A tall, brown-haired, soft-eyed woman sits back and laughs. On her office desk is a portrait of the Dalia Lama pasted next to Queen Elizabeth, and behind her desk hangs a green t-shirt that states, “Got Asthma?” It shows the lungs of a healthy child and the lungs of one in five children living in the San Joaquin Valley, one of the most polluted places in the country. Betsy Reifsnider’s unassuming cubicle looks like many in the environmental activist realm, but she is working for the Catholic Church, specifically Stockton’s Diocese–and she is in the lead. As part of a growing national movement pairing ecology with faith, Reifsnider has the only paid Catholic environmental advocacy position in the nation.
She is focusing on air pollution, a primary problem in the Central Valley of California. The American Lung Association gave San Joaquin County a grade “F” for both high ozone (smog) and particle pollution (soot) in 2011. “We chose to focus on air pollution, unlike water, which is divisive, because everyone is the victim, and everyone also causes it,” Reifsnider said. “We can’t point our fingers, because we’re all in this together.”
That concept is fully supported by Stockton’s Bishop Stephen Blaire who is working to curb global warming and air pollution on a local and national level. Blaire recently gave the keynote address at the Festival of Faiths in Louisville, Kentucky. The Festival of Faiths brings together diverse religious groups for common action; the theme this year was, Sacred Air: Breath of Life. “The environment as part of God’s creation needs to be treated with care,” Bishop Blaire said in his speech. It has become common knowledge, although denied by some, that excess greenhouse gases primarily from the burning of fossil fuels are seriously impacting our climate with significant consequences for humanity, he said. “Just as in the Diocese of Stockton it is the poorest people (migrant farmworkers, the elderly, the homeless) who are most impacted by our local air pollution, so too it is poor people around the world who suffer the most from climate change,” he said.
The Stockton Diocese, which oversees 34 parishes and 12 missions, helped push through Assembly Bill (AB) 32, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, which aims to lower greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. This is the equivalent of taking approximately 28 million cars off the roads. “We decided to include advocacy in our work, and we worked on Assembly Bill 32,” said Reifsnider. “We wrote letters, we testified, and we were thrilled when it passed.”
The green push is more than just a statewide movement, around the nation the Catholic Church is educating students and its community about climate change and ecological stewardship. “We looked at Catholic social teaching and the environment, and really, most of us in the pews didn’t know there was such a thing,” said Reifsnider. “But there is, and it goes back centuries.”
Caring for creation is one of its primary covenants. In 2009, the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change launched a movement based on the life and ministry of St. Francis of Assisi, whom John Paul II named “The Patron Saint of Ecology.” Catholic individuals, families, schools, parishes and other organizations are encouraged to take the Assisi pledge to care for creation and be mindful of those who suffer the most from climate change: the poor and vulnerable.
This position is further reinforced by the Vatican. Many call Pope Benedict XVI the green pope for his increasingly vocal concern about damage to the planet’s resources. In his encyclicals (papal letters), he has warned that humanity is destroying the planet’s ecosystems and that it needs to listen to the voice of the earth. The pope has criticized economic and political resistance to fighting environmental degradation and denounced world leaders for failing to come up with a new climate change treaty. Under his papacy, the Vatican has installed photovoltaic cells on its main auditorium and has joined a reforestation project aimed at offsetting its CO2 emissions.
Locally, the Stockton Diocese has distributed 10,000 energy efficient light bulbs and launched battery recycling drop-off programs and free electronic waste collection days at its parishes.
Because these environmental programs are fairly new to the Catholic faith, some parishioners are just now becoming aware of them. Sara Gabbard, a local church member, has three children, one of which has asthma. When she recently learned of the environmental justice program, she was pleasantly surprised. “I think it’s important. I hope that they can make a difference by making themselves a presence,” Gabbard said. “Really, it’s wonderful.” Gabbard’s 12 year-old son Jay has to use his inhaler when he participates in sports. “If he chooses to play basketball at recess, he needs to use his inhaler, or he won’t be able to breath, and then he won’t be able to eat lunch,” she said. Her son has suffered from asthma since he was three years-old.
Children raised in places with high levels of air pollution can have reduced lung capacity of up 20 percent by their 18th birthday. That means they don’t metabolize oxygen and carbon dioxide efficiently. Put more simply, they don’t breathe well. Statewide, more than 9,000 Californians are reported to die prematurely each year from air pollution, and asthma hospitalization rates in California are five (5) times the national average.
During a typical asthma episode, there is wheezing, whistling, noisy breaths, coughing, tightness in the chest and shortness of breath. If not abated by taking an inhaler, untreated asthma sufferers will have difficulty breathing, their alertness will decline, and they may lose consciousness. In the worst cases, they could die or end up with severe brain damage.
While there are many causes of asthma, some genetic and some environmental, and many things can trigger an asthma incident, air pollution is directly correlated to increasing attacks. Analysis to date suggests an association between exposure to nitrogen dioxide, a primary component of smog, and both short and long-term reductions in lung function. On days in which smog levels spike, there’s an increase in hospital admissions for respiratory illnesses, heart attacks and stroke in the two or three days following it.
Currently, about 20 million American’s have asthma and in San Joaquin County, nearly 17 percent of all residents suffer from the disease. That is about one of every five people. And it’s on the rise in California, the United States and around the world. The prevalence of asthma in the U.S. has increased nearly 75 percent since 1980, and 13 percent of Californians have been diagnosed with the disease at some point in their lives.
So why did President Obama withdraw the draft Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standard this fall? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations would have brought the nation’s air pollution standards up to California’s standards.
Obama put off the regulations to reduce regulatory burdens for businesses, who argue that the tougher regulations would cost thousands of jobs and purge billions of dollars from their bottom line.
Under the rule, factories and power generators would be forced to cut emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. The new regulations would have lowered the ozone standard of 75 parts per billion, to a stricter standard of 60 to 70 parts per billion, which would have thrown hundreds of American counties out of compliance with the Clean Air Act and required a major enforcement effort. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said that the rules would save as much as $100 billion in health care costs and help prevent as many as 12,000 premature deaths annually from heart and lung complications. But Congressman Eric Cantor (R-Virginia), the majority leader, said it would cost industry as much as $1 trillion and millions of jobs.
Depending on the data used when factoring in economic effects, the picture changes.
According to a Ceres Report published in February 2011, the EPA’s new air quality rules would create nearly 1.5 million jobs or nearly 300,000 jobs a year over the next five years. The end product would be an upgraded, cleaner American industry, along with good paying jobs and better health for the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, the report stated. This conclusion is reinforced by the latest findings from Yale University economist William Nordhaus. In a report published in the American Economic Review, the top-ranked journal in economics, Nordhaus and his coauthors found that the economic cost of air pollution exceeds the value added from coal-fired electric generation by a factor of nearly six to one, and these estimates don’t include economic damages done from climate change.
For California, in particular, air pollution is costly. According to a RAND report, California’s air pollution caused more than $193 million in hospital-based medical care from 2005 to 2007, as people sought help for problems triggered by elevated pollution levels. Researchers estimate that exposure to ozone and particulate pollution caused nearly 30,000 emergency room visits and hospital admissions, over the study period—with Medicare and Medi-Cal covering more than two-thirds of the expenses.
But what about jobs? Is California losing industrial dollars because of its environmental regulations? It depends.
Central Valley cities have some of the nation’s worst air pollution and also some of the nation’s highest unemployment. The jobless rate hovers around 15 percent in San Joaquin County and ranks among the highest in Stockton, Merced, Modesto and Bakersfield. (Bakersfield is also the most polluted place in the country.) But this unemployment primarily relates to the housing crisis and the general state of the economy, not regulatory restrictions.
Still, a commonly heard refrain is that businesses are fleeing the state due to regulatory burdens. According to the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), the state does lose businesses and jobs because of relocation, but the effect on employment is negligible. New and stricter environmental standards may mean more jobs or just different ones.
One thing is certain: due to California’s regulations, the air quality has improved in the last four decades. Clean car standards have cut total automobile air pollution in California by more than 85 percent since 1975, despite rapid growth in population and travel. Since 1980, peak smog levels have dropped 70 percent in Los Angeles, 50 percent in San Diego, 40 percent in the San Francisco Bay Area, and 33 percent in the San Joaquin Valley. According to Environment California Research & Policy Center, California’s standards have cleaned up the air without crippling the economy, as automakers tend to overestimate the cost of emission controls by a factor of two to 10.
Dmitri Stanich, public information officer at the Air Resources Board (ARB) describes worries about job loss as more reactionary than reality-based. “Essentially, industry’s concerns are based on the fear that they will be forced to comply with new requirements with no input into how the regulations are structured,” said Stanich. “But state law requires that industry be part of the process. We are required by law to balance the state’s economic well being with public-health needs.”
California benefits from going green.
When A.B. 32 passed, intensive economic studies were made to determine how the bill might affect the state’s faltering economy, and their main conclusion was—again—not much. “Going green is a compelling economic and environmental strategy for the nation, but it is important not to overpromise job growth and have disappointment undermine the momentum,” said Stephen Levy, Director and Senior Economist at the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy (CCSCE).
Still, California has more jobs in the clean energy market than any other state, with 15 percent between 2006 to 2008; it also led the nation in clean energy business with 125,390 jobs and $6.5 billion venture capital funding. According to the California Green Innovation Index, California captures 24 percent of the world’s venture capital investment in clean technology and is the top state in green patent registrations.
“The California economy grows by being on the cutting edge. We strive to attract entrepreneurs and families who are highly skilled and have choices about where they live and work,” Levy said. “California was and is the welcoming state; we welcomed people in tennis shoes and cut-offs, and we welcomed immigrants. You are welcomed based on your merit, and that is a huge advantage.”
For these reasons, California’s investments in education, infrastructure and quality of life should be at the heart of the state’s competitiveness agenda, Levy added. “We lose our ability to compete when we lose our environment, because we are trying to attract skilled workers and they don’t want to live in a crummy place,” he said.
Such sentiments are echoed by Bishop Stephen Blaire, but from an ethical angle. He urges policy makers to move beyond the cost-benefit analysis and consider the common good. “When people are discussing environmental issues, they are looking at whether it affects jobs, and how much it will cost businesses,” he said. “Often, the discussion simply stays at that level, but you have to go to a higher level and look at the ultimate question, which is what is best for all the people? If a bad environment is affecting people’s health, like so many people in San Joaquin Valley with asthma, well, you can’t ignore that moral issue,” Blaire said. “It is the role and the responsibility of state groups to raise up this moral perspective; jobs and business are important, but the most important thing is the well being of the people.”
Stockton has a few challenges ahead.
The city ranks first (for the second time in three years) on Forbes’ annual list of America’s Most Miserable Cities. This is primarily due to the housing crisis but also due to crime, unemployment and commute times. Median home prices in the city tripled between 1998 and 2005, peaked at $431,000 and are now about $142,000. Stockton currently has the highest foreclosure rate in the nation. But that condition and the associated price declines could become a primary advantage in attracting entrepreneurs, new businesses and young families. Home prices in the nearby Bay Area still average more than $1 million for 29 of its cities.
But for Stockton to compete, it will have to reinvent itself, a concept that has taken time to develop and grow. In 2008, the state legislature passed S.B. 375, the anti-sprawl bill, which is the nation’s first legislation linking transportation and land use planning with global warming. Household transportation causes 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in California and is the largest and the fastest-growing source of global warming pollution in the state.
Stockton was one of the first cities sued for not complying with the law. The Sierra Club claimed that the city’s general plan failed to address the amount of greenhouse gases that the plan would emit. Stockton has since agreed to reduce sprawl and plans to construct nearly 18,000 new home units within the city limits, including 4,400 units in downtown. The city will also consider less restrictive building height requirements, reduced permit fees to spur downtown development and a subsidy program to spark infill growth.
And there are other bright spots. In the same year that the Stockton Diocese started its environmental stewardship program, the Stockton Chamber of Commerce started Green Team San Joaquin, an award-winning collaborative effort between private businesses and the city to help San Joaquin County businesses go green. It promotes ecological jobs, environmental education, recycling and conservation.
On December 14, 2011, the Green Team will host Lunch on a Landfill. “Yes, we actually have lunch out there,” said Douglass Wilhoit Jr., Stockton Chamber of Commerce CEO. “We have 200 to 300 people that bring toys for kids, and we talk about efforts to recycle and reduce air pollution.” The Green Team also runs a Recycling Energy Air Conservation (REACON) program, which helps businesses conserve energy and prevent pollution, and it recently won the Golden Arrow award for overall excellence and green product stewardship.
In regards to the Forbes misery rating, Wilhoit said, “I’m a fifth generation Stockton resident, and certainly, we have problems, but the Chamber of Commerce office is right on the marina. We have sea lions to watch and not too many places in the valley can say that. It can be really beautiful, and I am proud of our work.”
(This story was sponsored by New America Media.)