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Climate Change, Communities & Culture: Why Uplifting People is at the Heart of our Climate Action

Written by Wade Crowfoot, Secretary for Natural Resources

“No challenge poses a greater threat to our way of life, prosperity, and future as a state than climate change.” — Governor Gavin Newsom.

All Californians pay a price when our lands are unhealthy. Our physical and mental health declines, our economic growth stalls, and the very things we need to survive — food, water, and shelter — become much harder to obtain. Additionally, climate change is one of the greatest threats facing culture today. The uprooting of communities due to climate change threatens entire ways of life, including the practice and transmission of living heritage. Oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, festivities, and traditional knowledge, including crucial knowledge about the environment, are all vulnerable in the face of climate change.

In California, we know that some communities face disproportionate impacts from climate change, particularly low-income and rural communities, communities of color and California Native American tribes. These impacts include the loss of cultural richness and identity.

The California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) has an important role to play in the creation and implementation of the State’s climate change strategies. As we consider the best ways to combat the fallout of climate change — including increased drought, flooding, wildfire, sea level rise, heat, and pollution — we must recognize these historical inequities, and the fact that some communities have been deprived of the tools they need to survive and thrive amidst these threats. We must ensure that they have an equal voice in deciding how to shape our state’s future natural and cultural resource management efforts.

We don’t talk enough about how race, economic factors, access to the outdoors and climate change are linked, but there are many clear examples of how they interconnect. A 2021 article in the Los Angeles Times captured this concept well, showing how tree canopies in Los Angeles helped stave off stifling heat. The Times found that these tree canopies were almost exclusive to wealthier neighborhoods — where homes were well equipped with air conditioning systems. Poorer neighborhoods lacked both trees and air conditioning. For people with limited or no access to cooling or shade, extreme heat can be dangerous — even deadly. For this reason, as we map out our actions to combat the increasing threat of climate change, we must prioritize investments in communities most vulnerable to extreme heat.

This concern isn’t limited to the issue of rising temperatures, past policies have also impacted social practices and traditional knowledges.

Historic seizures of Native American lands resulted in the forced relocation and dispossession of entire communities to areas with fewer, or lower-quality, natural resources. Today, many of these communities still suffer from the loss of their cultural resources, such as sacred lands, and species and the ability to steward them, as well as the detrimental physical and economic effects of the places where they were forced to move (higher pollution rates, for example).

Other historical examples of discrimination and disinvestment include redlining practices, where Black, Indigenous and other people of color were denied access to home mortgages, credit lines and insurance, thus segregating them from wealthier populations and driving urban decay. In both of these examples, past government actions led directly to environmental injustices — lower life expectancies, lack of access to affordable and reliable governmental services, forcing people to live with fewer resources to combat the looming effects of rising temperatures and other climate threats.

Governor Newsom’s “California for All” envisions a much different future. This approach to governing, which shifts governmental decision making to provide opportunity and prosperity for all Californians, is creating more opportunities for Californians to benefit from the natural, cultural, and historic richness of our state. To that end, we are committed to embedding principles of equity in all we do, and driving change across our Natural Resources Agency’s 26-plus departments, boards, and commissions.

For example, our Tribal Consultation Policy requires that we engage in early, often, and meaningful government-to-government consultation with California Native American tribes. And our Environmental Justice Policy requires that the planning, development, and implementation of all Agency programs, policies, and activities include the input and participation of underserved, underrepresented, and impacted populations. These plans reflect the state’s commitment to incorporate feedback, social advancement, public health, and wellbeing of underrepresented (and therefore underserved) populations and California Native American tribes.

Through our government-to-government consultations with California Native American tribes and our meaningful community engagement with underserved populations, we are driving forward on our climate change priorities while protecting cultural resources and embedding equity as a core commitment. This approach is evident in a few of our most transformative programs:

  • In partnership with agencies across the Administration, our Agency overhauled California’s Climate Adaptation Strategy and it is now organized around six outcome-based priorities. One of these core priorities driving all climate actions is to strengthen climate resilience in communities most vulnerable to the climate crisis. We also worked with our interagency partners to launch the state’s Extreme Heat Action Plan and the first-ever Extreme Heat Symposium, recognizing this threat to vulnerable communities needs more attention and action.
  • The Pathways to 30×30: Accelerating Conservation of California’s Nature strategy and Natural and Working Lands Climate Smart Strategy respond directly to the Governor’s nature-based solutions executive order, which identified California’s lands as a critical yet underutilized sector in the fight against climate change. It centers expanding equitable access to nature as one of the core principles shaping 30x30 actions.
  • Lastly, we welcome you to stay in touch with our Agency as we prepare to launch our Outdoors for All strategy for public review. The Outdoors for All initiative — already well underway through our Department of State Parks and Recreation and other entities — is focused on expanding all Californians’ access to park, open space, nature and cultural amenities. This initiative also requires reshaping funding and programs to expand opportunities to enjoy public outdoor places.

In order to protect our state’s communities and vast cultural resources from climate change impacts, we need to invest public funding in new ways. Recent investments at the intersection of culture and climate change highlight these new approaches:

  • Our Agency is implementing a new $70 million Tribal Nature-Based Solutions program dedicated to funding California Native American tribes and their nature-based solutions projects, including the purchase and conservation of ancestral land. Our agency is also implementing a $20 million program that provides funding to tribes for wildlife resilience actions.
  • The State has made great strides in addressing the racist legacy of many our lands, though the “Reexamining our Past Initiative.” For example, Patrick’s Point State Park was recently renamed Sue-meg State Park to honor the place name used by the Yurok people since time immemorial. New interpretive signage has been created to address the racist legacy of some of the redwood parks’ founding members that are currently honored in the parks’ redwood groves. And over 50 “Land Acknowledgement” signs have been installed in the North Coast Redwoods District parks.
  • State Parks is working on a 5-year MOU with the California African American Museum after receiving $15 million to launch a new initiative for African American History and Engagement in California state parks. The project will engage a network of community, public and academic historians to conduct research, document community memory, and preserve historical materials to address gaps in the representation, preservation, and interpretation of California’s significant African American history across more than two dozen California state parks.
  • We have created a Youth Community Access Program (YCA) that will support education, job training, outreach programs, and small capital asset projects located in underserved and low-income communities across California that provide youth access to natural and cultural resources. Awards are prioritized for communities disproportionately affected by past federal and state drug policies, as well as other underserved communities. So far, we have provided $14.9 million to community-based organizations to help get more kids and youth outdoors and into nature. We anticipate awarding approximately $18.3 million in new YCA projects in late summer of 2023.
  • The Newsom Administration’s 2021 and 2022 Budget Acts committed $649 million for extreme heat. These include programs that align economic resilience with the state’s climate agenda, advance environmental justice, and empower regional, tribal, and local communities.

And finally, we recognize that equity begins in our own workplace, we are actively working to create an inclusive culture by creating spaces that uplift the voices of those traditionally unheard in government. Thanks to our Agency’s Recruiters Workgroup, we launched our CNRA Career Center to reduce barriers to state employment, demystifying the Agency’s hiring processes, and identifying opportunities to improve pathways to state careers for all people. And this past year, we established new ways to honor the contributions of our staff and our external partners. This programming launched with Pride Month in 2022, followed by Latino and Native American Heritage months. We now welcome you to celebrate with us during Black History Month!

At first glance, it may not seem like these actions have anything to do with climate change. But they sure do. If we’re going to effectively support climate vulnerable communities to build their resilience to climate threats, we need to acknowledge, respect, and include all communities as we make funding, policy, and program decisions. We cannot expect members of underserved communities to participate in these decisions unless we demonstrate — through words and actions — that we’re fundamentally shifting how we work.

I’m proud of our progress, while I recognize that much work lies ahead. We will continue to listen and learn and — importantly — to act. Please help us shape our future by staying connected with us!

Together, we will drive meaningful climate action that benefits all Californians and our diverse cultures. This will foster California’s rich diversity and ensure that our state is a welcoming, healthy, and supportive place for us all.

Wade Crowfoot, Secretary for Natural Resources



California Strategic Growth Council (SGC)

SGC coordinates and works collaboratively with public agencies, communities, and stakeholders to support healthy, thriving, and resilient communities for all.