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Regional Interests

The Oakland Latina Who’s Leading Newsom’s Climate Agenda at 31

Lauren Sanchez has worked on climate change issues for about a decade. But the stakes of the crisis became a little more real for her when she received a call from her parents a few months ago during the deadly Pacific Northwest heat wave.

The temperature in their Seattle home rose so high that, in order to find respite from the baking heat, they slept outside on their deck.

“It was over 105 degrees,” she said. “When I was growing up  it was barely ever over 80 . It really pulled me back to what I consider the front lines of climate change.”

Sanchez, 31, has been an Oakland resident since 2017. At the time of the phone call, she was serving as an adviser to John Kerry, who President Biden tapped to be the top U.S. climate diplomat and serve in a newly created Cabinet position.

Kate Gordon, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s senior adviser on climate, had recently stepped down in June to work in the U.S. Department of Energy.

Sanchez says she saw an opportunity to make change at the state level.

“[I] told the president, thank you. But I needed to come back and work for the governor,” she said. “We are experiencing climate impacts at an accelerating rate.”

Gordon, her predecessor, spent two decades working on climate, energy and economic policy, championing the idea that bold climate action is good for the economy.

She worked with Michael Bloomberg, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, and California philanthropist Tom Steyer, to found the Risky Business Project. An initiative that quantifies the economic impacts of climate change on things like crop yields, energy demands and human health.

As Newsom’s advisor, Gordon helped establish a commission on the catastrophic cost of wildfires. She also helped create the $12.5 billion “climate budget” Newsom proposed in 2020, which later was scaled back because of the COVID-19 crisis.

Sanchez is bringing something different, her global experience to California — which is often touted for its climate targets, rules and influential nature — and a focus on heavily impacted communities.

“[We are] already seeing how the most vulnerable are disproportionately impacted here in California,” she said.

Lauren Sanchez. (Courtesy of Lauren Sanchez)

She has worked in climate policy roles with the California Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board. She also served on the Paris Agreement negotiation team with former President Barack Obama’s State Department.

“The state very much is the tip of the spear,” Sanchez said. “My heart is more energized, by sharpening the tip of that spear and continuing to push forward toward a climate safe future.”

KQED climate reporter Ezra David Romero spoke with Sanchez about how she plans to advise the governor. This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.

California has a spectrum of climate policies and big goals, but the state is a major producer of oil. What are you saying to the governor? 

It’s clear that the world is not doing enough on this issue. We’ve also reached this inflection point. Californians are looking outside their window, and they know climate change is already happening.

The state has formed targets and ambitious goals, informed by the latest science. We are getting new science almost daily about the state of the climate and just how much more we all need to do collectively. It’s why the governor sent letters last month asking our agencies to turn over every rock [and] to look at what it would mean to accelerate our big carbon neutrality target and our clean energy targets forward. Targets are incredibly important, but what really matters for Californians is what we’re doing today.

The climate crisis is brought on by carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. How are you advising on the phaseout of fossil fuels?

First off, it’s critical to actually saving the planet. We’ve known for a long time sources of carbon pollution and how we need to tackle them. The governor put out a bold end date for oil production here in the state by 2045. We’ve heard from a number of communities that that’s too late. And so we’re very much looking at a path towards ending extraction.

A really key and critical part of that, which we take very seriously here in California, is the jobs of our clean energy future. For people in Kern County and in L.A. who are currently working at refineries, we know that there is a clean job for them in our carbon neutral future here in the state. We’re working very closely with industry and with communities to make sure that this just transition is something we can very much embrace here in California and model for the world.

As a Latina with one of the highest profile climate positions in California, how do you plan to represent the state’s communities of color?

I come at this from a personal angle. My abuelos came here from Mexico and lived in L.A., where my father was stuck inside during recess because of smog issues. They lived in a redlined community, a front-line community next to sources of pollution. The fight for environmental justice, and climate justice is not something that I think about how I will check a box, but rather how I want to embody every single decision that I’m making, and every phone call and every interview and every budget line item.

We’re working with the California Legislature on climate investments. We have a statutory minimum that a certain amount of [that spending] be in disadvantaged communities. And I’m very proud that the state has exceeded that.

We know we need to not only right historical wrongs across the state and across the nation. But empowering communities of color to craft solutions and lead at the local level, may be our best chance for solving this issue.

What are your top goals as senior climate adviser to the governor? 

Ninety percent of Californians connect wildfire and drought to climate change. They know climate change is happening, and it’s impacting them today.  It’s not a 2045 or 2050 issue. One of my primary goals for this job is to help Californians feel like they are a part of our agenda.

We have a number of very concrete programs that we need to move forward towards on implementation so that we hit those ambitious targets. Simultaneously looking at if those targets are even enough, knowing what 2021 is, and what 2022 will bring.

We have a planning exercise, called the scoping plan, which will very much chart out how the state will become carbon neutral by 2045. And one of my primary goals is to make sure that we don’t drive up electricity rates or gas prices, or ask Californians to make economic and social trade-offs. But we’re centering equity, and moving to carbon neutrality, or net zero as quickly as possible.

California emits 1% of global climate emissions. [Even if we were] carbon negative tomorrow, we would still have to be preparing for drought and we would still be burning every year.

How do we build our climate agenda in a way that is a model for other states, countries and other big global emitters, so that they’re continuing to follow California’s lead?

What is your advice to the governor about equitably dealing with the impacts of climate change upon the state — heat waves, drought, and wildfire?

When we look at the data from across the country,  Americans and Californians want the government to take care of climate change. We too often put the communities of color in an impossible trade-off between their health, their work and where their housing is. The role of government is to ensure environmental health; safe and affordable access to drinking water; and protections that create climate resilient communities in a way that isn’t asking them to sacrifice anything economically or socially.

There is a lot of  long-term planning that we need to do to make sure we’re protecting the most vulnerable. In the context of the infrastructure plan and the influx of money; the feds set the target at 40% in disadvantaged communities, but here in California [it should be] as high as we possibly can set it. So that those communities that can’t afford an air filter when the air is [polluted with wildfire smoke] are still protected.

Copyright 2021 KQED