Northeastern grad Yana Garcia new California Secretary of Environmental Protection

Yana Garcia swearing into office
Courtesy Photo

It’s an understatement as wide as the San Andreas Fault to say that Yana Garcia, a 2011 graduate of the Northeastern University School of Law, took over leadership of the California Environmental Protection Agency at a pivotal moment in the state’s history.

The day Garcia was sworn in to the cabinet-level position of agency secretary on Aug. 31, California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency due to extreme heat events that led to a record-setting high temperature of 116 degrees Farhenheit in Sacramento.

The announcement of Garcia’s new position a few weeks earlier had dovetailed with the release of research reporting California’s susceptibility to megafloods.

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, says the urgent need for action inspires her in her 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 conversation with News@Northeastern, she talks about her background, California’s bold plans to address greenhouse gas emissions and how co-op experiences while in law school at Northeastern University solidified her desire to embrace climate and social justice in her legal career.

The electrical grid and the heat wave

During Garcia’s first week on the job, California’s electric grid faced a major challenge as a record heat wave put enormous pressure on the system.

The grid did not fail, an accomplishment Garcia attributes to conservation compliance efforts.

“Californians really stepped up to the task,” she says. “The consciousness around the changing climate has reached so many of us at this point. So many in California have experienced rolling blackouts in the past.”

It helped that Gov. Newsom made public pleas urging Californians to “do their part” and limit the use of energy for air conditioning, running major appliances and charging electric cars, Garcia says.

She says she lives in Oakland, which didn’t reach the 116-degree record set in California’s capital city of Sacramento. “But it was pretty bad,” Garcia says.

The impending ban on gas-powered cars

In August, California regulators adopted rules that would ban the sales of new gas-powered cars by 2035, making it the first state in the nation to adopt such regulations.

The move will have a far-reaching effect, Garcia says. 

“We are really able to drive a market change simply by the fact we are a significant vehicle market and the fifth-largest economy in the world.”

“A vast majority of emissions creating smog, causing climate change, comes from the transportation sector,” Garcia says. That means shifting away from gas-fueled vehicles will have immediate effects in the state and even worldwide, she says.

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

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

Nuclear power as alternative energy

Environmentalists increasingly talk about using nuclear energy as a “green” alternative to fossil fuel burning. 

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

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

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

“It is likely to be part of our bridge strategy, but ideally not a long-term strategy.”

Climate change threats to Native American communities

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

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

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

That’s on a global scale, she says. 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, Garcia says, “We’re moving away from an extractive economy, but we still have to take corrective steps to address the impact on Indigenous people.”

Adopting some tribal cultural practices can point the way to a greener future, she says.

“Indigenous people have been stewards of our forested lands since time immemorial,” Garcia says. She says western states such as California increasingly are picking up the practice of “cultural burning,” which is the setting of small, controlled fires to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

Yana Garcia posing with her family and Governor Gavin Newsom
Courtesy Photo. California Secretary of Environmental Protection Yana Garcia, center, holding child. California Gov. 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 impact 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 all over the world.”

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

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

A Californian in Beantown

Garcia grew up in California and has a degree in politics from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She says she enjoyed her time in the Northeast.

“Boston was a great place to be in school,” Garcia says. She says she was impressed by the work of environmental justice communities in Boston and across Massachusetts and particularly valued her co-op experience with Alternatives for Community and Environment, an environmental justice organization in Roxbury. 

“That was a really important experience for me in my path.”

The co-op experience at Northeastern University School of Law

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

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

Starting law school in 2008 during an economic downturn made the on-the-job experiences even more important, Garcia says. “I feel Northeastern University graduates are really well positioned to get jobs.”

Children and the future of the planet

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

She says she doesn’t believe it is the place of adults to tell youth and children what to think of the climate issues impacting their generation. “I don’t speak so much as I try to listen.”

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