Can $3.5 billion help fix climate change? Laurene Powell Jobs wants to find out
This is the Sept. 1, 2022, edition of Boiling Point, a weekly newsletter about climate change and the environment in California and the American West. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.
Jared Blumenfeld is already one of the nation’s most powerful figures on climate — and with $3.5 billion at his disposal, he’s arguably about to become even more influential.
As secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency under Gov. Gavin Newsom, Blumenfeld has played a key role in efforts to bring clean drinking water to low-income homes, end the sale of gasoline-fueled cars and defend the state’s vehicle pollution rules against the Trump administration. He’s also faced criticism from some environmentalists for allegedly supporting desalination and for negotiating a controversial deal with Boeing to clean up a radioactive site just outside Los Angeles.
Wednesday was Blumenfeld’s last day on the job. He’s leaving government to become the first president of the Waverley Street Foundation, a nonprofit set up by philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs to support climate action and community health.
Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, has seeded Waverley Street with $3.5 billion. That is a heck of lot of money to be parceled out by Blumenfeld and the foundation’s board, which is led by former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and also includes several relatives of Powell Jobs and her late husband.
I asked Blumenfeld how he’ll determine which groups can best use those funds, and what he sees as the ideal role for climate philanthropy given the growing number of billionaires — including Jeff Bezos — pledging huge sums to save the planet.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ME: You’ve got a pretty important job right now. Why leave CalEPA to run this foundation?
BLUMENFELD: It really started because of Lisa Jackson. We were taking a hike in San Francisco, and she was like, have you ever thought about working in philanthropy? At that point, I wasn’t looking for a job. I love the job I am doing, although it’s pretty all-out and sometimes exhausting.
I ended up sitting down with Lisa and Laurene. They’re quite a force of nature. We talked about how we can focus not just on policy but on culture, how we can bring artists and innovators together. I got super excited about that.
Philanthropy people will probably hate me for saying this, but I don’t usually think about philanthropy and urgency in the same sentence. And foundations haven’t traditionally been the best listeners. They can even re-create some of the colonialist patterns they’re trying to undo. You’ve got these really rich people who are telling folks what to do.
And so hearing Lisa and Laurene just completely turn that on its head and start with a focus on listening to communities and being guided by community-centered voices was really appealing.
ME: When you talk about listening to communities and responding to their needs, what does that look like in practice?
BLUMENFELD: Part of the question is who you’re listening to. I think in the environmental and climate world, we often listen just to the people doing environmental work, as opposed to social workers and health workers and community organizers and labor leaders. Climate is not just an environmental issue. It’s a societywide issue, deeply integrated with capitalism, deeply integrated with religion, with consumerism.
For instance, how do we make sure health “promotoras” are as equally heard as innovators who are trained to put solar on community rooftops but just can’t do it? I think part of my first year will be working out methods that we can employ to listen and make sure we’re getting voices from a broad spectrum of society, not just professional environmentalists.
ME: Let’s get specific. What types of initiatives do you see yourself funding?
BLUMENFELD: Part of the challenge of community-led initiatives is that most of the people working on them have day jobs. They have no ability to raise resources. So how do we help them do the jobs they’re already doing?
That can be as simple as funding a high-powered law firm to help them with their work, when they might otherwise struggle to afford any law firm at all. Communications expertise is another area. There’s so much sophisticated communications that we can help communities deploy on their own.
Often foundations come in and say, “We want you to do something completely new that you’re not thinking of.” At a fundamental level, we’ll be bolstering and empowering community groups to do the jobs they’re already doing.
ME: Do you think you’ll do any direct funding of infrastructure? Installing solar panels, for instance? Building community health centers or facilities to protect people from extreme heat?
BLUMENFELD: That exists as a potential. The foundation has more than $3 billion, so it can invest as a partner in some of those projects. Looking at how we can be an investment partner and provide equity to some of these large-scale projects in communities that wouldn’t otherwise have them is definitely something we would be interested in.
There’s this whole bizarre concept of “de-risking” investment. Normally it means cutting out all the community safeguards and protections, to make sure the community isn’t a problem. We’re looking it from the other side of the telescope. We want to make sure the community is involved because by having them involved, the project is going to be more successful.
ME: Will you have any ability to fund political campaigns?
BLUMENFELD: It’s fairly out for foundations. But there are other folks who do that, and thinking about how we could collaborate or partner with them is something I’d be interested in.
ME: I’ve heard some people make the argument that the best way for the wealthy to promote climate action is to fund political campaigns and help elect candidates who take climate seriously.
BLUMENFELD: Good candidates come from communities. If you support the work of educating and building up the capacity of communities, those leaders will emerge.
I think of Eduardo Garcia. He was a city councilperson in Coachella, then mayor, then he became the state Assembly member — and a climate champion. He won approval of that fee on lithium production to support communities near the Salton Sea.
What we want to figure out is, who are the other Eduardo Garcia’s that we can support? Not politically, but to help them with the work they’re doing, creating funding for communities who have been forgotten, and then hopefully creating jobs for those same community residents.
ME: Talk a bit more about job creation — how can the funds at your disposal help with that?
BLUMENFELD: Lithium is a great example. Another one I’ve been spending a bunch of time on is installing electric heat pumps for heating and cooling, instead of fossil fuels. We all need to stay cool, and heat pumps also help the person who puts them in reduce their utility bill compared to an old air conditioning or swamp cooler.
With California putting $1 billion in this year’s budget into building decarbonization, that’s enough that most of these heat pump manufacturers could build a heat pump facility in California. But how are we making sure that low-income community residents get those jobs? If you’re not prescribing it, companies are hiring people from out of state, which is ridiculous.
Government is really good at saying, “We’re going to put $54 billion into climate change.” But it’s not as good at delivering the programs and making sure they’re actually getting to the people who need them. We can provide a lot of the wraparound services that often government does not. We could work with community colleges or labor organizations to make sure that we train folks to have the skills to build the heat pumps and install them in homes.
ME: Will you announce publicly which organizations you fund?
BLUMENFELD: Yes. We want to have a strategy that other people can critique, and adapt, and make their own. Only by sharing this stuff are we going to have a chance of beating the climate future that we’re already seeing.
The greatest thing I feel is a sense of urgency. I want to bring that sense of urgency to philanthropy and look at what we can do to accelerate our timelines across the board, and how a grass-roots community-driven focus can do that.
ME: One last question: If wealthy individuals and big corporations paid higher taxes, would there be less of a need for climate philanthropy? I’ve heard some folks make the argument that rich people who want to drive climate action should really support a more progressive tax system, to give government the resources it needs.
BLUMENFELD: I think there’s an incredibly important role for government. The majority of the climate battle will probably land on the shoulders of government. There’s also a really important role that corporations play. And I think philanthropy plays a role in between both of those, to help create strategic direction for the entire enterprise.
I’m out in the field reporting this week — check next week’s Boiling Point for a behind-the-scenes look! In the meantime, editor Stuart Leavenworth is handling this week’s roundup of what’s happening around the West:
Much of California is bracing for a vicious “heat dome.” It is predicted to bring potentially deadly temperatures to millions of people, particularly in the state’s inland areas, as The Times’ Grace Toohey and Alexandra E. Petri report. Death Valley could hit 124 degrees, Nathan Solis notes. Grace and Alexandra offer tips for staying cool and protecting loved ones. Expect several intense days for people, animals and plants but also for the power grid, reports Gregory Yee. Officials issued a Flex Alert on Wednesday and warned that other measures might be needed to keep electricity demand in balance with supply, to avoid rolling blackouts.
Speaking of blackouts, it is likely that, by the time you read this, California lawmakers will have taken action on the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed lending $1.4 billion to Pacific Gas & Electric Co. so the utility can keep this plant open, a safeguard against power shortages in coming years. Times columnist Steve Lopez spent some time in San Luis Obispo County and opines that people opposed to keeping the plant open have stronger arguments.
Because of climate change, heat waves will likely wallop large parts of the world three times more often, according to a new study covered by the Associated Press’ Seth Borenstein. Such scorching events are already unbearable for many workers, one reason California lawmakers are pushing federal legislation that would direct the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to establish a standard to protect workers from hazardous heat, as staffer Summer Lin reports. The warehouse and delivery workers who get retail goods to your door are at high risk, The Times reported last year as part of its investigative series into extreme heat.
Unlike many states that confront a hostile climate, California is actually doing something about it. The California Air Resources Board voted on Thursday to require all new cars and light trucks sold by 2035 in the state to be what the board calls zero-emission vehicles, as Russ Mitchell of The Times reports. “It’s the action we must take if we’re serious about leaving this planet better off for future generations,” Gov. Newsom said in this Tony Briscoe story preceding the vote. There are naysayers. The Washington Post’s editorial board called California’s plan “easily reversed” and “clunky.” The Times’ Gustavo Arellano wrote a column slamming the environmental and economic costs of electric cars, stating: “Gas and oil are California sacraments that working people won’t give up so easily.”
Oil is definitely not a “sacrament” to the beaches that many Californians deem sacred. On Friday, three Texas companies agreed to plead guilty to federal environmental charges and pay nearly $13 million for a crude oil spill that fouled Southern California’s coastline last fall, The Times’ Laura J. Nelson and Hannah Fry report. The plea includes a $7.1-million criminal fine and $5.8 million to reimburse federal agencies for funds spent responding to the spill.
WATER IN THE WEST
How can Californians escape the heat? Well, you could go play in the sprinklers, but no, that won’t work in much of L.A. County next week — officials have ordered a 15-day watering ban so repairs can take place on a water pipeline, reports Times staff writer Melissa Hernandez. You could go take a dip at one of Southern California’s beaches but not in places where health officials have issued bacteria warnings, Christian Martinez reports. And not to be more of a Debbie Downer, but please take care if you plan to escape to the Gulf of Mexico — where huge mats of sargassum seaweed are fouling Mexico’s beaches — or to the San Francisco Bay, site of toxic algae blooms.
Some 71% of Californians surveyed see the current drought and water shortages as “extremely serious,” according to a new poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies. But as The Times’ Ian James reports, there’s been a noticeable public opinion shift since the last drought, with a mere 9% saying that water shortages had affected them “a great deal.”
The current drought is certainly affecting freshwater fish a great deal. Concerns are rising about salmon and other fish in Northern California, where a group of farmers is openly defying water regulators to pump water from the Shasta River, Rachel Becker reports for CalMatters. Her piece includes some interesting quotes from U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a Republican representing the far north. He calls environmental regulators “government looters” and seems just fine with farmers seizing public trust waters they’ve been ordered to keep in streams.
WILDFIRE AND WILDLANDS
The deaths of four people in this summer’s McKinney fire illustrate the growing vulnerability of rural seniors in an age of extreme blazes, as Alex Wigglesworth chronicles in this wrenching story for The Times. All the victims were over 70 years old, including 73-year-old fire lookout Kathy Shoopman. On Friday, Shoopman’s sister and others filed suit against the PacifiCorp utility for “negligently, recklessly and willfully” failing to repair and maintain its equipment, which is suspected of causing the blaze, Gregory Yee reports.
Fires play an important role in California’s ecosystems, but climate change has supercharged these blazes. Scientists and officials now fear the state is nearing a tipping point, in which incinerated forests emit more climate-warming carbon dioxide than they absorb, Tony Briscoe reports. The state hopes to rebalance this equation by treating 2.3 million acres of natural lands each year to be more resilient to destructive blazes. But that’s a big increase from the 250,000 acres currently treated, and hurdles remain.
Mojave tribes hope to transform a sacred mountain into a national monument, reports The Times’ Louis Sahagún, with stunning photos by Genaro Molina. The tribes hope to protect 443,671 acres in and around a 5,600-foot-high monolith they call Avi Kwa Ame, or Spirit Mountain, where Native Americans have come for centuries to seek religious visions and give thanks for Earth’s bounty.
ONE MORE THING
Some Los Angeles Times stories and newsletters make you want to climb mountains. Others make you want to admire them from afar.
Last week, our colleague Jack Dolan produced one of the latter — a cautionary tale about novice climbers attempting to summit Mt. Shasta, resulting in one of the mountain’s most gut-wrenching days in recent memory.
Jack’s story is a powerful one, as are the photographs by Myung J. Chun, graphics by Lorena Iñiguez Elebee and video by a team of Times visual journalists.
Although no one blames climate change for this horrible tragedy, Northern California’s most recognizable mountain is undergoing a profound transition because of rising temperatures and erratic snowfall, as this piece by Jefferson Public Radio’s Erik Neumann notes.
Mt. Shasta’s glaciers are shrinking, mudflows are wiping out roads and infrastructure, and tourists are stunned by what the peak looks like now. When viewed from the south or west, the normally bright-white mountain is completely snow-free and barren.
It’s a 14,179-foot-high “visual indicator” of climate change, says one meteorologist whom Neumann quotes.
We’ll be back in your inbox next week. If you enjoyed this newsletter, or previous ones, please consider forwarding it to your friends and colleagues. For more climate and environment news, follow me on Twitter @Sammy_Roth.
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