From the Ground Up: Climate Change and Environmental Justice in California
Michael Mendez is an assistant professor in the School of Social Ecology at UC Irvine, and has spent time doing public policy work as an advisor, senior legislative consultant, lobbyist, and as a gubernatorial appointee during the passage of California's internationally acclaimed climate change laws. Most recently, Governor Newsom appointed Michael to the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, which regulates water quality in a region of 11 million people. He is author of the book Climate Change from the Streets (Yale University Press).
You've had really interesting experiences on your way to joining the faculty at UC Irvine. Can you tell us a bit more about your path and how it has shaped the work you do now?
As a scholar, my work is situated at the intersection of climate change, public health, and public policy. I am an interdisciplinary researcher, and my interests are centered on environmental justice. Many environmental hazards are disproportionately threatening low-income communities of color, and I came to this field because of my personal experience growing up in an immigrant community in Los Angeles that faced multiple environmental threats. I saw from an early age that individuals and social movements were focusing on how contamination, landfills, and bad air quality were affecting those communities. They sought to produce alternative environmental futures. That really motivated me.
I was also in a voluntary school busing program and traveled from my neighborhood towards a wealthier, white, affluent area. At a young age, I'd be up early and on the bus every day, seeing the differences between the neighborhoods I traveled through. That made me wonder why these communities looked so different. That eventually led me to study urban and environmental planning at MIT. Shortly thereafter, I was invited by my local assembly woman, Cindy Montanez, to work for her in the state capitol. She had a strong passion for environmental justice issues and was thrilled that I was from the district she represented, and that I understood the issues.
I ended up working for several years in the California legislature, and in a few other related policy positions. Eventually I wanted to continue my academic career and was accepted to the city and regional planning department at UC Berkeley for my doctoral program. I endeavored to have a stronger voice on environmental policy and justice issues. Working for politicians, I was in many ways in the seat of power and could make a lot of change, but not necessarily have as much of an independent voice as I wanted to. In addition, the environmental field tends to be pretty white and male. I wanted to be part of that next generation of thought leadership and scholarship around these issues, and serve as a role model for younger people of color.
Your book, Climate Change from the Streets: How Conflict and Collaboration Strengthen the Environmental Justice Movement, is focused on climate change and inequality. In it, you argue that local knowledge, culture, and history must be central to addressing climate change. Can you talk a bit more about this?
I come to academia as a second career, and my work emphasizes the connection between theory and practice. My research has public policy implications because I focus on real world problems facing disadvantaged communities of color. My book provides an on-the-ground view of how environmental justice groups and people of color are influencing the climate change policymaking project in California, as well as globally.
While California is often seen as a global leader on climate change, I shed light on the work environmental justice groups did to rescale the focus to include the neighborhood level, and to direct reduction strategies to the hardest hit communities. In particular, these groups have been able to transform the idea of climate change as an abstract, global challenge to one centered on local issues. We understand that burning fossil fuels creates, of course, carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, but it also emits local pollution that stays at the neighborhood level and affects people's health.
Oftentimes, environmental justice groups are framed as irrational non-experts, which is not the case. These groups have challenged California's climate change programs, improved them, and they continue to innovate. In addition, other states and countries, including our national government, are now looking toward California as they begin similar work. It took over ten years to get to a point where people of color are leading and connecting climate change to racial and environmental justice. My book is the first to tell that story.
Your current research includes drought in disadvantaged communities. Can you talk a bit about these efforts?
In my post-doctoral work, I collaborated with the Community Water Center, the leading water justice group in the state, on drought resiliency and groundwater issues. During California's last extreme drought, I was doing my field work and visited East Porterville, which was ground zero for how water injustice was hitting migrant communities, particularly undocumented Latino migrants. They had very little water, and what they had was often contaminated. At the same time, their water rates were incredibly high for what was essentially undrinkable water. This was affecting people with some of the lowest incomes in the state. The drought was exacerbating these disparities.
Based on that experience, I believe our priority should be ensuring people have safe and affordable drinking water. The human right to water is important and powerful. California is the first state to adopt it as a normative, bold statement. It doesn't yet have teeth but it's a valuable statement that can guide policy, and that is slowly happening.
You have recently been appointed by Governor Newsom to the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. That appointment is just beginning, but can you talk a bit about what kinds of things you'll be working on?
It's a major responsibility to be on the board, which is an important regulatory body that regulates water pollution for a region of 11 million people. This is the most technical board I have ever been on. I've been on the city planning commission, on the state mining and geology board, I've advised on air quality and drought issues. But from a regulatory perspective, water is extremely technocratic and has a long federal history that is tied to how we regulate things regionally.
My goal with the board is to follow through with my history of policy and research focused on providing better opportunities for low-income communities of color, particularly those experiencing environmental injustice. The key topics I will focus on include making our water policies and regulations more inclusive and putting the needs of people of color at the forefront. I also want to move forward on thinking more explicitly about climate change and water resiliency with an equity lens.
What is most exciting to you about what you're working on now?
Right now, I'm most excited about the wildfire research that I'm doing with migrant advocacy and environmental justice groups. This is community-based, engaged work, and my project collaborators are also research partners and co-authors. I originated some of this work after the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, where I worked with an Indigenous migrant rights group to understand the effects of fire on undocumented migrants, and to advocate for better policies. We were equal partners in terms of policy, briefings, presenting at academic and policy related conferences, and working on media campaigns.
I've now been approached by new partners to do similar work in Sonoma County – a joint project that is not extractive. Many times the research process can be extractive, where an academic comes in, collects data, time, and resources, and community groups never see it and don't get credit for telling their own story and having their own voice. This is particularly important with groups like undocumented migrants because this is a stigmatized and exploited population, and therefore my research design and approach should be different as well.