Law school grad becomes climate leader at California EPA

It’s an understatement as wide as the San Andreas Rift to say that Yana Garcia, a 2011 graduate of Northeastern University School of Law, took over as head of the California Environmental Protection Agency at a pivotal time in America’s history. ‘State.

On the day Garcia was sworn in as the agency’s cabinet-level secretary on August 31, California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency due to extreme heat events that led at a record temperature of 116 degrees Fahrenheit in Sacramento. .

The announcement of Garcia’s new position a few weeks earlier had been consistent with the publication of research noting California’s susceptibility to mega-flooding.

And a three-year drought that shows no signs of abating continues to strain the state’s water resources.

Garcia, who most recently served as special assistant attorney general in California, said the urgent need for action inspires him in his new role.

“There’s a call to do what I can,” Garcia says. “The responsibility to do what we can to remedy the problems we find ourselves in and to develop solutions is quite intense.”

In a chat with [email protected], she talks about her journey, California’s bold plans to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, and how co-op experiences while studying law at Northeastern University strengthened his desire to embrace climate and social justice in his legal career.

The power grid and the heat wave

During Garcia’s first week on the job, California’s power grid faced a major challenge as a record-breaking heat wave put tremendous strain on the system.

The grid did not fail, an achievement Garcia credits to conservation compliance efforts.

“California people really got down to business,” she says. “The awareness around climate change has reached so many of us at this point. So many people in California have experienced power outages in the past.”

It helped Governor Newsom issue public calls urging Californians to “do their part” and limit energy use for air conditioning, running major appliances and charging electric cars, Garcia says.

She says she lives in Oakland, which fell short of the record high of 116 degrees set in California’s capital, Sacramento. “But it was pretty bad,” Garcia says.

The impending ban on petrol cars

In August, California regulators passed rules banning the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035, making it the first state in the country to pass such regulations.

The move will have a huge effect, says Garcia.

“We are really capable of driving market change simply by the fact that we are a major automotive market and the fifth largest economy in the world.”

“A large majority of smog-creating emissions, causing climate change, come from the transportation sector,” says Garcia. That means moving away from gas-powered vehicles will have immediate effects in the state and even around the world, she says.

The California Air Resources Board, which she oversees, will soon release a “scoping plan” to outline policy proposals to move the economy away from fossil fuels.

“The plan provides a pathway to achieve both the 2030 climate goals and state carbon neutrality no later than 2045,” Garcia said. Efforts to achieve these goals include promoting offshore wind, clean fuels, climate-friendly homes and carbon removal, as well as tackling methane leaks, she says.

Nuclear as an alternative energy

Environmentalists are increasingly talking about the use of nuclear energy as a “green” alternative to burning fossil fuels.

Nuclear fission will play at least a short-term role in meeting the state’s energy needs, Garcia said.

She says Governor Newsom just signed a legislative package that includes extending the life of the state’s last operating nuclear power plant, the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Generating Station, by five years.

“While I would say that’s not part of any ideal long-term strategy, it’s part of what we need to explore” to avoid pollution from diesel generators and natural gas, she says.

“It will probably be part of our bridging strategy, but ideally not a long-term strategy.”

Climate Change Threats to Native American Communities

Garcia has been an advocate for tribal rights in previous positions (most recently as assistant secretary for environmental justice, tribal affairs, and border relations at CalEPA).

She says Native American communities face particular threats related to climate change, but also incorporate cultural practices that can be adopted to combat it.

“Tribal lands have long been disproportionately exploited for the extraction of resources, including minerals and fossil fuels,” says Garcia.

It’s global, she said. Think of Canada’s tar sands mines, which First Nations tribes and others are now accusing of “ecocide” for the devastating ecological impacts involved in the oil extraction process.

In California, says Garcia, “We are moving away from an extractive economy, but we still need to take corrective action to address the impact on Indigenous peoples. »

Embracing certain tribal cultural practices can pave the way for a greener future, she says.

“Indigenous peoples have been stewards of our forest lands since time immemorial,” says Garcia. She says western states such as California are increasingly adopting the practice of “cultural burning,” which involves starting small, controlled fires to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

Courtesy picture. California Environmental Protection Secretary Yana Garcia, center, holds a child. California Governor Gavin Newsom, second from left.

In May, Newsom announced support for prescribed burning on 400,000 acres by 2035, according to Slate.

Environmental issues and immigration

Garcia says human rights and climate change issues intersect in ways that drive or influence immigration.

Many recent immigrants from Central America say droughts or other environmental disasters influence their decision to leave their homeland, Garcia says. “As we think about climate change on a global scale, it is causing displacement around the world.”

And that’s causing unexpected environmental problems, from water pollution and other issues associated with Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexican border to overcrowding in Mexican and California border towns, Garcia says.

“When you look at the implementation of immigration policy – thinking of the (recently rescinded) ‘stay in Mexico’ policy – what you see along the border is unforeseen growth that ends up creating a lot of pollution impact on the Mexican side and the California side.”

A Californian in Beantown

Garcia grew up in California and graduated in politics from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She says she enjoyed her stay in the Northeast.

“Boston was a great place to go to school,” Garcia says. She says she was impressed with the work of environmental justice communities in Boston and throughout Massachusetts and especially enjoyed her cooperative experience with Alternatives for Community and Environment, an environmental justice organization in Roxbury.

“It was a very important experience for me in my journey.”

The Cooperative Experience at Northeastern University School of Law

“I loved my experience at Northeastern. I really enjoyed the opportunity to have experiential learning in law school,” says Garcia.

She had four cooperatives, including one with the Paso Del Norte Civil Rights Project in Texas.

Starting law school in 2008 during an economic downturn made work experiences even more important, says Garcia. “I think Northeastern University graduates are in a really good position to find a job.”

Children and the future of the planet

“I have a child who is less than a year old. I do my best to expose it to the natural world around us,” says Garcia.

She says she doesn’t believe it’s up to adults to tell young people and children what to think about the climate issues affecting their generation. “I don’t talk as long as I try to listen.”

For media inquiries, please contact [email protected]

Jon J. Epps