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  • Writer's pictureMarc Camanag

The World Logistics Center: Lessons from California’s Next Big Environmental Disaster

A large but sleepy city located in Southern California’s bustling Inland Empire, Moreno Valley might seem insignificant at first glance. And for many that call and have called the city home, that sentiment might not seem too far off from reality. Having lived there my entire life, it’s difficult to imagine Moreno Valley having a visible impact on something as timely and relevant as climate change. Wishful thinking aside, my hometown might soon become the site of one of the most environmentally disastrous projects that California has ever seen.

Among the many warehouses and business parks that occupy the barren land of the Inland Empire, the World Logistics Center (WLC) is poised to be the climax of the post-recession industrialization that has affected the region for over a decade. Even as a latecomer of this boom, the concept and proposition of the WLC speaks to the complex relationship between economic growth and environmental preservation, and whether or not the two can be reconciled. And with this struggle now juxtaposed against the financial impacts of a global pandemic and a growing public consciousness of climate change, now — arguably more than ever — is the time for us to challenge the longstanding notion of economy over environment and redefine this nexus for the better. That said, the outcome of the proposed World Logistics Center will be the latest crucible in which we test this balance of economy and environment. At this point, what will ultimately emerge is still unknown — but the stakes are painfully clear.

The prospect of a World Logistics Center carries massive consequences for air quality and public health, in Moreno Valley and beyond. (Artwork by Anusha Goswami)

Simply put, the creation of the World Logistics Center will be nothing short of an environmental disaster. Set to encompass forty-million square feet of buildings across twenty-six hundred acres, it is without a doubt that a warehouse complex of such magnitude will carry major repercussions for the environment. Upon its construction, the WLC will be among the largest of its kind in the nation; at the local level, though, it is only bound to further aggravate already unfavorable environmental conditions in Moreno Valley and Riverside County. The consequences that come with such a project — vehicle traffic, greenhouse gas emissions, and more — will directly impact a region that is already afflicted with one of the highest levels of air pollution in the country, thus exacerbating health issues in a community that has already been feeling the ramifications for most of their lives. With an estimated 68,721 vehicle trips a day, air quality will surely decline, as will the health of those in the Center’s proximity. Much like my own generation, those that follow will be forced to deal with asthma and other respiratory problems, simply by virtue of growing up with the WLC.

Since the project’s initial proposal in 2012, its long list of negative environmental impacts have not gone unnoticed. Beyond raising awareness, multiple environmental groups have filed lawsuits and engaged in litigation procedures against the WLC, on the grounds of its adverse effects on the area’s air quality and local flora and fauna. Along with residents of the region, several endangered and threatened species are expected to suffer if the complex were to be constructed. Why, then, is such an environmentally-harmful project still in the works?

As mentioned, the economy and the environment have long been entangled in a relationship defined by trade-offs and a give-and-take spirit. And although we are entering a new era where positive developments in each can coexist, the debate surrounding the WLC is very much stuck in the binary thinking of the past. For proponents of the World Logistics Center, air quality and public health come secondary to the expectations of job creation and economic stimulation tied with the project. Through no fault of their own, those drawn in by the economic promises of the developer see the environment as a worthy sacrifice, especially if it means being able to escape unemployment, put food on the table, and sustain oneself and their family.

Such aspirations are undoubtedly valid and reflect the reality for many in my hometown, but economic opportunity should not have to come at the expense of the environment. Rather than settling for grossly negligent projects like the WLC, the Moreno Valley City Council — who have approved the Center time and time again, as recently as last June — should seek economic prosperity for its residents through clean and eco-conscious jobs that rightly place economy and environment on equal footing.

Beyond its blatant environmental impact, another issue with the Center lies in the fact that its ongoing proposal has been fueled by a rejection of environmental concerns and repeated attempts to circumvent environmental protections. In response to critiques and litigation efforts by both environmental advocacy groups and government agencies, the developer Highland Fairview often retorts with economic buzzwords and non-answers that say either little or nothing at all. Instead of addressing legitimate concerns and ceding that the World Logistics Center will be the environmental catastrophe that its opponents purport, representatives of the developer simply cite figures of job creation or attempt to discredit groups and legislation that are striving to protect the environment.

Even the mitigation protocols that will be in place — waste recycling, solar panels, electric vehicle charging stations — are minor in the face of the environmental degradation that the Center will trigger. Moreover, the intended practice of carbon offsetting sheds an even brighter light on the developer’s disregard for its environmental impact. Under this scheme of lessening its carbon footprint via investment in emission-reducing environmental projects elsewhere, the WLC will appear to be carbon neutral while still introducing massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions — roughly 385,000 metric tons a year, forty times what is already considered to be significantly high — to local residents and the atmosphere. For a community and Earth that has long been suffering from the proliferation of environmentally harmful industries and practices, simply “mitigating” the problem isn’t enough. For the WLC, its potential for destruction is best resolved by its nonexistence.

It’s been far too long ingrained in us that economic development can only happen at the expense of the environment. As many green-minded economic initiatives have shown, sustainability, clean energy and the reduction of carbon emissions are not anathema to the economy, or vice versa. Economic issues can be remedied in a manner that is conscious of climate change and its sociocultural impact, and such efforts should be the norm as we inch closer and closer to a point of no return.

As we move forward, we have to think beyond the short-sighted economic visions espoused by projects like the World Logistics Center. Rather than sticking with the diminishing notion that economic growth is strongest when it is positively correlated to increased emissions, there has to be a new consensus at all levels — from world powers to local businesses — that clean energy sourcing and sustainable industry practices are good for economies and the environment. And as luck would have it, the financial impact of COVID-19 and the momentum of this modern fight against climate change present us with a rare chance to reframe the standards and principles of our economy for the better.

Now and in the coming years, the collective effort of rehabilitating the world economy must place an emphasis on transitioning to clean energy and away from high-emission models of economic stimulation. From a macro-perspective, there must be a concerted effort among countries to produce new agreements on issues like decarbonization and technology financing. And all the way down at the local level, communities — like Moreno Valley — must be provided alternative solutions to economic livelihood that don't harm them and the environment.

Considering that city lawmakers have been massively complicit in the bid for the World Logistics Center by ignoring precedents in environmental law and pushing its development through legal loopholes, it can be assumed that the continued efforts to stop the WLC will be an uphill battle. Nonetheless, it is a worthy endeavor that speaks to the challenges that communities and countries alike will face as they continue to navigate the multi-faceted difficulties of managing climate change.

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