A Talk with Tom Steyer about “Spotlight California”

It’s hard to get the message out about the enormous challenges that are facing the country when it comes to the environment.Tom Steyer, founder of NextGenClimate, has hit upon a strategy to get the residents of his state to look at some very deep problems in their own backyard. Through spearheading a documentary web series that shows another side of California, he has driven home information via a format that takes into account the way the public best consumes and digests information.

Comedian and actress Kiran Deol (who also happens to be a Harvard graduate) anchors the segments, delving into crucial topics in vignettes that would be at home on the Comedy Central station. Mixed with laughs are some very unfunny revelations about about the disparity in living conditions between poor communities and their more affluent neighbors.

The top takeaway is the clear picture of how a lack of environmental justice is at play. It’s common knowledge that California has been suffering from drought conditions. However, it’s under the radar that 3,000 residents in East Porterville have no running water in their homes. Some have been without water for two to four years. The conditions shown are what we as a nation would deplore around the globe. East Porterville is not part of any state public water system. However, seven miles away, we see footage of sprinklers watering grass — and sidewalks.

The drought is also impacting farming. Two-thirds of America’s produce comes from California. In 2014, 3.3 billion barrels of water were used to produce 205 million barrels of oil. Farmers are currently desperate for water to grow their grapes, citrus fruit, and other crops. They have turned to using recycled oil water, complete with the residue of chemicals and solvents, to irrigate their fields. This oil field waste water is being sold by Chevron.

Equally distressing was the segment on the locality of Wilmington, which is near the Port of Los Angeles. The population is 85 percent Hispanic. Here, low-income residents live with five oil refineries in their area, along with freeway exhaust laden with particulate matter. Manuel Pastor is interviewed and states, “Poor people experience dirtier, more dangerous air.” He also discusses the disparities in exposure to air borne toxins reflected by race and ethnicity. Asthma is high, and one mother of a five-year old spoke tearfully of her daughter who has had pneumonia three times.

I reached out to Steyer, to ask him about the Spotlight California series, and to learn more about his goals to accomplish a 50 percent renewable energy level by 2030.

You sponsored the web documentary series Spotlight on California. In the five episodes I viewed, the segments clearly take on the power brokers of big oil ¾ particularly Chevron. Do you think the fact that you come out of the business and investment sectors makes people take your support of environmental protections more seriously? For example, the issue of “price manipulation” for consumers in California which was highlighted in “At the Pump.”

I think we need to look behind the numbers and words that oil companies choose and release to the public. There are some hard facts — like refining and marketing profits in California — that directly contradict their public statements. Knowing where they legally can’t mislead makes it easier. They may not disclose the truth, but if they do, it’ll be to the shareholders.

A clear emphasis is put on the issue of Environmental Justice, and how low-income communities and people of color share a disproportionate amount of the day-to-day burden of pollution. What do you attribute the existence of hot-spots like Central Valley and Wilmington to? Is it primarily the fault of elected officials?

 The inequality gap in California is staggering — race, income, and zip code often determine whether or not Californians have water, how long they live, and what kind of air they breathe. It isn’t fair, and it isn’t right. It’s no secret that low-income communities of color are hardest hit by the effects of pollution. Look across the state: from Wilmington to Richmond, we know the California Dream is not yet a reality for everyone. Political power is about organization and voice. These communities often lack at least one of them. However, we are working with some incredible organizations to make sure that everyone has access to clean air, clean water, and can achieve the California Dream. I’m confident that if we come together and fight for these basic rights, we will win.

I have written about the oversaturation of toxic sitings in areas of the Bronx, on the opposite side of the United States, where there is also a very high poverty level. Asthma is prevalent, and children are at major risk. Yet the scale always tips towards the goals of big business rather than the health and welfare of the community. How do we change that mindset moving forward?

Across the country, from the Bronx, to Flint, to here in California, there are crises of inequality. For too long, polluters have profited at the expense of communities. But, we know that our democracy and our voice are strongest when everyone participates. I can’t emphasize enough that in 2016 especially — voting is everything. Your vote is your voice, and by speaking up at the ballot box you can affect change from the local level to the national level. That is where progressive change is going to come from — from voters who stand up to special interests for their families and their communities, and demand what’s right. There’s a fight going on, as you suggest, between economic interests and citizens. We know they’ll be well-funded and well-organized. Will we?

Moms Clean Air Force has been fighting for clean air for children. What is your message to parents?

The future is in our hands — if we choose to exercise our collective will at the ballot box. As a father of four, I think about the future a lot. In fact, that’s why I started NextGen Climate — to make sure we’re leaving our kids a country they’re proud to inherit. Every American has the right to a clean environment, a good education, and a vibrant economy. And again, we’re only going to achieve it if we come together and vote. We need to fight for leaders and policies that promote economic justice, educational justice and environmental justice for all Americans. We must hold them accountable for our health and well-being, and that of our children. 2016 is a big year for all of us, and I know that the more people participate, the stronger our democracy will be.

This article originally appeared on the website Moms Clean Air Force


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