JP – Welcome to Sachamama for our monthly talk, which we hold on the last Tuesday of every month at 6:00 PM through this channel. Later, you can also watch it on our website www.sachamama.org. I introduce myself once again, my name is Johani Ponce, I am a journalist, and I work in the communications department at the Sachamama organization. In this space, we talk to different environmental leaders. Today we have a special guest who works for a very important organization, Green Latinos. Her name is Irene Burga, and she holds the position of Climate Justice and Clean Air Director at Green Latinos. Thank you very much, Irene, for being with us, for sharing this space, and for providing us with all your experiences in such an important role for the Latino community like the one you have.
IB – Thank you for inviting me. Hello, nice to meet you.
JP – Well, Irene, we want to start by talking a bit about you, your background, where you were born, where you grew up, and well, what you studied. And how did you come to work for Green Latinos?
IB – Yes, well, I was born in the capital of Spain, Madrid, and I grew up there. Also, in Peru, where my father was raised, and I spent time there back and forth until I was eight years old. When I was eight, my family moved to Los Angeles, California. I would say that time in my childhood was very important for the formation of my personality and ideology. During that time, I was exposed to the natural riches in the fields and hills of Peru. And I also grew up in the metropolitan city of Madrid, where we didn’t have a car and only used the subway and buses. I was exposed to both aspects, the more rural life of my father in Peru and the more metropolitan life in Madrid, which greatly influenced how I think today, to use less, and I have always been a nature lover. A big part of that was due to my early exposure to nature. Peru is a beautiful country. And my father has a great love for the fields, as he used to be a farmer. So I was raised in that way, and then, when I moved to Los Angeles and grew up there until college age, I was exposed for the first time to severe air pollution in Los Angeles, which we know is a city with many pollution problems. There are many industries, and I had friends and relatives who were greatly affected by illnesses aggravated by air pollution. That was another formative experience for me. So, with all that experience, when I attended the University of San Diego, where I studied international politics and became more involved in the student volunteer group that had a passion for the environment, it was the first time I heard the term environmental justice. From there, the connections between the pollution around us in Los Angeles and the illnesses that many of my friends and relatives had started to become clearer. That’s when I began to understand the connection that I didn’t know when I was younger. And that was the foundation on which I built my career in sustainability and the environment. Even my interest in studying law and later working in public policy on environmental issues.
JP – It must be a big change between Madrid and Los Angeles, where Madrid is a city where public transportation works very well. That’s the experience I’ve had when I visited a very beautiful city. In Los Angeles, we see that everything has to be done practically by car, and there’s all this pollution. Everything is very different, it must be a drastic change. And now that you mentioned environmental justice, I would like you to explain why it affects minority communities, the Latino community, the African American community, more when it comes to environmental pollution and pollution-related issues.
IB – We know that there are several problems, stages of these problems, but in the United States, there is a long history of racism, classism, and political apathy, and that puts the Latino community at the center of all this, especially low-income families who are on the front lines of the climate crisis. Systemic injustices have affected the places where we live and the types of jobs we have. For example, we know that a large portion of Latinos live in states like California, Texas, and Florida, where extreme weather events are increasing every year, and the effects of climate change are worsening. We are seeing this both scientifically and in real life, and it’s something that our members at Green Latinos are discussing and experiencing firsthand.
We know that there are several problems, stages of these problems, but in the United States there is a long history of racism, classism, and political apathy, and that puts the Latino community at the center of all this, especially low-income families who are on the front line of the climate crisis.
Also, in the southeastern United States, where some of the fastest-growing Latino communities are located, they are under the threat of heat waves that we have seen quite a lot this year. And in territories like Puerto Rico, the impacts of increasingly severe storm seasons are already being experienced. It is important to note that the Latino community predominantly works in outdoor occupations and jobs, such as laborers and agricultural workers, and is directly affected by climate change due to the nature of our work. So, it also affects us in terms of where we live and the types of jobs we have in our community.
JP – Tell me a little bit about Green Latinos and what the organization is about. Specifically, the role you play and what you do concretely.
IB – The mission of Green Latinos is to be an active community of Latino leaders who harness the power and wisdom of our culture. We are united to demand equity and dismantle racism by securing resources to win our environmental battles for conservation and climate justice, and to ensure our political and economic rights, cultural liberation, and environmental freedom. So, we work at the intersection of all these different parts that make up our community. Green Latinos develops and advocates for policies and programs to advance this vision.
Part of what we envision is a healthy and equitable society where communities of color are freed from disproportionate environmental burdens and are free to breathe clean air and drink pure water. In my role as the Director of Climate Justice, I specifically focus on winning battles at the legislative level with Congress and the White House to reduce air and climate pollution.
For example, we are currently working on two rulemakings imposed by the EPA to reduce methane gas pollution in oil and gas production wells. This affects many communities living near these industry centers in states with significant Latino populations, such as Texas, California, and New Mexico, where there are many oil and gas wells. We are also working to increase clean air standards for ozone pollution set by the EPA. We just finished giving our oral testimony this week, and there is now an opportunity until March 28th to submit written comments and raise our voices urging the EPA to establish more protective standards for our communities. This is a specific issue for the Latino community.
In Los Angeles, where I grew up, there is a lot of industry, many trucks and cars. We have a very important port, actually two ports, the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach, which contribute significantly to this type of pollution. California has a major problem where we still haven’t reached clean air standards, so having the EPA and these standards is incredibly important for our communities.
JP – I understand that the previous administration limited the EPA’s authority, which had more impact before. Can you explain that a little more? I’m not very clear on it.
EB – Yes, last year in the case of West Virginia v. EPA, the Supreme Court limited the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. However, they did not eliminate the ability to reduce emissions through existing EPA regulations, so there are other avenues that can be used, such as effective legislation approved by Congress, to reduce emissions. That’s why the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) was introduced. The Supreme Court said, “We won’t let the EPA as an agency, based on our own scientists, reduce or take action to address the climate crisis. However, if Congress grants that authority to the EPA, then they can do it.” That’s why there is authority with the IRA.
JP – You mentioned the IRA, the Inflation Reduction Act, which is a significant advancement. I understand it as a very important step for all Americans, including our community, historically the largest one approved within the United States in terms of the amount of funding. But how does that law translate into benefits for our community? And how can we ensure that those funds reach the communities that truly need them? How do we monitor that? Because it’s a step forward, and now we need to know what will happen with these resources and how we can benefit from them. I would like you to explain a little bit about this to me and the audience.
The law is the Inflation Reduction Act, aimed at reducing inflation, so part of the mandate is to create jobs, address political apathy, and place the Latino community at the center of all this. It also aims to boost new businesses and help working families purchase and gain access to these credits. Additionally, it is part of the new economy that we are almost building with something as massive as this type of legislation.
EB – That’s the key question. We’re all discussing this issue and trying to see how to implement the law, but everything hinges on the details and how it is implemented. Generally speaking, the IRA includes supercritical investments, and we’re already seeing agencies gaining power and distributing the budget and funds. The tax credits, which I believe are crucial for addressing the climate crisis, come from credits for clean electricity, clean vehicles, new technology, and the manufacturing of cleaner renewable energy systems for cars. Let’s not forget that the law is the Inflation Reduction Act, aimed at reducing inflation, so part of the mandate is to create jobs, boost new businesses, and help working families purchase and gain access to these credits. It’s also part of the new economy that we’re building with something as massive as this type of legislation. So, in terms of your question about access for specific communities, the law includes priorities for environmental justice and block grants. We’ve already seen the EPA announce eleven billion dollars this past week, which will go to different NGOs that can then act as intermediaries to provide grants to smaller communities for their projects. Part of this is that communities on the front lines of environmental hazards can access three billion dollars from the EPA and other agencies in block grants for environmental and climate justice to reduce pollution. In total, the IRA will invest a record-breaking amount of sixty billion dollars in environmental justice, not only on a national level in the United States but also globally.
So I would say that all these specific details are still being discussed and reviewed, but we are seeing that now the Treasury Department, the EPA, and the Department of Energy (DOE) are starting to release a lot of the funds.
JP – You mentioned that your work is primarily focused on legislating, advocating for these laws, giving a voice to those who don’t have one. But as a community, as individuals, we already know the problem we have, we see that environmental racism and climate injustice exist, which is what you work on. But what can we do? As individuals and as a community, what advice do you give to everyone in the face of climate change, environmental injustice, global warming? What can we do?
IB – What I always say in response to this question is to vote. That is, vote for leaders who prioritize the environment at all levels of government. If you are an immigrant and don’t have the right to vote in certain elections, there are always more local elections that also have a significant impact. So that’s the number one issue; we need leaders at all levels who support this cause and also counter the voices against science, climate change, and the conservative movement that we know exists. So, my number one recommendation is to vote. Then take small actions, utilize the benefits of the IRA. Now there is a great opportunity, and next Tuesday, Green Latinos will be hosting a webinar where we will explain the benefits and how individuals can access them if they are interested in, for example, changing their fossil fuel car to a clean one or upgrading their home systems for more efficient energy. These are small things you can start changing. It is a great time and opportunity to have the resources to make those changes. So, I would say these small things like changing light bulbs, turning off lights – my dad always emphasizes that; he drilled it into my head, to turn off lights when leaving a room, you know?
JP – To be more conscious, right?
IB – Yes, to have awareness and be a person who conserves. Many Latinos are already like that. But often, living here in the United States, we have learned to overuse, to overconsume, you know? Not giving much importance to those things that we have always valued more. So, these small things can bring about big changes, and also, talk to your friends. You will see how modeling this type of behavior makes a difference because people notice and ask questions because it’s out of the ordinary. Most people take the easy route, they buy plastic. If you start making small changes and also be kind to yourself, but start with those small changes, it can make a big difference.
JP – And once again, Irene, the tool is information because the more information we have, the more we can become aware of these resources that are available through the IRA. We can align ourselves with organizations like yours. So, for individuals who are interested, what do they need to do to be part of or participate in any activities with your organization, Green Latinos?
IB – The first thing I would say is exactly what you mentioned, getting involved with organizations like ours. We have many opportunities for taking action. One of them, as I mentioned before, is regarding the regulation of soot pollution. You can visit greenlatinos.org/soot and there you’ll find a petition that you can sign. You can even include your own comment. We provide the form, and it’s very easy to fill out. This petition goes directly to the EPA. You can also visit our main website, greenlatinos.org, and sign up for our mailing list. Within my climate justice and clean air program, you can join my list, and there you will find all the information about our events, which we hold every two or three months. We also have our newspaper with a lot of information and many opportunities to take action there. Lastly, I wanted to mention that in October, during Hispanic Heritage Month, we launched the Latina Climate Justice Framework. This framework covers a wide range of comprehensive priorities that impact the Latino community. It not only addresses issues like clean air and water, but also community matters and topics that particularly affect our communities, such as Puerto Rico-related issues, farm worker justice, and immigration-related matters. I also encourage everyone to visit mjcl.greenlatinos.org, which is the Latina Climate Justice Framework. It’s a great resource for the Latino community as well.
IB – Of course, you can find out more there. To wrap up, Irene, what I would like to say is that when we talk about environmental justice and climate change, the news is often apocalyptic and negative. But I believe that with organizations like Green Latinos, Sachamama, and laws like the IRA, we are making progress. We are in a better place than we were a few years ago. I know there is still much to be done, but I think even our community is becoming more aware of these issues, and you know this better than I do, Irene. There is a myth that suggests the Latino community does not care about these issues, but in reality, we do care about climate change because it directly affects us. In fact, a 2021 study by the Pew Center shows that 81% of Latinos are concerned about climate change. So, I believe we are on the right path. I may be mistaken, but I know there is much to do. What is your final message regarding this?
IB – I really appreciate your optimism, and I share it because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be working in this field. There is still much to be done, but we have never lived in such a critical and pivotal moment in recent history as we do now. What encourages me is that we have a community that has come together and created a movement that has pushed for laws like the IRA. There is so much more to do, as you mentioned, but I truly believe and feel that there is a tremendous opportunity now. I keep saying, start small and pay attention to the moment we are in. I genuinely believe that as a community, we can achieve it. I share that optimism as well.
JP – Yes, we are on the right path. Well, Irene, it has been truly pleasant talking to you for these few minutes. It was very informative. You know that people can visit the Sachamama website and the Green Latinos website if they want to take action. Personally, we may not see each other soon, but thank you very much for your time. I’m here to help if you need anything. I think it was a great conversation and it can motivate people because we all have the right to breathe clean air, have clean water, live in good areas, have good jobs, and be well protected, especially when working outdoors. I believe that we can live on a much better and fairer planet for everyone.
IB – Thank you. Thank you very much for the invitation. I really enjoyed the dialogue. Thank you.
JP – Thank you, dear.