spent on local climate action, creating a more equitable and livable community.

The fund itself would be the third way to create climate equity. Guided by a panel of experts and engaged community advocates, the funds would be invested by the City Council in local, practical, equity-focused solutions to climate change. This could mean:

  • Incentives to switch to clean transportation, such as transit passes, better bus service to underserved areas, electric bikes, and new and used electric cars.
  • Making homes more energy-efficient and comfortable — and cutting utility bills — with insulation, new windows, and better lighting.
  • Installing clean energy, like putting solar panels on businesses, apartment buildings, community centers, and critical facilities like fire stations.
  • Protecting vulnerable residents from smoke and heat events with air purifiers and air conditioning in tight and efficient buildings.
  • Engaging and educating communities historically left out of climate programs and building community capacity to be at the table and propose their own solutions.

The fund can also be used to supercharge job training and placement programs, creating new opportunities for youth, immigrants, returning citizens, and the hard to employ.  Building the clean energy future is labor-intensive, which is just what we need for a “green recovery” from the COVID pandemic.

To put it all together, imagine this project. Picture an affordable apartment building for low-income elderly tenants. Imagine a program to train and employ young women and men to make the building tighter and more energy efficient. They install a high-efficiency all-electric heating and air conditioning system with a smoke purifier and put solar panels on the roof.  The results: lower utility bills, a more efficient and protective building, good green jobs for workers, and fewer emissions contributing to global warming.

This is just one example.  There are many opportunities to build a better future.  But building the future requires an investment, not just hope.  Marching for justice and tweeting for #ClimateStrike is a start, but voting yes on measure HH will deliver real benefits to everyone, in Berkeley and beyond.

Carl Anthony is the co-founder of Breakthrough Communities. Martin Bourque is the executive director of the Ecology Center. Rev. Ambrose Carroll is the senior pastor at The Church by the Side of the Road. Kathy Dervin, MPH, is the co-founder of 350 Bay Area. Dan Kammen is a professor and chair, Energy and Resources Group, UC Berkeley. Annie Leonard is the executive director of Greenpeace USA. Bentham Paulo is a member of the Berkeley Energy Commission. Karma Smart is a member of the Berkeley Community Health Commissioner. Igor Tregub is the chair of the Sierra Club Northern Alameda County Group.