Conservation news

Climate leadership means keeping fossil fuels in the ground in tropical forests and beyond (commentary)

Protecting tropical forests is key to mitigating climate change. When California Governor Jerry Brown convenes the Global Climate Action Summit next week, he should seize the opportunity to make an announcement that will help address one of the root causes of both deforestation and climate change: a phase out of oil and gas production in California.

Scientific consensus unequivocally demonstrates the need to accelerate a transition to a low-carbon economy – both in California and globally – in order to prevent the worst effects of climate change. To ensure this transition is both effective and doesn’t further afflict vulnerable communities, we need to stop expanding fossil fuel infrastructure around the world. As is, fossil fuel extraction is already harming people from California to the Amazon.

Google Earth image showing oil storage units near neighborhoods in El Segundo, CA.

Areas in California with more oil and gas development – like Bakersfield in the Central Valley and in the LA area – have demonstrably higher community rates of asthma, preterm birth, birth defects, and acute illness complaints from residents.

Similarly, oil drilling in the western Amazon has resulted in devastating impacts on indigenous peoples and community health — including alarming cancer clusters — as well as rampant deforestation and frequent oil spills and waste water dumping. In Ecuador, California, and around the world, these burdens fall disproportionately on low-income communities and communities of color.

The expansion of oil drilling in the Amazon and the deforestation it implies is occurring in no small part due to demand from California. As documented by Amazon Watch, California refineries purchase about 50% of all oil exports from the western Amazon basin. Refineries in the state then process that crude oil, spewing out pollutants that endanger public health in our communities and exacerbate the climate crisis.

Continued oil extraction and deforestation in the Amazon has global ramifications. Tropical forests – particularly the immense Amazon rainforest – serve a key role in sequestering carbon and regulating global weather patterns. If they disappear, we will all experience the negative consequences. In fact, these repercussions will fall disproportionately on Californians: a Princeton University study concluded that a vanishing Amazon could cause up to a 50% reduction in rainfall in the Sierra Nevadas.

Photo of a secret oil access road built in 2013 within Block 31 of Yasuni National Park, one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth. Photo © Ivan Kashinsky.

Fossil-fueled climate change will — and already is — affecting us, and California stands to be hard-hit by these future impacts. California’s fourth Climate Change Assessment found that temperatures are expected to rise by 5.6 to 8.8°F by the end of the 21st century, and within 50 years Californians can expect thousands more heat-related deaths annually. Sea level rise and fire intensity are also expected to increase.

As California Governor Jerry Brown prepares to welcome world leaders to San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit, he must acknowledge the fact that California is one of the country’s largest producers and processors of oil and gas. And he must reckon with the fact that if we continue to build out oil and gas infrastructure, climate change will accelerate and communities from California to the Amazon will suffer increasingly disastrous impacts as a result.

In the coming week, Governor Brown needs to issue concrete plans for a managed decline of fossil-fuel production in California. As the leader of the world’s fifth largest economy, this action would have a ripple effect.

Our communities and our climate cannot afford any less. And time is running out.

Kichwa residents of the community of Rumipamba, along the Auca Road, clean up an oil spill left by Texaco and later taken over by Petroecuador. The spill, which happened in the 80s and 90s, came from the drilling site called “Pozo Sur 1” and is up the road from their community. Photo © Karla Gachet and Iván Kashinsky.