Bridging state, local climate action

Bridging state, local climate action
Gregg Macey (left), director of the Center for Land, Environment and Natural Resources at UCI Law, and Alejandro Camacho, a Chancellor’s Professor of law and faculty director of CLEANR, co-created the Integrated and Equitable Climate Action project, funded by a $1.2 million state grant. Image: Steve Zylius / UCI

By Nicholas Schou, UC Irvine

In collaboration with the state of California, the UCI School of Law has unveiled a groundbreaking initiative called Integrated and Equitable Climate Action. Funded by a $1.2 million Climate Action grant from the state, the project aims to align local land-use plans with crucial California climate objectives and mandates while developing best practices for effective and equitable adaptation planning.

The brainchild of Gregg Macey, director of the Center for Land, Environment and Natural Resources at UCI Law, and Alejandro Camacho, a Chancellor’s Professor of law and faculty director of CLEANR, the IECA project is set to bridge the gap between state climate policies and realities on the ground. With an interdisciplinary team of scholars, community leaders and policymakers, IECA seeks to maximize the economic, environmental and public health co-benefits of climate policy within disadvantaged communities.

“Ten years ago, I created CLEANR to make environmental law a cornerstone for UCI Law,” Camacho says. “The idea was to promote innovative research and catalyze policy action in environmental and land-use law. The center has accomplished this through a range of public programming, including intensive workshop roundtables that brought together policymakers, national and community organizations, and scholars to advance dialogue, research, knowledge and policy.”

He adds that Macey, who joined CLEANR two years ago, possesses “a wealth of experience in environmental justice and land-use planning that has helped CLEANR build so much on this prior success.”

Macey sought to expand community-driven research programs in areas such as goods movement, oil and gas, pesticide use, and environmental monitoring. He aimed to kick-start environmental planning research he had seen over the years that had not received sufficient funding.

“I worked with the environmental justice movement for 20 years, so when I got here, I hit the ground running,” Macey explains. “In the first two years, I collaborated with dozens of agencies, organizations and community leaders. They’ve spent years, if not decades, working to advance areas of science that are relevant to community protection. Time and again, they point out several self-limiting factors of the state’s environmental justice policy.

“One is the failure of state agencies to work with air districts and county and local governments to assess, consider and reduce health risks and cumulative impacts – essentially, to link local land-use issues with state policy. Another is the failure to affirmatively comply with civil rights laws, which present unique and distinct responsibilities to state and local agencies.”

To address these persistent gaps, Macey drafted the IECA proposal with community partners such as the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition; the Central California Environmental Justice Network; the national Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment; the ocean conservation group Azul; local governments; and state agency advisors. IECA aims to introduce a framework that integrates climate and land-use planning with civil rights laws, multipollutant planning and multimodal planning, as well as reverse policies that perpetuate health disparities, providing jurisdictions with tools for navigating complex legal landscapes.

California has been a pioneer in climate action, with a focus on both mitigation and adaptation. But much more policy coordination is required. “It needs to be all hands on deck,” Camacho says. “All government agencies need to be thinking about this.”

However, he notes, while cities are expected to integrate climate adaptation into land-use planning, many lack the resources and relevant information to do so effectively.

“Though California’s state agencies recognize the need to help municipalities engage in adaptation planning, they have not built the learning infrastructure to do so,” Camacho says.

IECA will help address these challenges by “providing direct planning assistance to some municipalities while also building an infrastructure for localities to share information and best practices while learning from each other,” he says. It particularly recognizes that the effects of climate change will not be evenly distributed and that all governments will need to particularly help more impacted communities to adapt.

The project also seeks to answer how the state can tackle the problem of baked-in climate change, i.e., effects that have already occurred and can’t be mitigated by future policy. “Even if greenhouse gas emissions were magically reduced to zero today, we will have to manage decades of impact from past emissions,” Camacho says.

Both he and Macey emphasize the collaborative nature of IECA, which will bring together community partners, scholars, agencies and policymakers. The project will first focus on Southern California and Central California, with a long-term goal of engaging jurisdictions across the state.

“The emphasis is on integrating municipal and county climate action plans; general plan elements such as housing, transportation and environmental justice; and local adaptation plans with state climate change and air quality goals, guided in large part by the expertise of community partners,” Macey explains. “Five years from now, we will have 25 jurisdictions across California where we have done the deep work to encourage, revise or adopt these plans; for the state writ large, we will provide a template for such work. Evaluation, monitoring and feedback are vital, as this work must be sustained for at least a decade.”

Camacho sees IECA as a catalyst for expanding climate action efforts. While the initial grant provides a seed, the team envisions the project’s impact extending beyond its lifecycle, with additional funding and sustained efforts. “This is UCI at its best: unparalleled research in partnership with the community,” he says. “This is what a public university does and should be doing, and I am grateful that the state has decided to invest in this.”