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Combating Climate Change Begins With Reparations, Bay Area Residents Say

Black residents are calling for solutions as rising groundwater and sea levels present the latest environmental menace.

Two recent studies found that hundreds of toxic sites in the San Francisco Bay Area are at risk of flooding due to groundwater and sea level rise caused by climate change. (Courtesy of Chevron Corp.)

Freda Linder walks daily past a small sign donned with 20 words in Crescent Park Apartments, a majority-Black housing complex in Northern California’s Bay Area.

“WARNING,” the placard reads. “This area contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.”

Linder lives in Richmond, a city of 115,000 people roughly 10 miles from Oakland. After three decades of living in the complex, she forgets the sign is even there. She’s desensitized to the warning despite knowing neighbors who’ve died of cancer, and data that shows babies born in her community have a lower average birth weight than anywhere else in California.

The 61-year-old has never been informed of what chemicals could be causing harm, so she doesn’t know how seriously to take the message.

Freda Linder says she’s become desensitized to warnings in her apartment complex of health risks tied to chemicals in her Richmond, California, neighborhood. (Adam Mahoney/Capital B)

“I just do what I’m supposed to,” she said. “I live here. I need a house, you know.”

Climate change may soon deal another blow to the community. Linder’s home is one of thousands at risk of toxic contamination due to sea level and groundwater rise.

A 2021 study by environmental health professors at the University of California, Berkeley and UCLA found that hundreds of toxic sites in the Bay Area are at risk of flooding due to climate change causing sea level rise, and a recent study by UC Berkeley researchers concluded that groundwater rise may be even worse. Researchers predict that twice as much land in the Bay Area will be affected by rising groundwater than inundated directly by sea level rise. 

In the Bay Area, advocates say climate reparations would protect residents by fortifying the region’s shrinking coasts against flooding and removing harmful industries, including several oil refineries and pipelines, chemical plants, and landfills. Residents have been inspired by California’s first-of-its-kind Black reparations task force and a similar effort in San Francisco. Both task forces were created to deliver policy-based reparations recommendations — including for climate-related issues — to the state legislature and city council, respectively. 

Residents want more measures to support communities that have lived through the health impacts of pollution exposure and the disproportionate experiences of severe weather created by housing policies that forced people of color to America’s most unhealthy areas. Black, Native, and many immigrant populations bear the brunt of the climate crisis, despite contributing the least to it. 

In the early 1900s, the Bay Area had more than 300,000 acres of wetlands, streams, and marshes, protecting the area from flooding. Expanding the region’s shipping ports, fossil fuel terminals, and the general population has left less than 20% of those natural barriers.

Over the next 75 years, as the sea rises over the shore like an overfilled tub and the water deep beneath its soil slips through grains of rock and sediment — much like dishwater squeezed through the pores of a sponge — pockets of old and new industrial waste will seep into Bay Area neighborhoods.

In all, roughly 70% of the impacted communities’ populations are people of color. The flooding will disproportionately affect the region’s Black neighborhoods near industrial sites and former military operations, according to a recent report released by the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury. Local, state, and federal governments have not fully recognized the problem.

“Racism still drives life here”

During World War II, Black Southerners were drawn to the region by grueling jobs offered at the region’s ports and military bases. But once the war ended, so did the opportunities. Since then, the Bay Area’s Black population has shrunk as it has struggled through three generations of environmental injustices and the clawing back of public education, housing, and job opportunities.

The Bay Area’s ports and military bases attracted Black families looking for work during World War II, but job opportunities have evaporated in the generations since. (Adam Mahoney/Capital B)

Margaret Gordon’s father brought her family to the Bay Area so he could work at the shipyards. At the time, it ushered them into the middle class, but since then, the 75-year-old has seen Black folks left behind as technology jobs attracted primarily white and wealthy people. 

“Racism still drives life here, which is why we need reparations,” said Gordon, who has spent decades fighting for environmental clean-ups in her West Oakland neighborhood where the Bay Area’s most contaminated site is located, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency

Read More: A Growing Call for Climate Reparations, Explained

In practice, climate reparations may be able to stop the bleeding. Direct cash payments could help people buy homes, which would not only allow families to build equity, but give them more agency in decisions around protecting their properties from climate change. Typically, tenants have little power to push for their homes to be retrofitted either for energy efficiency or disaster resilience and are three times less likely to be able to afford to flee disasters.

With people in safe housing, increasing access to health care, environmental remediation, and a transition toward clean energy away from the polluting industries fueling climate change may sustain their lives.

And its impact would be life-altering, Gordon said.

“Reparations would allow me to be in a place where my trauma from being Black, being female, and left with all this pollution and [poor] housing wouldn’t drive my life,” she said. “It would allow me to stop reacting from a place of trauma and racism and let me feel like a human being able to enjoy life.”

In June, California’s statewide task force submitted its final, 1,100-page report to the state legislature. In the coming months, the state assembly will be tasked with supporting or throwing away the idea of compensating Black Californians for nearly 200 years of racism that has left Black folks expected to live to the age of 71, seven years less than white Californians — the difference between seeing your grandchildren grow or getting the chance to have any semblance of a post-retirement life.

The price of statewide reparations, of which the task force formally proposed more than 100 policies, could cost tens of billions of dollars, though the final report did not issue a concrete dollar amount. However, as advocates and studies have shown, in the case of climate change, it may be much cheaper to enact some of the principles of climate reparations now. 

A recent study from the University of Southern California found that a single mass-flooding event in California could cost the state upward of $200 billion in damages and lost economic production over three years, while in comparison, spending to fortify coastal infrastructure and lowering fossil fuel production now would net the state tens of billions in positive income. 

“What we want to see,” San Francisco resident Melba Lester said, “is clean up, staying on top of gentrification, and combatting [climate change] so we can keep our community.”

“I wouldn’t want to be around it if I had a choice”

The region’s largest Black communities are situated next to a former military site that’s home to radiological waste from atomic weapons; the Ports of Richmond and Oakland, where air pollution is worse than 97% of the country; and neighboring industrial sites that have allowed lead to infiltrate the soil

But when your attention is occupied by the daily grind of putting food on the table — three of the country’s 15 most expensive cities, including San Francisco and Oakland, are in the Bay Area — these environmental health threats tend to be downplayed. 

“Even though it’s impacting everything, thinking about climate change and pollution as a major issue is really a privilege,” Gordon explained, “because it means you’re not fighting to survive.” 

Still, she knows it’s life-threatening not to think about it. Because of stigmas, a lack of health care, and the inability to focus on constant health threats, Black people in the Bay Area are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with cancer at later, less treatable stages than white residents, according to a study from the University of California, Davis.

Read More: Racism’s Relentless Toll on Black Health in America

Linder, the Crescent Park Apartments resident, knows many of the human faces found in the data. She has seen cancer take the lives of two consecutive people living directly beneath her, but Richmond is her home. 

As a divorced parent bouncing between some of the Bay Area’s Black communities in Oakland and San Francisco, it was always her goal to end up right where she is. As she put it, she is in Richmond’s nicest housing project, despite being closer to toxic and hazardous sites than 96% of California households, including being less than 3 miles from one of the country’s most contaminated sites

“I was just really ready to have my own place for me and my daughter, and I considered the pollution around here, but what was I supposed to do,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to be around it if I had a choice.”

With an increased likelihood of toxic contamination and the already limited affordable housing options, remaining residents fear being displaced. Ultimately, it’s about having the ability to have a choice to stay put or flee. 

Without direct investment, many won’t have a say; arguing, they’ll have lived through the worst health impacts of pollution and economic divestment only to be pushed toward communities such as Fresno and San Bernardino, California, and Phoenix, which are cheaper but unable to offer them better life outcomes. 

Read More: Black Americans Are Moving to Phoenix in Historic Numbers. Few Are Finding a Better Life.

The slow churn of the erasure of the region’s historic communities that birthed the Black Panther Party and raised the likes of Maya Angelou and Etta James is well underway. Since 1990, the Bay Area, consisting of nine counties, has seen its Black population drop by 20% while the total population has grown by 25%. 

The Bay Area is the home of the Black Panther Party. Since 1990, however, the region’s Black population has dropped 20%, while the overall population has increased 25%. (Adam Mahoney/Capital B)

Much of that decline results from a lack of job and housing opportunities. Across the region, Black people are least likely of all races to own a home, as housing costs have risen roughly 75% since 2015. Black people are also unemployed at the region’s highest rate, double that of all other races.

“For me, I’m ready to pack up and go,” said Janice Hunter, an Oakland resident and program manager at Greenaction, an environmental organization that works in Bayview-Hunters Point. 

“I just want to be in a place where we can afford to live and work, breathe without inhaling toxic fumes, where law enforcement doesn’t respond to your community with a vengeance, and where you can even grow vegetables in your backyard without lead being in your soil,” Hunter said. 

“Pushing a culture shift” 

While sitting at Unity Park in Richmond, kids and parents across the concrete and grass yell out for Najari Smith. His face is well known. A few years ago, his organization, Rich City Rides, helped build the park, turning a vacant lot into a “vibrant resource.”  

Over the past decade, the activist and organizer has helped revolutionize the industrial community’s relationship with the environment around them. The change hasn’t been easy considering the impact of Chevron, which operates the country’s 25th-largest oil refinery in Richmond and funds around one-third of the city’s annual budget through taxes and municipal services.

In Richmond, California, Najari Smith has helped revolutionize the community’s relationship with the surrounding environment through his organization, Rich City Rides. (Adam Mahoney/Capital B)

In its own way, Smith says, the group has already begun to offer climate reparations for the city, whose share of Black residents has dropped from 50% to less than 20% in three decades. 

Rich City Rides has led hundreds of community bike rides, created a free bike program for children, and partnered with other organizations to offer mental health services and increase access to healthy food.  

“Our dependence on polluting industries has disrupted our connections to one another and extracted so much life from us,” Smith said. “We’re pushing a culture shift. We’re relearning the ancient ways of how we relate to one another, how we relate to our land, how we conduct commerce, how we build together.” 

Smith hopes the group’s climate reparation model can expand through its goal to open four community hubs, including a Black wellness hub, a child care center, and a multiuse complex for Black businesses with a co-living and working space. Having secured more than $1 million in funding, the group wants to purchase an industrial warehouse next to Unity Park, turning it into the wellness hub — a “sanctuary for Bay Area Black culture,” Smith said.

“We have to actually heal the Earth and heal each other, and that is where reparations come into play,” he said. “It has to start with Black people because the ecological damage this country has caused began with damaging us.”