August 31, 2021

California’s leaders might see themselves as a vanguard of progressive and eco-friendly values. But in reality, their draconian climate policies have created a racially segregated state more akin to the pre-Civil Rights era South. As Attorney Jennifer Hernandez puts in a startling new report for the environmentalist Breakthrough Institute, California has been plunged into “a new Green Jim Crow era”.

The “soaring environmental rhetoric of the state’s affluent, largely white technocratic leadership”, she concludes, is “deepening the state’s shameful legacy of racial injustice”. Certainly, the impact is stark. California now suffers the nation’s worst cost-adjusted poverty rate; and according to the United Way of California, more than 30% of California residents lack sufficient income to meet basic costs of living, even after accounting for public assistance programmes. Those struggling families include half of Latino and 40% of black residents.

There are two main factors driving this “new Green Jim Crow era”. The first, and most obvious, is California’s energy policy, which has made the state’s electricity and gas prices the highest on the mainland, with electricity prices 50% above the national average and gasoline costs that exceed even import-reliant Hawaii in the centre of the Pacific Ocean.

This surge in prices derives from the state’s obsession — shared by the ruling tech oligarchs — with renewable energy and the elimination of fossil fuels. Yet as a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) report has shown, over-reliance on renewables is costly, because it requires the production of massive (and environmentally unfriendly) battery-storage capacity — the price of which is invariably passed on to the taxpayer.

This is not bad news for the tech oligarchs, who have been prominent among those profiting from “clean energy” investments. But many other Californians, primarily those in the less temperate interior, find themselves falling into energy poverty or are dependent on state subsidies that raise electricity prices for businesses and the middle class. Black and Latino households are already forced to pay from 20 to 43% more of their household incomes on energy than white households. Last year, more than 4 million households in California (30% of the total) experienced energy poverty.

These policies have also had the secondary effect of driving out many of the blue-collar industries — manufacturing, construction, energy — that have traditionally employed ambitious, upwardly mobile minority families. While the small, insulated, post-industrial urban elite bloats up on cash and stokes its virtue, over the past decade California has lost 1.6 million above-average-paying jobs, more than twice as many as any other state.

This attrition reflects in part the torpor of the state’s industrial sector; California now sits in the bottom half of states in manufacturing-sector employment growth, ranking 44th last year, easily outpaced by competitors such as Nevada, Kentucky, Michigan and Florida. Even without adjusting for costs, no Californian city ranks in the US top ten in terms of well-paying blue-collar jobs, but four — Ventura, Los Angeles, San Jose, and San Diego — sit among the bottom ten.

This is hardly surprising when you consider that California’s largest economic pogrom is directed at the state’s most important energy industry: gas and oil development. Two years ago, Governor Newsom — who has been described as “California’s champion virtue signaler” — announced plans to shut the entire industry down. His latest decree, announced in April, confirmed his intention to phase out oil extraction. Perhaps it could be considered a noble campaign, if it weren’t for the fact that California chooses instead to import its oil from such enlightened states as Saudi Arabia.

And while this shift will not cause much pain in Malibu or Menlo Park, where the wealthy can continue to tool around in their BMWs, in Bakersfield, where the industry is centered, or around the coastal refineries, the impact could be catastrophic. According to a study by the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, these dictates threaten over 366,000 high-paying, largely blue-collar jobs — roughly half of which are held by people of colour.   

Yet perhaps inflated housing costs constitute the cruelest blow dealt by the Greens to the state’s middle and working class. As part of its climate policy, California strives to force development into transit-dependent dense neighbourhoods, a policy that has raised prices and ire in mostly minority working-class communities. At the same time, the state and the Green lobby has worked overtime, often in alliance with well-funded green groups, to stop or curtail development along the urban fringe, where land prices and regulatory costs tend to be somewhat less extreme. Some developments, like the Tejon Ranch north of Los Angeles, have been delayed for three decades.

These and other restrictions have slowed housing growth in the state. During 2020, when national house construction was increasing 6.1% from 2019, California’s rate was down 3.7%, according to Census Bureau data. As a result, for more than half of renters in California, housing costs exceed 30% of household income, the traditional definition of unaffordability. And nearly 70% of all state households with unaffordable housing costs are people of colour.

These conditions explain why Californians are leaving; an exodus which is particularly notable among minorities. California may have the most “enlightened” policies for people of colour, but they are still leaving the state for less “progressive” states, such as TexasSan Francisco’s African-American community has declined from one in seven in 1970 to barely one in twenty today, with most now ensconced in public housing.

Even the foreign-born — the group that has transformed California over the past few decades — are staying away. An analysis of Census data by demographer Wendell Cox shows that the foreign-born population is actually declining in Los Angeles, fading in the Bay Area while growing by as much as 30% in rival cities like Dallas.

Is there any chance that these patterns can be reversed within the state? I suspect we are about to find out. Hernandez has filed a lawsuit with 200 civil rights leaders alleging that the California Air Resources Board, the supreme architect of climate policies, adopts policieessentially discriminatory towards minorities. “CARB,” the group wrote to the agency at the end of last year, “wilfully elected to increase housing costs and make it more difficult for members of our communities to close the wealth gap”.

Of course, the plaintiffs face an uphill fight in the progressive-dominated California judiciary. Even with strong support from leading minority activists, her suit has received virtually no coverage from the state’s mainstream media, which has become largely an amplifier of green agitation.

But outside the media bubble there are clear signs of growing dissent. Roughly half of Latinos, according to the most recent polls, favour the recall of the state’s eco-Governor Gavin Newsom. Recently Latino voting rights advocates openly criticised the efforts by the Sierra Club — a leading environmental organisation — to “phase out” affordable gas-powered cars. The rules, they suggest, are designed instead to make it possible for “our rich neighbors in the next town to charge their Teslas and run their air conditioners on hot days but make it unaffordable to use ours”.

Ultimately, the Greens will have to confront such criticism. Some may seek a way out by shoving the displaced working class into permanent dependency with the introduction of a universal basic income. This could allow the state to reduce energy consumption— but comes with an eye-watering price tag. The Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transit Commission recently proposed a $205 billion statewide universal basic income program, but that only covers a $500 monthly payment to all households — a pitiable amount in a state where rents average $1500 a month .

Meanwhile, Hernandez is calling for “climate equity”, where the rich, rather than the poor, pay the biggest price. After all, wealthy neighbourhoods generate up to fifteen times more greenhouse gas emissions than average and lower-income ones.

What’s certain is that to succeed over time, in California and elsewhere, environmental policy must not sacrifice what Michael Shellenberger has described as “the goal of universal prosperity”. Environmentalists need to win over the population not by terrorising them but by showing that we can protect nature without stomping out human aspirations. If minorities are able to force the green establishment to confront the economic implications of their policies, that might be a start.