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Sonoma County Gazette
Photos: Will Carruthers

Residents Present Different Visions of Sonoma County’s Environmental Progress at Global Summit

Sep 21, 2018
by Will Carruthers


The Global Climate Action Summit got off to a confrontational start on Thursday, Sept. 13. In the streets outside of a downtown San Francisco conference center, hundreds of activists gathered in an intersection blocking traffic and chanting as summit attendees in business attire walked past.

The two groups represented a clash in ideas about how best to combat climate change. Inside the building, representatives of states, cities and businesses pledged new greenhouse gas reduction goals despite a lack of leadership from Washington DC. Those in the street criticized the summit as too little, too late: serving primarily corporate interests, not the needs of people directly impacted by climate change.

By the mid-morning, the shaky relationship between the two groups was summarized in a series of dismissive comments by California Governor Jerry Brown and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a press conference held in the basement of the building.


“We’ve got environmentalists protesting an environmental conference. It reminds me of people who want to build a wall along the Mexican border to keep people out from a country that we go to for vacations. Something’s crazy here,” Bloomberg said.

North Bay residents participated in both sides of the debate over how to best fight climate change and whether local governments have done enough.

Inside the Summit

Sonoma County Supervisors, including Shirlee Zane and James Gore, participated in events related to the summit.

On Wednesday, Sept. 12, Zane, a board member of the Bay Area Air Quality Control Board, participated in a panel discussion about the group’s new goal: Diesel Free by ‘33.

Under the plan, municipalities in the nine-county Bay Area will phase out the use of diesel vehicles and generators by 2033.

On Friday, Sept. 14, Supervisor Gore spoke about the county’s recent history with wildfires and sustainability initiatives during an event about climate resilience.

“Everyone knows that Sonoma County is a innovation hotbed for climate change adaptation via sustainability initiatives: energy, land use, water quality, Sonoma Clean Power. We’re very well known for that,” Gore said. “But on the other side, our goal has to be being a leader in rapid leap solutions for climate change adaptation.”

On the Streets

Representatives of the North Bay Organizing Project and other Sonoma County activist groups participated in a week of protests leading up to the summit.

Tré Vasquez, a youth organizer with the North Bay Organizing Project, said he was focused on representing the “front line communities,” those most immediately impacted by the effects of climate change and pollution.

“Our demands were to have Brown do the right thing,” Vasquez said. “We felt it was important to speak our truths about the impacts of natural disasters on our communities.”

Brown’s Last Chance, a group involved in the Thursday morning protests, criticized Brown for permitting 20,000 new gas projects in the state during his governorship while advertising the state as a climate change leader.


The group called on Brown to cease permitting new oil projects and to “set a global precedent by announcing a phase-out of oil and gas production with a fair and equitable transition that protects workers, communities, and economies, starting in places that are suffering most from the impacts of dirty fuel extraction and infrastructure.”

In a July interview with The Nation magazine, Brown dismissed the idea of ceasing all oil production in the state as unfeasible.

“There would be mass chaos. You’d never get close to [leaving oil in the ground] before the public reaction stopped it,” Brown told the magazine.

A 2017 report by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation showed that the state is still somewhat dependent on the oil and gas industries. The industries accounted for 368,100 jobs - 1.6 percent of the state’s total - and $66 billion - or about 2.7 percent - of the state’s Gross Domestic Product in 2015, according to the report.

Xulio Soriano, an indigenous climate justice activist based in Napa, said he considered the protests a success and was not surprised by Bloomberg’s dismissal of the protesters.

“There is a long history of people ignoring protests by indigenous people. This was nothing new,” he said on Friday.

Sonoma County’s Climate Progress

Interviews with Sonoma County delegates and protesters at the Summit revealed similar divisions back home. While Zane and Gore championed the County’s climate leadership in many areas, protesters involved in street actions pointed to long-standing environmental and social inequalities in Wine Country.

Zane and Gore pointed to Sonoma County’s fleet of electric government-use cars dubbed the “Greenest Fleet in North America” in 2015, the decision to make the Water Department carbon neutral in 2009 and the launch of Sonoma Clean Power in 2014 as signs of the County’s climate action leadership.

But not everyone is happy with the county’s progress.

In 2017, a judge sided with River Watch, a group suing the County over the Regional Climate Protection Authority’s Climate Action Plan, alleging that the county did not properly calculate the emissions created by the county’s tourism industry.

In September 2017, the County decided not to appeal the decision in court.

Jerry Bernhaut, the lawyer who represented River Watch, wrote in a September column for theSonoma Valley Sun, that “the [RCPA] and the County have completely disregarded [the judge’s] findings” and continue to exclude carbon emissions from sources like wine industry exports and millions of tourists driving into the county in its calculations.

“Each local community must take responsibility for its decisions that permit and enable activity that results in emissions that contribute to global warming. Each community must account for the environmental costs of its land use decisions,” Bernhaut wrote. “So far, Sonoma County elected officials have showed no inclination to take that responsibility, despite the decision of an experienced, highly respected superior court judge overturning the CAP.”

Street Protests

Activists Vasquez and Soriano criticized the county for its failure to uphold environmental justice, pointing to the county’s failure to provide emergency warnings in Spanish during the 2017 fires, the financial impacts of expensive housing on the county’s poor people as a result of the fires, and the impacts that climate change will have on farm workers laboring in warming fields.

Gore said he would consider divesting the county from fossil fuels, one of the suggestions of the protesters outside.

“But we also have to realize that we’re in a different place from other communities,” Gore said. “We have the Geyser Geothermal facility which provides, by itself, I think, 20 percent of the state’s renewable production. So, it’s easy for me to say I could do that, but I what I have to do is be a part of the solution for the rest of the state.”

On Monday, Sept. 17, Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins and 14 City Councilmembers in the county were among 250 elected officials statewide to sign a letter calling on Governor Brown to stop issuing oil drilling permits.

As for the complaints of the protesters outside and the lawsuit against Sonoma County’s Climate Action Plan, Gore referred to the county and the state as climate leaders.

“This is the tough thing in this world: when you’re trying to make progress, there’s a lot of people who say it’s not enough,” Gore said.Then, when you look at us in the context of the rest of the world, you say, ‘God, we’re seen as the best of the best.’”

“We’re bold, we’re moving forward. The people who want to protest here or litigate us at a local level, they can do what they want, but we’re getting shit done,” Gore said.


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