This story is part of the series Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia, which explores the path to low-carbon energy for British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. This project is produced in partnership with InvestigateWest and other media outlets and is supported in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

The heavy wind woke Niria Garcia about 5 a.m. It whipped against her home, leaving her restless as she fitfully tried to get a little more sleep.

“Something doesn’t feel right,” Garcia thought to herself.

On that day last September, a devastating fire ripped through Southern Oregon, whipped by those very winds that woke Garcia, a Xicana climate activist based in Talent, a town of about 6,500 people. Three people would die and more than 2,800 homes and other buildings would be destroyed by the fire.

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Later that morning, Garcia heard that nearby Ashland was being evacuated. Around 11 a.m. Garcia looked out her window and saw that the wind still was not letting up. Then she saw the smoke.

“I’m not going to sit here and wait,” said Garcia. 

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She evacuated immediately.

It was only in Ashland, a wealthier area five miles down Interstate 5, that residents were told to evacuate, activists said after the fire. Jackson County’s emergency alert system left out many communities, they said, including Talent, a community with mobile home parks and other low-income housing and a median household income of $40,400. Ashland’s median household income is $56,315.

“People were clueless and our Spanish-speaking community was left out,” said Garcia in a recent interview. Damage would ultimately prove more extensive in Talent than in Ashland.

The racial and social disparities exposed by the September fire are emblematic of a broader picture: Communities of color, low-income people, and other marginalized groups are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change, according to community activists across Cascadia. From country towns like Talent to the diverse urban landscape of South Seattle, activists say the government is not yet fully hearing from the long-marginalized communities that are feeling the biggest effects of climate change.

“I really see this as a little microcosm of everything that’s going on,” said Elib Crist-Dwyer, of Rogue Climate, a grassroots organization in the Talent area working to help ensure that people in marginalized communities have the resources to deal with the effects of climate change, and that they have access to clean energy. Of the issues posed, he said: “There’s racial justice in here, climate justice, and economic justice.”

People seated outside the Fire Mutual Aid Center in Phoenix, Oregon, last month. The center offers resources, food and clothing and assistance in finding new housing after a September 2020 fire left thousands homeless. Destructive wildfires like this are predicted to grow more common across Cascadia with continuing climate change. Denise Baratta/InvestigateWest

Rogue Climate’s office — a converted greenhouse — was burned out during the fire. “The last time I drove by, it was just an empty lot,” said Crist-Dwyer.

Nowadays, Crist-Dwyer and others from Rogue Climate work at a rented office space in a strip mall. In the same little strip mall, another storefront was turned into a resource center for displaced residents where, Crist-Dwyer said, “You can get anything from water to a quick hot meal to a new set of dishes.” He helps clients seeking donations as well as people who need help resettling.

Many of the homes that burned in the September fire were trailer homes occupied by Latinx residents, low-income people, farm workers, seniors, and immigrant community members.

Even before the fire, Southern Oregon already was dealing with housing shortages and severe rent burdens.

“The livability down here is really challenging,” Crist-Dwyer said. In cities like Medford and Eugene, close to 30 percent of renter households spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent.

“That’s even me with a good-paying job,” Crist-Dwyer said.

He is noticing two trends. The first is that the continued marginalization of communities in this area is contributing to this crisis. The second is seeing the community become activated around justice and equity. Ashland, to the south of Talent, and Medford to the north, are more affluent communities that have largely ignored the marginalization of communities of color and low-income communities in Talent and Phoenix, Crist-Dwyer said. “So there’s these communities that have already been really marginalized, without a safety net of any kind,” Crist-Dwyer said. Despite the housing shortage and even before the fire, the population of Rogue Valley and surrounding Jackson County experienced steady population growth. “The majority of people who lost their homes in the fire want to come back,” said Allie Rosenbluth, campaign director of Rogue Climate.

But can they? As climate change engenders more fires, floods, and other disasters that disproportionately affect communities of color, Cascadia is wrestling with how to protect these communities after a history of largely failing to do so. Increasingly, people of color are seeking a seat at the decision-making tables. Activists say politicians and others are paying more attention to these issues of equity. But there’s still a long way to go.

Rebecca Johnson, of Ashland, Oregon, hands out meals donated by Apocalypse Chow of Medford, Oregon to those in need, Friday, February 12, 2021 at the Fire Mutual Aid Center in Phoenix, Oregon. Denise Baratta/InvestigateWest

Crossed signals in South Seattle

Industrial South Seattle is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Cascadia. And one of the most polluted. It’s also an example of how communities of color are struggling to be heard as governments make plans to transition to a zero-carbon economy.

With air pollution wafting into many residents’ homes from diesel trucks making their way from the nearby Port of Seattle, and the Duwamish River declared one of the nation’s largest toxic-pollution Superfund sites, the area anchors a swath of high-pollution, high-health-risk areas. Those risks are identified in a map showing statewide environmental public health data from the Washington State Department of Health. The Washington Environmental Disparities Map reveals that both the Duwamish River Valley and Puget Sound rank high in environmental health disparities such as larger proportions of residents exposed to toxic soot.

All of that has consequences. Life expectancy in the Duwamish River Valley is 13 years lower than in wealthier neighborhoods in North Seattle. The longstanding racial and ethnic inequities exemplified in South Seattle were central to the most significant example to date of the movement to decarbonize Cascadia running headlong into aspirations for people of color to be part of the so-called “just transition” to a carbon-free future.

Here’s how that happened: Progressives in Washington splintered their organizing efforts in two ballot initiatives in 2016 and 2018 designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by taxing them. At the heart of the disagreement was whether tax revenues raised from levies on, for example, carbon dioxide emissions from an asphalt plant should be returned to taxpayers, as happens with British Columbia’s carbon tax; or whether those revenues should instead be used to invest in clean-energy jobs and other benefits to communities of color, labor groups, and others who can provide broad support at the ballot box.

Both measures failed by substantial margins. (For a detailed look at the standoff, see David Roberts’ piece for Vox.) And now, grassroots community groups working on climate change and racial-justice issues are vowing to fight Governor Jay Inslee’s latest effort to pass cap-and-trade legislation in the Washington Legislature, saying it would go too easy on carbon polluters without doing enough to help marginalized communities. Inslee says he would “put environmental justice and equity at the center of climate policy,” and provide green jobs.

“The transition to renewable energy offers an opportunity to generate community prosperity,” says Puget Sound Sage, a grassroots organizing group in South Seattle. “Our community needs the benefits of the transition to be reinvested back into our wallets, our neighborhoods, and our infrastructure.”

Where does that leave decarbonization efforts today? Grassroots groups continue to spotlight the possibilities for this transition to benefit previously marginalized groups.

“We’re really interested in getting to a regenerative economy,” said Adrienne Hampton, climate policy and engagement manager of Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, one organization that has been fighting for “climate resilience,” meaning that the community can prepare for, recover from, and adapt to the impacts of climate change. The Duwamish coalition works to lay the groundwork for community decision-making, create economic equity, and eliminate the community’s disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards.

The Duwamish Coalition is one of many groups across Cascadia fighting to move the economy away from fossil fuels to renewables without burdening already-marginalized communities, or leaving those communities out of benefits. For example, they want to protect low-income people from rising transportation and energy bills that could result from climate policies. And they want all communities to have affordable access to cleaner options such as public transit and home retrofits, as well as new jobs in the renewable energy sector.

Puget Sound Sage surveyed the community to try to understand what residents thought an equitable transition to renewable energy would look like. The resulting report sought to speak the mind of the community. In her outreach, Yolanda Matthews, climate justice organizer with Puget Sound Sage, noted that community members were primarily interested in “having lower energy bills, having energy-efficient appliances, and keeping a roof over their heads.”

However, the city had its own ideas about what the South Seattle community needed. “We constantly needed data to back up everything we said,” said Matthews. The needs of the community and plans of the city did not align, she said. Puget Sound Sage was hearing that the community wanted an expansion of public transit, better access to weatherization programs for homes, and to build energy-efficient affordable housing. However, the city thought that the South Seattle community wanted solar panels and incentives on electric vehicles, Matthews said. “The city tends to think that what works for one community will work for the other,” said Matthews. “That’s why we needed the report, to really prove what our community was thinking and needing,” said Matthews.

But will the city listen? Only time will tell. And the scene echoes 300 miles to the south.

Map courtesy InvestigateWest

Hitting the gas in Eugene

Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong — some of the biggest Black luminaries of the mid-20th century music scene — number among the Black travelers who stayed at the Historic Mims House at 330 High Street in Eugene. Why? In the 1940s, they were not allowed to rent rooms at whites-only motels. Fast-forward to this century and the Mims House is the regional branch office of the NAACP, which is working to convert the building into a solar installation project. “There aren’t a whole lot of examples of that in Eugene right now,” said Aimee Okotie-Oyekan, the NAACP Eugene/Springfield branch’s environmental and climate justice coordinator. The branch is doing this through a grant program with the Eugene Water and Electric Board that allows customers to designate a small portion of their utility payment to support the solar installation. Aligning with the national NAACP’s Solar Equity Initiative, the branch aims to conduct a demonstration so that the community can learn about clean energy.

The NAACP is also a part of a new campaign, Fossil Free Eugene, a coalition of environmental organizations including Beyond Toxics, Sunrise Eugene, 350 Eugene, and Cascadia Wildlands. Two main demands of the Fossil Free Eugene campaign are to ban the construction of all new fossil fuel infrastructure in Eugene and levy a fee on polluters such as NW Natural, the region’s natural-gas utility, to create a fund to help historically marginalized and low-income communities make the switch to renewable energy. This funding mechanism takes inspiration from the Portland Clean Energy Fund, a grant program established by a 2018 ballot initiative. The Portland fund is designed to distribute up to $61 million a year in clean energy funding for job training, energy efficiency, renewable energy infrastructure, and innovation. It prioritizes low-income residents and communities of color.

In early February, the Fossil Free Eugene Campaign scored a victory when the Eugene City Council rejected NW Natural’s proposal to renew a franchise agreement allowing the utility to run its pipes under city rights of way. Backed by the campaign, “the city was trying to incorporate our climate action and carbon reduction goals into their franchise agreement with Northwest Natural,” said Dylan Plummer, grassroots organizer of Cascadia Wildlands. This renewal would have locked the city into another 20-year contract. “What was at stake was the legitimacy of our city’s climate recovery goals,” Plummer said. “Our coalition was directly responsible for providing our city councilors with the support needed to take Northwest Natural to task,” said Plummer. Despite this victory, activists like Okotie-Oyekan and Plummer say much work remains.

The NAACP branch in Eugene, Oregon, is headquartered in the historic Mims House, where the pioneering African-American couple CB and Annie Mims welcomed Black travelers in the 1940s when most lodgings for travelers were restricted to whites only. Today, the NAACP is seeking to convert the home into a solar-energy installation, supported by check-off donations when residents pay their utility bills. Here, young people of color pose on the porch. NAACP Eugene/Lane County

A ray of hope in state solar initiative?

It’s going to take a lot of lobbying and government action to enable a so-called just transition that focuses on equity, activists say, but some glimmers of progress are evident. Take the example of rooftop solar installations. An interactive tool created at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that combines federal data on solar deployment and census data shows that for Washington and Oregon, the upper half of households by income account for over 80 percent of those states’ residential solar systems.

Similar census-enhanced research by Oregon’s Department of Energy recently added another layer to the solar gap: racial bias. Agency director Janine Benner explained during a presentation of the department’s 2020 biennial energy report recently that, using census data, agency researchers determined that state tax credits to incentivize solar installations have historically flowed disproportionately to areas with more white residents.

“The benefits for clean energy were not evenly distributed among Oregonians,” said Benner.

Oregon’s long-standing tax credits did achieve their primary goal of helping transform solar panels into a cost-effective energy source. Providing equity was not an explicit program goal, and it is not surprising that the credits came up short on that measurement. As Benner put it: “People with low incomes don’t have a lot of tax equity, and so credits don’t really work for them.”

That is no longer acceptable in 2021, the state says. Oregon’s Department of Energy head said they are now designing programs with equity in mind from the start, as directed by Governor Kate Brown last year and guided by an Environmental Justice Task Force. Solar and home energy storage incentives offered last year, a one-year $1.5-million program, provided rebates that help everyone and reserved a quarter of the funds for low- and moderate-income households and installers. Benner called it “a modest step toward equitable distribution.”

Advocates for a “just transition” to a carbon-free economy that does not unduly burden already-marginalized people say that after years of struggle, they are seeing hopeful signs.

Said Hampton, of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition:

“One day I woke up and everyone was finally listening to what I had to say.”

Robert McClure and Peter Fairley contributed to this report. Sensitivity editing by Momo Chang.