As I’m sitting in my apartment in South Berkeley looking out the window at orange skies, the sky is literally the wrong color. It’s surreal, equally beautiful and terrifying. I’ve never been more grateful for the hum of my HEPA filter steadily working to clean the air I’m breathing. I refresh the PurpleAir map for the fifth time today, seeing the air quality index rise into the mid-250s. I sip my ginger tea, grateful to be inside, thankful for blankets pushed up against door frames and tape sealing up windowsills.
I worry about our unhoused neighbors being exposed to this toxic air, unprotected. I take another Advil for my headache and think how much worse it must be outside. How much worse it must be in older apartments and houses not nearly as well insulated as mine — where I can still smell the smoke and taste it on my breath.
This year is on track to be the hottest on global record, and California is facing the largest wildfire in our state’s recorded history. September now seems to mark a regular wildfire season, made worse by a warming planet and a drying climate. It’s clear climate change effects are here on our doorstep and seeping through our windowpanes.
During times like this, it’s easy to feel powerless and like there is nothing we can do. And though none of us alone can solve climate change and worsening air quality, together, this November, Berkeley voters can act by supporting the creation of the city’s Climate Equity Action Fund through Measure HH. If passed, Measure HH will generate new revenues to help make it possible for our lowest-income neighbors to weatherize their homes, improve energy efficiency and reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and monthly utility bills.
But with the very real annual impacts of these wildfires on our health and well-being, Measure HH could do something more: help Berkeley’s most vulnerable residents protect themselves against the harmful effects of fine particles and wildfire smoke. The very same weatherizing updates that will reduce drafts through windows, doors and utility vents will not only lower heating and cooling costs every month but also help keep bad air out during wildfire season. It’s a win for our planet and a win for our people.
How will Measure HH achieve these goals? With a small increase in the city’s utility tax rates — only $2.50 for a $100 bill — we can raise $2.4 million annually to help implement our climate action plan. The measure would take the current utility tax and transform it into a tool for helping our lowest-income neighbors. Anyone receiving assistance through CARE or FERA utility rate reduction programs would be exempt. This change would allow low-income Berkeley residents to save an average of $160 per year, helping to provide immediate and meaningful relief.
Much like Berkeley’s successful sugary beverage tax, Measure HH would be overseen by a panel of experts to ensure the funding is equitably and impactfully distributed. The panel would advise Berkeley City Council on how to invest in effective and equitable policies for taking climate action. And funds from Measure HH could support making buildings more energy-efficient and promote clean electricity for homes and businesses as well. Beyond that, through the Climate Equity Action Fund, we could possibly see increased access to bike-share programs, free transit passes or solar batteries installed to help low-income and vulnerable neighbors in areas at high wildfire risk endure utility outages during fire season and emergencies.
It’s rare to have the opportunity to vote on a measure so modest yet potentially impactful on the health and quality of life for so many, all while helping our planet and doubling down on Berkeley’s long-standing commitment to fighting against climate change.
Measure HH has the promise to make life just a little bit easier for our most vulnerable, lowest-income neighbors — help that cannot come soon enough during a pandemic when so many tenants may be in danger of being evicted. I hope you will join me, the Sierra Club, the League of Women Voters of Berkeley, Albany and Emeryville, 350 East Bay and the Ecology Center in supporting the Climate Equity Action Fund by voting yes on Measure HH, a step toward Berkeley’s own Green New Deal.
But Measure HH is only one path forward. Beyond Measure HH, Berkeley voters can also help improve responses to natural disasters in our community by voting yes on Measure FF. If passed, Measure FF will provide Berkeley firefighters with the resources they need to mitigate wildfire risks, improve 911 dispatch and support other emergency response services. We can also vote yes on Alameda County Measure W, which would raise funds to help house our homeless neighbors and those at risk of experiencing homelessness.
Thankfully, we don’t have to wait until November to help our unhoused community and others most impacted by wildfire smoke. Organizations and individuals in need of masks to protect themselves or others from wildfire smoke can request masks from Mask Oakland here. If you are struggling with poor air quality in your home and cannot afford an air purifier, you can request one by filling out this form. We may be stuck inside our homes apart, but we are not alone. Together our voice and our votes are powerful.
Andy Kelley is a past chair of the Sierra Club Northern Alameda County Group and a past chair of the Berkeley Public Works Commission. He is also a candidate for the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board.