July 7, 2021

Turning Point or Point of No Return? Oregon’s Big Decision

An Oregon road winding through trees.

Last week, Oregonians across the state experienced an unwelcome taste of how unchecked climate change might impact our lives in the future. A record-breaking heat wave in the Pacific Northwest killed hundreds, including more than 100 people in Oregon. The scorching heat helped fuel what is expected to be an early and active wildfire season, pushing the Governor to declare a state of emergency in an attempt to speed firefighting response and resources to a state that is almost entirely in extreme drought.

In addition to our rural neighbors who are most proximate to the areas at highest wildfire risk, many of those who died last week were older people who lived alone without fans or air conditioning. Summer programming and free meal distributions at schools were halted in some areas—supports that many families and children depend on. With temperatures as high as 117 degrees, even traditional respites like community pools were closed because it was simply too hot for people to safely work or recreate in such extreme temperatures.

My heart breaks for the family of Francisco Perez, a 38-year-old farm worker from Guatemala, whose death in the fields of a tree farm in St. Paul highlights the shameful fact that many in our agricultural community do not yet have critical health and safety protections at work. An executive order, developed in part to mitigate the effects of climate change, directed state agencies to create rules that would have required that those who work outdoors have access to shade, water, and rest breaks during extreme heat. Those rules have come too late for Mr. Perez.

Now, we find ourselves at another crossroads. Will the events of the last week serve as a turning point or a point of no return for Oregonians? Do we understand that what’s at stake is not just our immediate future, but the health and value of this Earth for generations to come?

What might a path towards a more just climate future look like?

In recognizing the undeniable fact of climate change, it’s clear we must defossilize our energy and economic sectors. While the Pacific Northwest has been a focal point for new fossil fuel infrastructure development projects, tribal and community-led efforts have been working arm in arm to fight proposals like the Pacific Connector fracked gas pipeline in Southern Oregon. This coalition of the Klamath and other tribes, landowners, businesses, climate and conservations groups, and residents understand that moving away from our reliance on fossil fuels is not easy, but the transition costs to business pales in comparison to the societal impacts of dragging our collective feet. 

I am grateful to public health and social justice coalitions, such as the Oregon Just Transition Alliance, who are working to center the voices of historically marginalized people who are the most impacted by climate change. Thanks largely to their efforts, Oregon will transition its electricity to 100% clean energy by 2040, while centering benefits for communities of color and rural, coastal, and low-income communities and workers. Oregon will also invest $10 million in a new Healthy Homes Repair Fund at the Oregon Health Authority to support low-income Oregonians with energy efficiency retrofits. The Energy Affordability Act will help low-income families afford their energy bills.

In reaching these important milestones, what we are collectively saying is “no more excuses.” The best time to transition was 10 years ago. The next best time is now.

Our own natural resources can help solve this problem. The forests of western Oregon have a higher carbon density than almost any other forest type in the world, which means they play an unique role in storing carbon. Allowing these trees to grow bigger and older is a critical climate strategy. Additionally, more conservation, restoration and improved land management actions increase carbon storage across other lands—agricultural, grasslands and deserts. This also makes our landscapes and communities more resilient in the face of climate change driven wildfires.

Rogue Forest Partners unites nonprofits and government agencies to restore resilience to dry, fire-prone forests and to the nearby communities facing high wildfire risk in the Rogue Basin. With leadership from initiative-partner, Lomakatsi, the project is also developing job and contracting opportunities for tribal members and immigrant forest workers and the businesses they own, as well as building their capacity to play leadership roles in the governance of the Initiative.

We need to combine this with innovation from the private sector as we did with electric cars, renewable energy and carbon removal. Let innovation drive a just transition and see the jobs that follow. We must also make sure that investments into the innovative breakthroughs of tomorrow, as well as their outcomes are equitably distributed. This is how we guarantee our collective resiliency in the face of climate change. It is quite literally, the opportunity of our lifetimes.

Oregonians are pragmatic. So let’s be honest with ourselves. We caused this mess for future generations to deal with. It is our responsibility to clean it up. 

Crises don’t solve themselves. People solve them. The first step in doing this is to say we will. We will and must reach a turning point where we quit pointing fingers at other countries or other states and quibbling about what they are or aren’t doing. This doesn’t require another commission or a task force. Leaders like Huy Ong of OPAL, and Vivian Satterfield of Verde have been planning a just transition that brings everyone along for years. We need to back them and others leading the charge in our state, and find ways to speed up their work, not make it harder. 

Taking no action is choosing the point of no return. Let’s decide to protect Oregon’s way of life. Let’s take this turn together. 

 

—Michelle