Maps and Data Help Sunrise LA Tell Compelling Climate Stories

Founded in 2017, the Sunrise Movement is a youth activist group in the United States that seeks to stop climate change while generating good, green jobs. The movement began when young people at universities along the East Coast started forming so-called hubs where they could meet others who shared their goals of developing healthy communities; preserving the planet; and creating high-paying, environmentally friendly jobs. Today, the Sunrise Movement is a nationwide organization with more than 400 hubs and 20,000 members.

Using strategies from the 1960s civil rights movement, including staging sit-ins and engaging in acts of civil disobedience, Sunrise activists encourage their elected officials and the public at large to stay focused on climate change. They champion many of the policies advocated in the Green New Deal, including getting the United States to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, investing in green infrastructure, helping communities build resilience in the face of climate change, and promoting equity and social justice. The activists want to elevate these goals to be the defining issues of today’s political agenda.

Sunrise Movement LA is one of the movement’s many hubs that now exist. Formed in 2018, it promotes environmental advocacy; fair housing practices; racial equity; and economic and social justice in and around the Los Angeles, California, area.

“These issues are all intimately tied to the way the climate crisis affects those living in major cities,” said Justin Chow, GIS team project leader for Sunrise LA. “The transition to a low-carbon future is connected to workers’ rights, land use, and how people are treated.”

Sunrise LA, which gains a lot of momentum from in-person events, started using Esri technology in mid-2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

An ArcGIS StoryMaps narrative that has a map of Los Angeles on the right with different areas highlighted in yellow and an image of a young woman on the left with text below introducing her as activist Nalleli Cobo
Neighborhood Wells tells the stories of people who live near urban oil and gas wells in Los Angeles, California.

“Prior to that, we had significant momentum from monthly youth climate strikes held at the end of 2019, including one led by Greta Thunberg,” said Chow, referring to the teenage environmental activist from Sweden who rose to prominence for going on strike from school every Friday to protest inaction on climate change. “Organizers estimate that that strike was attended by about 3,000 people. However, by March 2020, like the rest of the city, Sunrise LA was hit hard by COVID-19. Local, in-person actions that had fueled our momentum were immediately halted, and the organization scrambled to figure out how to proceed.”

GIS team leaders chose to use ArcGIS Online as one way to help members continue their efforts remotely. In particular, ArcGIS StoryMaps helped Sunrise LA tell its story with maps and combine data with strong messaging to encourage more people to get involved.

“ArcGIS StoryMaps can support communicating our climate crisis message and its associated issues in a very personal, compelling, and visual way,” said Chow. “Technically speaking, ArcGIS Online saved our team lots of time with its huge library of data already uploaded or readily connectable.”

One ArcGIS StoryMaps narrative that the team has created is called The Rise of a Movement: How Far We’ve Come. It showcases the group’s most significant actions since its founding.

“Relatively nontechnical team members could understand ArcGIS StoryMaps and be trained in little time,” said Chow. “Even for experienced users, the tool felt powerful enough to do almost everything we wanted.”

The main part of the story is a map that illustrates Sunrise LA’s strong commitment and connection to Los Angeles by showing where it has organized various actions throughout the city. A timeline details the numerous strikes, marches, banner drops, and trainings that Sunrise LA has put together. A choropleth map also shows how many people in different parts of Los Angeles receive Sunrise LA’s newsletter, giving viewers an idea of the reach the local movement has. The goal of this story is to inspire more people living in the area to join the movement.

Another ArcGIS StoryMaps narrative that the team developed is called Neighborhood Wells, and it tells the stories of people who live near urban oil and gas wells in Los Angeles. The city is home to 26 oil and gas fields and more than 5,000 active wells, making it the largest urban area for oil and gas extraction in the United States. Some well sites share walls with residential units, and numerous inactive wells still pose health risks to neighbors.

To get baseline data for this narrative, Chow and his team tapped into well map data from the California Department of Conservation’s Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM).

“This made the experience more ‘plug and play’ and let us focus on the value add of telling people’s personal stories,” said Chow.

Video interviews conducted with people who have been adversely affected by well sites are embedded in the story. There is also a feature that allows viewers to search for wells in the Los Angeles area by ZIP code.

Activist Nalleli Cobo is featured in the Neighborhood Wells story. She grew up 30 feet from a drill site in South Central Los Angeles, near the University of Southern California. A sign posted at the drill site, which is shown in Cobo’s video, reads, “Warning, this facility contains one or more chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects, and reproductive harm.”

“What started with headaches and stomach pains led up to body spasms so severe I couldn’t walk,” Cobo says in the video. “I [developed] a reproductive kind of cancer. People don’t develop that kind of cancer at the age of 19.”

Cobo says in the video that she believes her physical ailments were a direct result of her exposure to toxic chemicals released during drilling. Ultimately, through actions taken by Cobo and others, the oil company was ordered to cap its 21 wells on the site because of numerous violations.

While marginalized communities have faced the greatest challenges from oil and gas drilling in Los Angeles, other local communities have also felt the effects. For example, there are 19 recently capped oil wells on the campus of Beverly Hills High School. One of the well pumps used to burn off excess gases burst into flames in August 2019, spewing toxic smoke onto campus and into the community.

“The climate crisis has metastasized to such a colossal scale that we in the US need to mobilize on a national level,” said Chow.

He cited findings from Harvard Kennedy School political scientist Erica Chenoweth’s studies that found that it takes around 3.5 percent of the population actively participating in a cause to bring about serious political change.

“That requires 11 million people here in the United States to convince government to take bold action on the order of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal,” said Chow. “This is a tough road that requires an immense grassroots-level effort, but it is critical to our collective future”—which is what Sunrise LA’s ArcGIS StoryMaps narratives powerfully show.