On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Covid19 shouts out a profound lesson: America can tackle this pandemic as well as meet our vastly bigger climate threat only as we move together toward solutions.
Obviously so. But solidarity for effective action demands we first take to heart that those most harmed by the virus—poor Americans, especially those of color—have also long suffered disproportionately from other harms, including fossil fuels’ hazards bringing on climate disruption. Equally true, in meeting the climate crisis, righting these wrongs can speed all Americans toward greater health and safety.
And the great news?
Despite lack of federal leadership and underappreciated by most of us, key states and cities are not only getting it, they’re getting going—plowing ahead with solutions to the climate crisis grounded in social equity.
States home to more than half of all Americans—and responsible for 40 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions—have committed to the Paris Agreement’s climate goals dismissed by President Trump. Plus, eight states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico are going further—passing laws that put them the path to a 100 percent clean energy.
Here’s a taste of how it’s possible to take strong action on climate while righting the wrongs of social exclusion.
Beginning in 2017, a statewide program requires the California Air Resources Board to focus its clean-air efforts on communities most exposed to air pollution. (Hmm. Seem like a no-brainer?) Plus, the Board must now specifically consult environmental justice groups, among others affected, in developing its air-quality strategy.
Then, in 2018, in a move toward greater economic equity, the new governor Gavin Newsom committed $35 million annually to make sure new clean-energy jobs are “high quality”—commonly meaning well-paid, safe, and with benefits—and also include apprenticeships enabling “career ladders.”
Since California’s economy is the world’s sixth the largest, ripples from these bold steps can travel far.
In 2019, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo also emerged as a leader, signing the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. Its goal? To slash the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent and reach net zero emissions by 2050. More than a third of the benefits target disadvantaged communities—via investments in housing, workforce development, reducing pollution, energy assistance and more.
Welcoming community input, the Act creates a climate-justice working group, representing environmental justice groups, vulnerable industries, and disadvantaged communities. Its mandate is to ensure that actions target harms disproportionately hurting low-income New Yorkers and those of color. A second working group will advise on workforce training and job impacts.
Plus, New York’s new offshore wind projects will provide enough electricity to power 1 million homes, doubling the state’s earlier goal. Plus, they will generate more than 1,600 jobs directly offering “well-paying careers, with annual salaries of roughly $100,000,” asserts the state agency. Not bad!
Looking west again, Washington took a big step in 2019: New legislation pledged the state to ensure all retail sales of electricity are greenhouse-gas neutral in just ten years and entirely carbon free by 2045; and it laid out how to make this huge shift happen.
First, the state must identify communities most vulnerable to the health impacts of climate destabilization; and power utilities must fund a whole range of energy-assistance programs, including help for low-income families in weatherizing their homes.
The law also offers a 50 percent cut all the way to total exemption from state sales and use taxes for cooperating businesses—those owned by women, minorities, or veterans, as well as those adhering to specific fair-labor practices and programs, including apprenticeships, preferred hiring of local residents, and more.
In May, 2019, Governor Jared Polis signed 11 energy-and climate-related bills, including one to reduce pollution in disproportionately hard-hit communities. Another creates a new state Office of Just Transition. With the support of labor, the new transition office assists communities and workers—including struggling families of former miners as the state shifts away from coal-fired electricity. It provides funds to compensate cities and school districts for tax revenues lost due to coal plant closures.
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Plus, here is a taste of what municipalities are doing—simultaneously—for climate stabilization and equity.
Did you know that almost 170 cities nationally have signed on to the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, now representing 10,000 cities in 138 countries?
In signing on, all pledge “to establish a goal of transitioning entirely to clean, renewable energy” and to measure greenhouse gas emissions, assess risk, set targets, develop an action plan, and make their progress transparent.
In 2018, Minneapolis committed to “100 percent clean renewable energy by 2030,” becoming the largest Midwest city to sign on to the Covenant.
To achieve its goals, the city is working with the Minneapolis Clean Energy Partnership to cut residential natural gas use and put city facilities on an energy-efficiency “performance path,” as it field tests energy-efficiency technology. And for its own fleet, the city is installing electric vehicle charging.
City government has made clear its determination to ensure “especially those who have been left out of the benefits of energy programs in the past, communities of color, low-income communities, renters, and communities that have borne the brunt of past environmental racism, receive equitable benefit from this transition.”
One way Minneapolis is realizing that commitment is its targeted development of “community solar gardens”—a lovely term for a cluster of solar panels enabling nearby homes to reduce energy bills by as much 50 percent. In the process, the city aims for more equitable access to clean-energy jobs and financing.
All this work has earned Minneapolis fourth place status in energy efficiency among US cities, ranked by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. (Proud to say my adopted hometown of Boston places first!)
During Buffalo’s frigid winters, energy costs can rise to 30 percent above the nation’s average—an enormous burden for poor households. And deep resource disparities add to the challenge: The share of its African American residents living in poverty is three time greater than white.
So PUSH—People United for Sustainable Housing Buffalo—has worked since 2005 to ensure all neighborhoods thrive even in America’s snow capital.
As Sage Green, PUSH Buffalo Sustainability Specialist, puts it, “The people we work with… want long-term structural changes…a whole new system that works for people and the planet.” Adds PUSH Board President Maxine Murphy: Poor people are just like all people—they “want ways that their houses are using less energy. They want houses where their energy is not going out of windows and doors. But they have to fight for it harder....”
After a decade, PUSH has a lot to show for its gutsy work.
With its core strategy of actively listening and organizing, PUSH, for example, teamed up with a struggling neighborhood to turn an abandoned school building into 30 apartments for low-income seniors, replete with a roof-top solar array that keeps their electricity affordable.
PUSH has also designated a Green Development Zone: A 25-square-block area, where 60 percent of the children live in poverty, with the goal of addressing vacant, run-down properties and high utility bills. There, PUSH has created green spaces, as well as purchased buildings and boosted their energy efficiency, while weatherizing existing homes. Energy savings accrue directly to the participants.
Plus, PUSH’s work has brought living-wage jobs to neighborhood residents. A PUSH-organized campaign has compelled officials to step up, too.
So in these dark times, let’s spread the word about states and cities in the lead—not just to inspire but to stoke determination. For they embody a clear truth: Creating a life-serving democracy demands widening inclusion at every step of the way—transforming today’s multiple crises into an opportunity to fix what’s been broken…for way too long.