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How An Appalachian Girl Became California’s Climate Champion

Ken Silverstein 

The 1972 hit song “It Doesn’t Rain in Southern California” is obsolete — buried by rainfalls this week totaling more than 12 inches. That triggered flooding and hundreds of mudslides, causing at least 300,000 people to lose power.

And who better to deal with this mess — literally — than California’s Senate President Pro Tempore Emeritus Toni G. Atkins — a woman who hails from Appalachia and southwestern Virginia. A top contender for the state’s governor, she has crafted budgets and climate legislation that have crossed the finish line.

“We are seeing the impact of climate change through fires, floods, and droughts,” Senator Atkins explained to me. “We are doing it in real-time.”

Indeed, she helped foster the “Climate Resilience Package” — initiatives signed in 2021. The legislature passed, and the governor signed 24 bills that allocated several billion dollars to tackle wildfires and droughts. It also focused on community resiliency, sustainable agriculture, and clean energy.

I witnessed how hard-driving storms can uproot local communities, increasing the importance of those programs. More rain has come down in the last couple of days than the area typically gets in a year. Meteorologists say a warming atmosphere holds more moisture and leads to intense rainfall. Hotter weather also causes giant waves that erode coastlines. Consider that Southern California rains a few dozen times yearly compared to other regions that receive five times that amount.

But how does a child born into poverty — on the other side of the country — end up leading California’s climate charge? It’s reminiscent of former Los Angeles Laker superstar Jerry West — the “Zeke from Cabin Creek,” alluding to his meager roots in the hills of West Virginia.

Atkins was born near Bluefield, West Virginia, in 1962. Her dad was a coal miner, and her mom was a seamstress. The family had no running water until 1970. She carried buckets of water for bathing, cooking, and drinking from a nearby spring after being strong enough. At 18, she went to Emory & Henry College in Virginia and became the first in her family to graduate.

Surreal Experience

With her newly minted degree, Atkins sought to find her calling in North Carolina. But family came first. Her twin sister had become a new mother — serving in the navy in San Diego. Atkins moved west in 1985 to help her sister’s clan.

After a short stint as a nanny, Atkins plied her skills with the San Diego Job Corp, giving second chances to those in need. From there, she worked for clinics specializing in women’s healthcare, running three facilities. In 1993, her local city councilwoman asked if she would join her team in doing everything from aiding small businesses to fixing street lights.

She spent seven years in that job, developing rapport with neighbors and civic activists. And when her mentor suggested she run for that city council seat, Atkins did and won. She was on the San Diego City Council for eight years until 2008.

Then, she was elected as a Democrat to California’s lower chamber and became the Speaker of the California State Assembly from 2014 to 2016. At that point, she ran for state senate. Two years later, she became the Senate President pro tempore — a position she just relinquished.

“Key action on climate legislation was due to Senate President Toni Atkins,” Senator John Laird told me. “When the legislature deadlocked on tough climate measures two years ago, she brought together a diverse group of senators who, over months, hammered out a comprehensive climate platform.

“Whether a legislative or budget proposal, the senate passed every priority climate measure that next year. Her leadership got us there,” adds Laird, California’s Secretary of Natural Resources for years.

As an elected official, Atkins has labored to rebuild communities devastated by extreme heat and rising sea levels while providing financial relief for droughts and long-term water resilience.

For example, the Climate Resilience Package focuses on vulnerable front-line communities. As such, it provides funding for energy efficiency, coastal defense, and environmental protection.

In 2018, she secured $983 million for disaster prevention and response — like wildfire recovery, helicopter replacement, and forest management. A year later, Atkins negotiated legislation requiring PG&E Corp., Edison InternationalEIX +0.2%, and Sempra Energy to invest $5 billion to prevent future fires by updating their infrastructure for safety. And, in 2022, she led a $19 billion climate deal to generate more clean energy investments and alternatively-fueled vehicles.

“It has been surreal,” Atkins says. “I grew up hearing about San Diego because my dad was stationed here. But my parents died young and never witnessed my career. I grew up very differently from my life in California, but my values stem from my upbringing.”

It is bizarre that a girl from the Appalachian Plateau has helped lead California through droughts, flooding, and wildfires — and now landslides resulting from unrelenting rains. The journey started in San Diego’s City Hall and continued to Sacramento’s state legislative body. And it may lead to the governor’s mansion in 2026. Her parents would be proud.

How An Appalachian Girl Became California’s Climate Champion (forbes.com)