For Scientific American, I wrote about how job quality is fundamental to a just transition and a low-carbon future.
The most recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change experts have made two things clear: One, any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change requires dramatically reducing the use of fossil fuels. And two, doing this is a political challenge, not a scientific one. Technologies that can reduce emissions exist now; what is absent is the political will to do so. The deep political opposition to reducing fossil-fuel reliance is the direct result of decades of efforts by the fuel industry to sow climate denial, feed misinformation to the public, influence elected officials and “greenwash” its efforts.
But opposition to an energy transition also comes from workers in the fossil-fuel economy and communities that depend on it. They realize that moving away from such fuel use could end their jobs and remove the industry base that pays for crucial local needs such as public education. If society can understand and mitigate these consequences, a strategy called a “just transition” by labor researchers, it can reduce worker opposition to change while also providing needed support to workers and regions that have relied on fossil-fuel dollars.
The idea of supporting workers during periods of transition is not new. The late labor leader Tony Mazzocchi, a top official of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union who campaigned against rampant use of hazardous substances in the 1970s, called for a “Superfund for workers” to support employees in declining industries. Along with environmental justice leaders, Mazzocchi argued that there were some industries that were too toxic to society to continue and that the workers in those industries should receive support as they trained for other jobs. Today his logic holds true for the fossil-fuel industry.
It is important that a truly just transition go beyond these industry communities, however. People of color and low-income communities disproportionately bear the air and water pollution burden from burning fossil fuels, often without any of the economic benefits from the industry. A just transition requires an expansion of support to include those communities with an unequal burden from extractive fuels, not just those directly engaged in the work.
The scale of the energy transition challenge is daunting. In Wyoming, where one third of all recoverable coal in the country sits, revenue from coal mining provides more than 40 percent of the entire state budget. Coal mining revenue funds schools and infrastructure all over the state. No level of solar and wind development can replace that degree of revenue. And given how rural much of Wyoming is, the idea that manufacturing or other goods production can replace the revenue from coal mining is unlikely. This reality should not diminish climate action. But understanding the scale and scope of local needs helps create better policies that go beyond tone-deaf discussions of teaching coal miners to code software or assuming that current renewable energy jobs alone will be able to provide enough support.
My emphasis on current renewable energy jobs is deliberate. The energy transition can provide meaningful employment and revenue but not with today’s renewable energy salaries. Currently, renewable energy jobs pay less than fossil-fuel jobs, and while they are increasing in number, they are not replacing the economic benefits. Moreover, the politics of renewable energy and climate change mean that states that rely on fossil-fuel extraction and use are hostile to renewable energy development. As a result, replacement jobs are not always being created where they are being lost, which leaves many fossil-fuel workers even more skeptical that an energy transition can provide a just transition.
All of these considerations can make an already uphill battle seem insurmountable. And the truth is that if it was easy, it would already be done.
Yet in the face of all this opposition, we are making progress. At the state level, Illinois and New York legislators recently passed laws that require higher wages on every renewable energy project over a certain size. The laws tie general wage standards to renewable energy development. This ensures the jobs created can provide family-sustaining wages and economic security, and it breaks a pattern of low-wage work in the renewable energy sector.
Another challenge of just transitions is that the needs of each community will differ. What is needed to retrain oil and gas workers for other work is different than what is needed to retrain coal miners, because their skill sets and locations vary. Rather than a one-size-fits-all policy proposal, my colleagues and I have developed a framework of policies that can help guide just transitions while allowing for local specifications. We looked at transition examples across the world, and those results led us to suggest four key factors for success:
Strong government support. As the Illinois and New York State examples show, government has a big role to play in ensuring a just transition. By requiring labor standards in renewable energy production, the states set industry-wide standards that will raise wages across the board, which the private sector failed to do. Moreover, many programs that will need to be expanded and improved, such as unemployment insurance, are already run by the government.
Dedicated funding streams. The mistakes of previous transition programs, in particular the largely ineffective U.S. Trade Adjustment Act (intended to support workers dislocated through globalization and deindustrialization), show that steady and robust funding dictates success. Funding is needed to support, retrain and, if necessary, relocate workers, as well as to replace revenue that supports schools and infrastructure and to invest in emerging industries to create more stable local economies. The European Union has realized this and allocated $18.4 billion through 2027 for its Just Transition Fund. The money will help member states diversify and modernize local economies and support workers. The Illinois law provides up to $180 million a year—with no set expiration date—to support transitioning workers and communities. While these amounts might seem high, they are only a fraction of the cost of continuing to use fossil fuels, which runs into the hundreds of billions of dollars.
Economic diversification. Rural areas have struggled with economic development, and many of these communities only have natural resources extraction to rely upon. The dependence on one industry, however, leaves communities particularly vulnerable when that industry leaves. The Colorado Office of Just Transition’s draft plan highlights how communities are more resilient when there are several thriving local businesses rather than a single entity. The report states, “Attracting one business that will create 100 jobs will make headlines, but working with 20 existing and new businesses to create 5 jobs each will better serve a community’s long-term stability and interests.” Diversifying local economies protects against economic downturns and is a fundamental component of just transition.
Robust coalitions. Large, diverse groups have been behind the most successful and ambitious climate wins in recent years. The NY Renews coalition, which brings together more than 300 groups in New York State, was the driving force behind the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. This law set the standard for ambitious climate policy with targets of a zero emissions electricity by 2040 and a fossil-fuel-free state by 2050. Illinois’s big climate bill was the result of advocacy by a group of unions and multistakeholder collaborations. Large coalitions bring people and power to climate fights and are important for ensuring people’s priorities are represented.
An energy transition is already underway—more and more renewable energy is being installed and even oil and gas companies are investing in this type of energy development. Deliberate, targeted policy interventions are crucial to ensuring the changeover is just to workers and the communities in which these changes occur. The just transition movement gives us a chance to break with the extractive, exploitative practices of the past and build a resilient, equitable future.
I wrote a piece for the Berliner Gazette‘s After Extractravism’s series on lessons the climate movement can learn from abolition advocates:
Despite the evidence produced in the latest IPCC report that addressing climate change is a profoundly political problem, climate experts still cling to the idea that technology will save us and that politics is just one consideration. It is the same line of thinking that has brought us to this point of crisis – once the perfect solution is found, everything will fall into place.
This ideology is endemic among elites, who not only believe that ideas are all that matter but also do not want to engage in the dirty and unpleasant reality that is politics. But, in fact, this disengagement from politics is in and of itself a political decision. Deciding not to engage in political systems is deciding to protect the status quote. And, the status quo is what has led up to the brink of catastrophic climate change.
Once we accept that climate change is a political crisis, we can begin to address it as such and fully understand the scale and scope of the challenge. Understanding climate change as a political issue expands the thinking out from focusing only on greenhouse gas emissions reductions to understanding that greenhouse gas emissions are the logical product of extractive systems.
When the focus is on emissions reductions only, false solutions, such as carbon capture and sequestration, fossil-based hydrogen, and natural gas as a bridge fuel, are allowed to thrive. The underlying philosophy is that as long as emissions are reduced, the climate crisis is avoided. This type of ideology allows for the continued use of fossil fuels (requiring only that the emissions be captured) and ignores the exploitative and extractive practices that are the backbone of a fossil-based economy.
Reimagining structures and institutions
But, understanding the political economy of extraction explains how climate change is the natural consequence of extractive systems and institutions that require endless economic growth that can be achieved only through the exploitation of people, resources, and land. Meaningfully reducing greenhouse gas emissions, therefore, requires systematic and institutional reform that ends capitalist extraction in all of its forms – extraction of natural resources, extraction of people through carceral policies, extraction of wealth through abusive financial practices, and extraction of labor through exploitative labor practices. Ending the use of fossil fuels requires more than keeping coal, oil, and gas in the ground. It requires a reimagining of the structures and institutions around which societies are built.
Without doubt, it is an ambitious project but it is important to remember that right-wing and fascist forces have been undergoing their own reimagining and restructuring of institutions with alarming success. The death toll in the United States from Covid-19 and its variants shows how successfully right-wing forces have shaped institutions such that there was limited to no response from public institutions in the face of mass death. A concerted effort among government institutions shifted responsibility of the disease and public health provisions away from the government and onto the individual – all while ensuring that capital remained protected through billions of dollars in corporate bailout support and refusing to extend stay-at-home orders, mask mandates, and other public health provisions that would protect workers but negatively impact productivity and accumulation of capital at large.
Undertaking a reimagining and restructuring of institutions is a long-term and multi-faceted project. Rather than a prescriptive view of how to undertake such a project, I offer three potential actions that embrace the idea of “non-reformist reforms” and mass mobilization and organizing to build power and solidarity across communities: 1) policy formulation that integrates social justice into emissions reductions efforts, 2) ending the idea that “green growth” can deliver a more equitable and just future, 3) building solidarity across communities and across nations.
Social justice, emissions reductions, climate reparations
There is an inherent contradiction to working within systems to counter the injustices they cause. For example, looking to pass legislation when legislation and legislative bodies are the cause of fossil fuel extraction run amok and state-sponsored violence. The idea of “non-reformist reforms,” as popularized by carceral abolitionists, looks at what reforms within current systems and institutions that can lead to radical reformation or abolition of those systems?
Here in the United States, the debate around policing illustrates the importance of non-reformist reforms. An institution as violent and unaccountable as the modern US American policing system cannot be reformed. There are no tweaks or changes that can be made to reform an institution that is fundamentally violent. But, there are steps that can be taken, such as shifting funding away from police budgets to community programs, that work within the existing legislative system but work towards dismantling existing systems and building new replacement systems.
Similarly, to build a just post-extractive world, advocates can push for reforms now that allow for a future just world to emerge. Integrating social justice consideration into emissions reductions, such as requiring wage standards and labor rights in clean energy development projects and/or targeted direct investment in vulnerable communities, are necessary to ensuring the energy transition away from fossil fuels benefits all communities, not just corporations and the elite. On a global scale, it requires the Global North to fund and support localized, democratic energy transition efforts in the Global South, as well as providing robust climate reparations.
The necessary break from the growth narrative
A just post-extractive world also requires a fundamental break from the growth narrative. The drive for continued and endless economic growth is what has brought us to the brink of planetary and human extinction. The idea that we can maintain the same guiding philosophy but just replace fossil energy with renewable energy as the fuel source is fundamentally incompatible with ideals of justice.
Artwork: Colnate Group (2022) cc by nc
It is understandable that touting the economic benefits of investing in low-carbon and zero carbon buildout helps ease economic anxiety around the transition and build support for decarbonization. And, it is true that investing in decarbonization is a strong job creator, largely because it is a new industry that must be built. But, the idea that we can keep having endless growth, as long as it is “green” growth, continues patterns of extraction and exploitation, which is fundamentally at odds with moving to a post-extractive world.
Building cross-border solidarity
Finally, community-based organizing and inter-community solidarity builds the power and support needed to push for a post-extractive world. A key to supporting and expanding this work is to change funding structures. In the United States, philanthropic funding is concentrated among a few large NGOs with just 1.3% of total climate funding going to organizations led by people of color or environmental justice organizations. Not surprisingly, the groups that receive the most money advance neo-liberal ideology that does little to nothing to upset existing power structures. Indeed, it is their commitment to maintaining the status quo that draws funders.
Disrupting this funding model, such as through the work of the Donors of Color Network, can bring much-needed resources to groups that are building solidarity on the ground and who also have a vision for the future that disrupts existing institutions and structures. The philanthropist model, in and of itself, is unjust and many of the big foundations’ wealth is the result of the fossil fuel and extractive economy. But, while the long-term goal is to fundamentally change this system, a short-term shift in funding priorities can contribute to the long-term goal and also bring resources to groups that have been historically under-resourced. Moreover, it can provide support for communities that have been historically under-invested.
Building a post-extractive world that is also just is an ambitious project that faces tremendous odds. But, the only way to move beyond extractive capitalism is to center and protect the most vulnerable communities and understand that we are past the point of making tweaks and minor changes to our existing systems and institutions. Each non-reformist reform will bring us closer to a world after extractivism.
New Report! Just Transition/Transition to Justice
I’m thrilled to do a follow up report on the Four Pillars framework with my colleague and friend, Manuel Pastor. This report looks at this process of power building for just transition in four states: California, Kentucky, Louisiana, and New York. We combine an analysis of the pillars of just transition – strong governmental support, dedicated funding streams, diverse coalitions, and economic diversification – with an analysis of how to change power at a state level that focuses on the conditions that impact possibilities, the community-level capabilities that facilitate effective voice, and the arenas in which power is contested. Ultimately, the fight for a just transition is a fight for justice. And, while we know it will be hard and long, the stories we heard showed how advocates and organizers, often in the face of great odds, come together and force the change that makes people’s lives better. Building upon these efforts through supporting organizing, coalition building, and empowering communities is the blueprint for advancing a just transition. Through these channels, we can transition from a dirty polluting past to a just and healthy future. The report can be found here.
May 6, 2021
I adapted my paper on the PRB and contested transitions for Toxic News. In short, I went to the PRB in the wake of two big mine closures to see if there was an opening for just transition. It’s complicated and perhaps now that more time has passed there might be more of an opening. But, given how politicized the energy transition has become, it’s hard to see a path forward…
To stave off the worst impacts of the climate crisis, an energy transition away from fossil fuel extraction and use is necessary. While an energy transition is beneficial for society, as a whole, fossil fuel regions face an uncertain, economically insecure future, particularly given the history of unjust past transitions. This uncertainty, coupled with a long history with fossil fuel companies, creates hostility and contestation toward the energy transition. Yet, an energy transition is underway—largely driven, at this point, by market forces shifting away from coal, and oil and gas to a lesser extent, rather than climate policy.
In the summer of 2019, two large coal mines suddenly shut down in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin (PRB) leaving workers unexpectedly unemployed and the surrounding community with a sudden loss of tax revenue (Graham, 2019). While several mining companies had gone through organized bankruptcy before, these mine closures were the first to do so without notice nor a managed bankruptcy plan. As coal production has been steadily declining since 2008, I traveled to the Powder River Basin to see if the recent mine closure had any effect on people’s support for the coal industry and whether there would be more openness to “just transition,” i.e. a managed decline away from fossil fuel production and use. Despite the weakened industry, I found that loyalty and belief in the coal industry run deep and while there are some efforts towards diversifying away from coal, there is no intention or planning for a coal-free future.
The Role of Coal in Wyoming
While many people think of the Appalachian region when talking about coal production in the U.S., Wyoming is one of the most important coal regions in the U.S. with its mines holding over one-third of all recoverable coal in the country (EIA n.d.). The state has over 1.4 trillion tons in total coal resources (Wyoming Mining Association 2018). Within the state, coal mining operations are largely concentrated in the Powder River Basin (PRB), which is home to seven of the ten largest coal mines in the U.S. (Wyoming Mining Association 2018; “EIA – State Electricity Profiles” n.d.). The PRB mines have thick coal seams, some up to 100 feet, which lie just below the ground surface. The shallow nature of the coal beds allows for large-scale mechanized mining that is less environmentally destructive than other forms of surface mining because less topsoil and dirt must be removed before reaching the coal bed (Wyoming Mining Association 2018).
While coal’s contribution has been declining, Wyoming is still heavily reliant on revenue from coal mining. In 2017, coal contributed over $891 million in taxes, royalties, and fees to the state’s economy, over 40 percent of the state’s $2.1 billion in estimated revenue for the same year (Wyoming Mining Association 2018). The economic dominance of coal mining in Wyoming does not mean that mining is a significant employer, relative to other mining regions, largely due to automation. As a comparison, one miner in the PRB mines, on average, 61,753 tons of coal per year while one miner in Central Appalachia mines 4,765 tons, on average, less than 10 percent of a PRB miner.
While the number of workers employed is relatively low, coal miners are well compensated. The average annual wage of miners in Wyoming in 2016 was $85,520, compared to an overall state average $43,813. Miners in Wyoming also earn more, on average, than most other mining regions, particularly when the miner’s wage is compared to the average wage, as shown in the following table.
These conditions lead the PRB and Wyoming, in general, to be incredibly dependent upon the coal industry. Moreover, the rural nature of the state and region mean that attracting new industries is challenging. The PRB is not well connected to other main transit hubs and because the region developed around natural resource extraction—the area produces natural gas, as well as coal- other industries are not as economically significant as resource extraction. Yet, as noted earlier, the coal industry is in decline, leaving the state facing a very uncertain future.
Mine closures impact on attitudes toward a just energy transition
Interviews with several stakeholders from different private, public, and advocacy sectors in the wake of the Blackjewel mine closures found that there was a general consensus that the coal industry is in decline, but no consensus around the permanency of the decline and the causes of the decline. Opposition to a transition away from coal remained high and support for just transition policies was low. In alignment with other regions, there are several political and technical challenges to transition, including the continued centering of future economic efforts in fossil fuel development and use and the challenge of transitioning the fossil fuel workforce that may deepen opposition to transition.
Planning for the future of the PRB is firmly rooted in continuing coal mining, as long as possible. When asked about the future of the PRB, regardless of the Blackjewel bankruptcy, the overwhelming theme emerging was a desire to continue life as a coal mining region. While some interviewees expressed a desire to diversify the economy and move away from coal mining, future economic planning remains centered on coal mining without any meaningful diversification away from fossil fuel extraction and use. To prolong the life of the coal industry, the state is actively pursuing several avenues, including increasing export markets and investing heavily in technologies that use coal for a purpose other than electricity generation, such as large-scale water filtration systems.
Can there be a ‘just transition’ in contested regions?
In addition to the market realities, political and policy trends indicate the likelihood of stronger, not weaker, restrictions on carbon emissions (Di Pietro 2019). As part of the inevitable energy transition, there must be an active decrease in fossil fuel production and not just an increase in renewable energy development (York and Bell 2019). Though the PRB is just one region, addressing coal production in the region will need to be part of any meaningful emissions mitigation plan given the state’s contributions to both overall coal production and carbon dioxide emissions. Wyoming is the least populated state, yet its high level of carbon emissions from energy production and use makes it the second highest emitter per capita (EIA 2017).
The opposition to ending coal mining in the PRB is not unexpected. Even the Blackjewel closures did not meaningfully change opposition to an energy transition nor meaningfully increase support for just transition, indicating that the cultural and economic ties to coal mining run very deep and are unlikely to change on their own accord. Without attempts to attract new industry, the deep reliance on coal will continue. A managed transition plan could provide a pathway for economic diversification but would require substantial government intervention, which is also contested.
The entrenched opposition to both an energy transition and any government policy leads to the conclusion that just transition may always be contested and opposed. However, market conditions and increasing concern about climate change dictate that coal mining will continue to decline. Without just transition policies, the region surrounding the PRB and Wyoming, in general, will face significant economic challenges. An energy transition is occurring and the scale of the challenge indicates that the public sector is best positioned to mitigate, as much as possible, the negative economic consequences to prevent total economic collapse in the region due to the intensive planning and funding these policies require. This truth adds an additional layer of complication due to the anti-government, conservative nature of the state. However, the only way to advance these policies is through government policy. Fossil fuel industries are fundamentally ill suited to, and indeed have not, support workers and communities through an energy transition.
As coal mining further declines, government could manage the decline through implementing policies to seed new industries to diversify the economy, provide a safety net for workers, and provide tax revenue replacement locally and statewide. A just transition may not be welcomed in the PRB, but it is needed.
April 14, 2021
New Op-ed: Passing Climate Bills Without Labor Standards Won’t Transition the Economy
My latest in Truthout
The failed unionization attempt at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, isn’t just a setback for the labor movement, it is a setback for all progressive movements, especially the climate movement. Amazon openly violated several labor laws in the unionization drive, and these violations are likely to be adjudicated in front of the National Labor Relations Board. But the fact remains that Amazon is not afraid to act illegally, and this level of unchecked corporate power is fatal for the climate.
To stop the worst impacts of the climate crisis, we need to reduce the power of corporations and the fossil fuel industry. Strong labor legislation like the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), supporting worker organizing drives and incorporating labor standards into climate legislation all empower workers and provide a balance to and check on corporate power.
There is a direct link between empowering workers and climate policy. As Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-New York) articulated, the PRO Act would help facilitate a just transition for fossil fuel workers by making it easier for workers to unionize. Through unionizing, these workers would have more access to training and retraining opportunities to prepare them for different work as their industries transition. Moreover, as the Just Transition Listening Project found, unionized workers receive more support and better transition packages when they lose their jobs because workers bargaining as a unit have more power than when workers are forced to bargain on an individual basis.
The best way to support displaced fossil fuel workers, however, is to ensure there is a job for them to transition into that pays a similar wage with comparable benefits. The job creation potential of climate policy is well-established — as many as 15 million jobs over 10 years could be created through low-carbon investments. Plus, the fossil fuel industry is no longer the job creator it once was. Over 100,000 fossil fuel workers lost their jobs during the pandemic, the majority of which are not likely to return.
Yet, many fossil fuel workers are rightfully wary of just transition efforts, as many jobs in low-carbon sectors pay far less with fewer benefits. Without raising wages and standards in low-carbon industries, low-carbon jobs will never be an attractive alternative for workers in fossil fuel industries. To this end, the PRO Act would also help workers in low-carbon sectors unionize. Fossil fuel jobs are not inherently well-paying jobs. Years of workers organizing and striking, often in bloody conditions, made fossil fuel companies treat their workers better. Similarly, workers organizing in low-carbon sectors can raise wages and make more low-carbon jobs better jobs.
Beyond organizing, integrating labor standards into climate policy is another way to ensure low-carbon jobs are good jobs. New York State recently passed labor protections for renewable energy projects in the most recent budget. The provisions not only require construction on renewable energy projects bigger than 5 megawatts to have prevailing wage and project labor agreements, but also require labor peace agreements for operations and maintenance work on systems 5 megawatts and larger. In labor peace agreements, employers agree to not oppose unionization and workers agree not to strike or stop work. They prevent the type of corporate opposition to unionizing we saw Amazon deploy.
Amazon is not afraid to act illegally, and this level of unchecked corporate power is fatal for the climate.
New York State leads the way in creating good climate jobs. In 2017, in partnership with Climate Jobs NY and Cornell University’s Worker Institute, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a $1.5 billion investment to create 40,000 climate jobs through investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. In 2019, Governor Cuomo announced a partnership with the Danish company Ørsted for a massive offshore wind project, which then announced it had entered into a project labor agreement with the North America’s Building Trades Unions to build the offshore wind turbines. The more labor standards are incorporated into low-carbon projects, the more real the possibility for a just transition becomes as good, low-carbon jobs are actually created and not just promised.
Moreover, making low-carbon sectors good employers is important not just for fossil fuel workers, but for all workers. Proliferating more low-wage jobs increases our already record levels of inequality. Emissions reductions through exploitation of workers can never be a just transition. And workers that were historically excluded from the fossil fuel economy must have access to good low-carbon jobs to begin to address past injustices and ensure all workers can take part in the low-carbon future.
Emissions reductions through exploitation of workers can never be a just transition.
The power of the fossil fuel industry has successfully stopped ambitious climate effort and fed decades of climate denial. Organized workers can build the power needed to challenge corporate power. Through supporting worker-organizer and labor standards as part of climate policy, the climate movement not only shows solidarity but also builds the movement and power needed to push for comprehensive climate policy.
Just Transition Listening Project
In the Spring of 2020, I was honored to join the advisory board for the Just Transition Listening Project. Since that time, over 100 interviews were done with people who had experienced transition or who faced transition. Along with my brilliant colleagues, Todd Vachon, Vivian Price, and Dimitris Stevis, I’m thrilled that the resulting report is out in the world. From the Executive Summary:
The idea of “just transition” has recently become more mainstream in climate discourse. More environmental and climate justice advocates are recognizing the need to protect fossil-fuel workers and communities as we transition away from fossil-fuel use. Yet, as detailed in our report, transition is hardly new or limited to the energy industry. Throughout the decades, workers and communities have experienced near constant economic transitions as industries have risen and declined. And, more often than not, transition has meant loss of jobs, identities, and communities with little to no support.
While transition has been constant, the scale of the transition away from fossil fuels will be on a level not
yet experienced. Fossil fuels are deeply embedded in our economy and society. Transition will not only affect the
energy sector, but transportation (including passenger and freight), agriculture and others. Adding to the challenges of the energy transition, we are also transitioning to a post-COVID-19-pandemic world. As such, we cannot
afford, economically or societally, to repeat the mistakes of the past that left so many workers and communities
To better understand how transition impacts people, what lessons can be learned, and what practices and policies must be in place for a just transition, in the Spring of 2020 we launched the Just Transition Listening Project (JTLP). The JTLP has captured the voices of workers and community members who have experienced, are currently experiencing, or anticipate experiencing some form of economic transition. Those who have suffered from transitions are rarely the ones whose voices are heard. Yet, no one is more able to fully understand what workers and communities need than those who have lived that experience. The JTLP is the first major effort to center these voices. In turn, the recommendations provided can make communities and workers whole. In many ways, these recommendations are common sense and fundamental to creating a just society, regardless of transition. Yet, the failure of elected officials to deliver just transition policies points to the need for wide scale movement building and
This report summarizes lessons learned and policy recommendations in three overall concepts for decision-makers: Go Big, Go Wide, and Go Far. The scope and scale of the transitions we will experience in the climate-safe economy will require us to be ambitious—Go Big. We will need a comprehensive approach that addresses the impacts on
workers and communities across geographies, demographics and industries. The federal government will need to play a lead role. There are promising state and local just transition models, but none have access to the resources to fully fund their efforts. Strengthening the social safety net, workers’ rights, and labor standards will also be critical to supporting workers and communities equitably. Job creation will be central to assure successful transitions, and the federal government can and must invest heavily to support creation of good jobs in emerging clean industries in every region of the country.
Just transitions must also be holistic—Go Wide. A common theme throughout the interviews we conducted as part of the JTLP was the trauma individuals and families experienced as their economies were devastated. Several people referenced suicides, drug addiction, and depression among friends and co-workers who struggled with a loss of identity and relationships as factories that were central to their communities shut down. There are inspiring models of how unions and communities took matters into their own hands to provide mutual support and empower people in the midst of transitions. But much more can be done to build and strengthen this social infrastructure.
Going wide also requires that unions and other workers’ organizations, frontline community organizations, and Indigenous nations are deeply engaged throughout the process of the transition.
Finally, just transitions must look into the future—Go Far. Workers who have established careers in an industry for many years complained of being offered training programs for jobs that did not exist in their region. The commitment to support these workers and their communities financially was often short-term with devastating consequences. Just transitions require a longer-term commitment of support and investment in workers and communities. Just transitions also require attention to generational differences: a younger, more diverse workforce has been growing into energy industries that will likely not offer long-term careers. It is essential to create good career alternatives for this generation.
I’m incredibly humbled to have been a part of this ground-breaking effort. Please adopt these recommendations so we can just transition to cocktails on the beach…
I’m thrilled to be in this edition of Global Dialogue talking about climate justice and the Biden Administration. We all sighed in deep relief when now President Biden won the election (which he did without doubt) but the work doesn’t stop there. We must continue to organize and advocate for equity. Climate policy without equity is not a just transition and, moreover, it doesn’t work from a political or policy standpoint.
A second Trump administration would have guaranteed catastrophic climate change, but the prospects for a Green New Deal-type mobilization under a Biden-Harris administration seem dim. President-elect Biden’s commitment to climate action is more aggressive than any previous administration’s, to be clear, but the vision and ambition of the Green New Deal (GND) are missing, not to mention that contending with a likely hostile Senate will severely limit the new administration. If the prospects of a federal GND seem unlikely, the question then becomes, can state and local efforts reach the scale necessary to realize an equitable and just low-carbon transition? State-level climate initiatives can provide a path to a just low-carbon transition but only if social and economic justice concerns are integrated into climate policy.
Although conservatives weaponized the Green New Deal as coercive governmental control, the GND is not a detailed, prescriptive article of legislation. Rather, it is a nonbinding resolution calling on the federal government to adopt an ambitious, Keynesian program that addresses the dual crises of inequality and climate change within a ten-year time frame. The ten-year time frame aligns with expert consensus that dramatic reductions in greenhouse gases must occur by 2029 to stave off the worst impacts from climate change. By understanding that climate change and inequality are linked, the vision of the GND expands beyond the narrow, technocratic framework of emissions reductions. Understanding and addressing people’s material conditions integrates climate change into social and economic considerations, rather than approaching climate change as a separate and distinct challenge.
The integration of social and economic considerations is a much-needed development for climate change advocacy. Moving from technocratic solutions, such as the past myopic focuses on a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program, climate advocates across the political spectrum have largely converged on three guiding principles for climate action that integrate social and economic concerns into climate policy. Referred to as “Standards, Investment, and Justice,” the common thread among different climate advocacy efforts is a call for zero or net-zero emissions, large-scale public investment in low-carbon sectors and infrastructure, and social and economic justice concerns – creating good, union jobs, transitioning fossil fuel workers and communities, and protecting marginalized communities that will be hit first and worst by the impacts of climate change.
Given that President-elect Biden announced climate change as one of the transition priority issues and appointed a presidential envoy for climate change, there is reason to believe climate change will indeed be a priority for the new Biden-Harris administration. However, while there is a sense of relief to have an administration that believes in climate change, the fight for a just low-carbon transition becomes more difficult in many ways because the social and economic considerations – which are what ensures a “just” transition – are the most vulnerable to being removed by a politically moderate administration and a hostile Republican Senate. The immediate post-election attack by moderate Democrats on progressive issues, such as Medicare for All and defunding the police, indicates that racial and economic justice concerns will not have the strong support necessary to advance through a hostile Senate.
With federal action to ensure a just low-carbon future seeming uncertain, at best, attention shifts to the state level for the push toward an equitable low-carbon transition. In fact, even before the Trump administration, states were leading the way on implementing ambitious climate policies. However, as at the federal level, whether these climate policies are just will depend on policy creation and implementation. When California adopted a cap-and-trade program, environmental justice advocates sued to stop the program because of the negative impact cap and trade would have on environmental justice communities. The lawsuits were ultimately unsuccessful, and the organizations that brought the suits received considerable backlash from traditional environmental organizations. A recent evaluation of the cap-and-trade program found that the environmental justice concerns were well founded and that localized pollution had increased in vulnerable communities since cap and trade was implemented. Moreover, California is not on track to meet its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, despite the promised goals of cap and trade.
In contrast, New York State passed the most ambitious climate policy in the country, and fundamental to its success was a broad-based, multi-issue coalition that centered equity provisions. Rather than focus only on emissions reductions, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act prioritizes investment in vulnerable communities, and the entire climate bill was also contingent upon a companion bill also passing that created a permanent environmental justice advisory board, among other provisions. The linking of justice and climate resulted in ambitious and equitable climate policy.
State-based climate jobs efforts also provide models for a just low-carbon transition. The fundamental ethos behind these efforts is that the dual crises of inequality and climate must be addressed simultaneously. Replacing fossil fuel jobs, which tend to be higher paying and more likely union, with low-wage, low-quality renewable energy jobs may reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it is not a just transition. And the failure of past transitions to support workers and communities, such as deindustrialization, make fossil fuel workers all the more resistant to another forced transition. State-level initiatives, such as Labor Leading on Climate and the Climate Jobs National Resource Center, engage state and local labor unions to advance pro-worker, pro-climate policies that inextricably link quality job creation with emissions reduction. These efforts are particularly effective in that they can harness the political power of labor unions, as evidenced by Climate Jobs New York’s successes, including a pledge of $1.5 billion to create 40,000 climate jobs.
With equity and justice provisions at risk of being pushed aside in a Biden-Harris administration, state-level efforts must lead the way in advancing a just transition. Ultimately, given the scale and scope of transitioning away from fossil fuels, addressing the climate crisis requires national and international efforts. However, climate policy cannot silo economic and social considerations away from emissions reduction. State-level efforts can provide a road map for how to advance a just transition and further cement the integration of inequality, social injustice, and climate.
My colleague, mentor, and friend Manuel Pastor and I have an op-ed in the Revelator previewing some work that we’ve been doing on the state level looking at just transition and power building. We make the argument that Biden should look to the New Deal when crafting climate policy. Almost like we should have a Green New Deal?
December 15, 2020 – by J. Mijin Cha and Manuel Pastor
You may not know it, but Democrats and Republicans share a growing concern about the climate and environment. With extreme weather events becoming more common, many young Republicans now question their allegiance to a party that denies the reality of climate change. After the destructive environmental policies of the Trump administration, there are high hopes among many Americans that progress will be possible under a new administration — even if Biden’s reluctant to abandon fracking or adopt all the language of a “Green New Deal.”
But to envision a path forward on environmental policy, we should remember some key lessons from the original New Deal, the 1930s-era policies that pulled the United States out of the Great Depression through a combination of relief programs, public-works projects, financial reforms and progressive regulation.
The first key lesson: The New Deal was implemented in D.C., but many of its policies emerged from earlier state experiments. A second point: The space for progressive presidential action was opened up by labor and grassroots organizing that didn’t just rely on elected leaders but shifted the political calculus of what was possible.
We should also be careful not to repeat past mistakes. For the New Deal had a major Achilles’ heel: In an attempt to secure support from Southern Democrats, many of its programs left Black Americans and other people of color behind (such as by excluding domestic and agricultural workers from Social Security).
For a new national environmental policy to be successful, we need to lift up state experimentation, provide political pressure and political cover for doing what’s right, and be sure to center, not derail, racial equity.
Our scholarship has been looking at just these issues for the past few years, examining how some states are trying to transition off fossil fuel in a way that protects workers and communities and addresses environmental injustice. Known as “just transition,” this notion focuses not only on the technical and policy aspects of power generation but also on the nitty-gritty of power-building to organize for change.
There’s good news to report from states and localities. For example, in keeping with its ambitious approach to greenhouse gas reduction over the past decade and a half, California recently declared that the state would phase out the sale of gas-powered cars by 2035, creating impetus for a market in electric and other zero-emission vehicles. Meanwhile, in New York, more than 200 groups have come together as NY Renews and won the most ambitious climate protection bill in the nation. Passed in 2019, it will dramatically limit emissions, invest in vulnerable communities, and chart a path to 100% carbon-free electricity.
Part of what’s making such policy change possible is power-building among those whose voices have traditionally been sidelined. As a NY Renews coalition member told us, “Power is built when you stand shoulder-to-shoulder and when you stand up for someone else, not just yourself.” So the group built a broad coalition, ranging from labor unions to environmental justice organizations to faith-based organizations, that aimed not just to reduce emissions but to support vulnerable communities.
A similar success story can be found in Arvin, California, a small town in the southern San Joaquin Valley, where local advocates have shown how to dig in against Big Oil. After launching a multifaceted campaign to keep new oil and gas drilling 300 feet from residential or commercial properties, Arvin quickly became a battleground pitting over-polluted residents against the behemoth fossil fuel industry. Despite the pressure, advocates launched a full-scale electoral push that brought in a new, progressive mayor and a wave of young Latina city council members who passed the first setback ordinance in California.
These are examples of state and local innovation — inspired by grassroots activism and multiracial and multisector coalitions — that should now make their way to the federal level, much as the New Deal picked up ideas such as unemployment insurance, minimum wages and labor protections from experiments in New York, Wisconsin and Massachusetts.
The combination of state experimentation, local power-building and attention to racial justice is all the more urgent now because we also need to make our way to a post-climate, post-COVID world. Both our environmental and public health challenges have some common themes and present an opportunity for a new narrative: In each arena we need to prioritize those with the highest risks, act to shield those we may never know, and learn to replace “me” — the spirit of self-interest — with “we,” the impulses of solidarity with people and the planet.
On the policy side, we can clearly learn from state efforts to address climate change. But just as important will be learning from state and local organizing. The secret sauce is not in the technology: moving away from an oil- and coal-fueled power grid to a people-driven power structure will require the science of coalition-building.
Power must be built to hold a new administration accountable, push it further toward bold climate policy and economic and racial justice, and create the political space for a massive federal investment in public health and clean energy. The future of America and the planet depend on it.
AB 398- Looking at the workforce impacts of climate policy
Under AB 398, California is mandated to look at the workforce development impacts of climate policy. The result is the behemoth, Putting California on the High Road: A Jobs and Climate Action Plan for 2030. It is an epic, 635 page document that is probably the most comprehensive study of workforce and climate. I wrote the chapter on Just Transition, “Just Transition: Tools for Protecting Workers and Their Communities at Risk of Displacement Due to Climate Policy,”
COVID Shelter in Place March-??? 2020
During these uncertain and unsettling times, I was really honored to be a part of a group of amazing academics and leading thinkers that called for a Green Stimulus to help recover from the impending recession. A Green Stimulus would not only put people back to work, it would put us on the path we need to be on to stop the worst impacts of climate change. The bailouts so far have skewed towards the rich and corporations. It’s time to center people and the future.
A Green Stimulus is also popular with voters, as we detail here.
The COVID crisis is the latest crisis to hit frontline communities– communities of color and low-income communities that are bearing the brunt of the climate and inequality crises. We profiled a series of cities to show how pollution, inequality, and COVID all descend upon a region. Here is Detroit, MI and Albany, GA, and the Bronx, NY.
I wrote about two bad accidents I had and my experience with different health care system in the Nation. Universal coverage is not only cost-effective, it is a better system.
While most Americans agree we need health care reform, recent polling suggests people favor incremental change over most substantive reforms. Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg has made attacking Medicare for All as unrealistic his new campaign slogan. Yet Buttigieg and the other opponents to Medicare for All are wrong. Not only is a universal health care system possible, but it also delivers far better patient care at lower cost. My story is a case in point.
I received my LLM and PhD degrees from the University of London, and because I was enrolled in a program that was longer than six months, I was covered by the National Health Service. One day, as I was walking down a very crowded sidewalk in central London, someone clipped my heel and I tripped and fell into the path of an oncoming double-decker bus. My face hit the side mirror and I spun under the bus. My right leg was caught under the rear tire. The bus rolled forward directly over my leg. Within minutes, a bicycle paramedic came to stabilize me. An ambulance with trauma specialists came shortly thereafter and a helicopter medivac’ed me to the nearest hospital. I passed out and woke up in the X-ray room of a local hospital.
The damage was grim. My leg was broken in two places, my ankle joint was shattered, and I had lost all the skin from the front of my leg. I also broke my tooth where the bus mirror hit me. The next few days were a blur of examinations and emergency surgeries. In total, I had five major operations, including a skin graft, 18 days in the hospital over two stays, and six months of physical therapy. After a few days in the hospital, a man appeared at the end of my bed and asked me if I was studying in a program that lasted more than six months. I said I was. He told me that was all he needed to know, all of my medical care would be covered by the NHS. I didn’t have to fill out any forms, prove my enrollment at SOAS, prove my address, nothing. I never had to fight to get anything covered.
Fast forward a few years and I had another accident, this time while living in New York City. I passed out on a subway platform. When that happens, you don’t fall graciously, despite what you see in the movies. Instead, your face takes the brunt of the impact. I broke my jaw and six of my teeth. I sat in an emergency room for almost 24 hours before I was sent to get my jaw wired shut. Interestingly, having your jaw reset is more painful than being hit by a bus. The pain was excruciating. I could barely breathe and could only drink liquids. I had good, employer-sponsored insurance so I didn’t think about cost.
A few days after my accident, I received my first health care bill. It was in the thousands of dollars because my insurance didn’t cover clinic visits. I hadn’t actually gone to a clinic. But I was at a hospital that saw dental patients in a dental “clinic.” I called my insurance company, with my jaw wired shut, and they insisted that clinic visits were not covered by my insurance. It took several phone calls and some documentation from the hospital to get the insurance company to cover what they should have covered from the beginning. All of this while my jaw was wired shut and in acute pain.
When all was said and done, I paid almost $5,000. First, I had to pay my deductible. Then, I had to pay for the ER visit. It also turned out my insurance didn’t cover ambulance rides. I had no choice in taking the ambulance, by the way, as the paramedics who came to treat me put me in an ambulance to take me to the hospital, as they should have. But it never occurred to me that I would have to pay $500 for the ride. I had to pay a co-pay every time I went to have my jaw checked, which was every week, plus all the dental work. Again, I had good, employer-sponsored insurance that my employer and I both contributed to every month. I still paid thousands of dollars.
We pay more for health care with worse outcomes than any other developed country. It doesn’t have to be this way. We already have a government-sponsored health system that can be expanded to cover all individuals: Medicare. It won’t be easy and it will be a political fight. But a health care system that covers all individuals is both realistic and cost-effective. We can, and must, provide the basic right of health care.
Most people that know me know I boycott the New York Times (for a many, many reasons) and read the Guardian obsessively. I’m thrilled to co-author this op-ed for my personal paper of record that puts to rest the tired narrative of “jobs v. the environment”
“Reject the ‘jobs versus environment’ narrative – we can do both”
It is a classic narrative: jobs versus the environment. We have heard it over and over again: “Blue-collar union workers,” the media says, are “rejecting Green New Deal Politics.” But the truth is that we can fight climate change and create millions of good, green, union jobs in the process. And, despite the rhetoric, a new poll by Data for Progress shows that the majority of union members agree.
In the poll, 1,012 voters representative of the broader electorate were asked if they support the Green New Deal. From what you hear in the media, you would probably expect union members would strongly oppose the Green New Deal. The actual response from union members? Sixty-two per cent support the Green New Deal, while just 22% oppose it.
Far from being opponents of climate action, rank-and-file union members understand that climate change is a real threat, that addressing it can create jobs and strengthen unions, and that the government has a responsibility to protect climate, communities and workers. Lost in this false choice between jobs or the climate is that union workers also live in communities and want to live in a clean, healthy environment.
Previous research indicates that union members have long been more supportive of climate protection policies than Americans as a whole. A study by Todd Vachon and Jeremy Brecher based on data from national surveys found that union members are on average more likely than the general population to display pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors.
For example, in the General Social Survey (GSS), people were asked to agree or disagree with the statement “We worry too much about the future of the environment and not enough about prices and jobs today”. More unionized respondents disagreed with this statement than nonunion respondents. In other words, unionized respondents were more likely to think we don’t worry enough about the future of the environment.
The media has propagated the false impression that union workers oppose climate action and the Green New Deal. By trumpeting the age-old “jobs v environment” framing, they are echoing Republican talking points, not reporting on the empirical data-driven truth.
Right now, many unions are reevaluating their approach to climate. While the AFL-CIO and most building trades unions have been critical of the Green New Deal, unions with millions of members have endorsed the progressive climate platform. America’s second largest union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), recently endorsed the Green New Deal. In doing so, the SEIU and other unions are simply following the lead of their members towards a more positive and hopeful view of the future rather than looking back, longingly, at a fading dirty energy past.
Joining SEIU, the Railroad Workers United and several state and local labor federations have voiced their support for the Green New Deal, including Maine’s AFL-CIO, the Los Angeles AFL-CIO and the San Francisco Labor Council.
Moreover, labor unions have been integral to climate jobs campaigns. In New York state, for instance, labor unions have not only worked in coalition with environmental groups and communities of color, but have also played a major role in advancing and passing climate legislation.
These campaigns include Climate Jobs New York, a coalition of unions advocating for substantial greenhouse gas reductions and good, family-sustaining jobs. New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, in partnership with CJNY and the Worker Institute at Cornell University, developed the Clean Climate Careers Initiative, which committed up to $1.5bn to create 40,000 jobs in climate friendly industries.
The NY Renews coalition, which includes labor unions, community groups, faith-based organizations, environmental justice organizations and green groups, just scored a huge victory in passing the most ambitious climate plan in the country, which targets an 85% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels by 2050, 100% carbon neutral electricity by 2040, and dedicated funding to low-income communities across the state. These campaigns show that we can have climate protection and good jobs. They also show that, far from being enemies of climate action, unions can be key drivers of it.
These state campaigns are also on the ground examples of how we implement a Green New Deal. The Green New Deal moves beyond carbon reduction to address the whole picture of the climate crisis: rising seas alongside rising inequality. As a result, good jobs, investment in underserved communities and carbon reduction are equally needed to fully address the climate crisis. And, as seen in New York, it can be done. We can, and must, adopt a Green New Deal.
Rather than focus on the misleading and inaccurate narrative of union opposition to climate legislation, politicians, activists and journalists should discuss union’s environmental priorities. To help kickstart that conversation, Data for Progress has put together a toolkit to help allies identify pro-union climate policies.
These include procurement policies such as Buy Clean, which uses the power of the government purse to reduce emissions and empower unions. It includes implementing project labor agreements to ensure unions have collective bargaining power and receive good benefits and a family-sustaining wage. And it includes strong public investment in communities to guarantee jobs, strengthen the social safety net and maintain wages, benefits, pensions and healthcare in the transition to a green economy.
Most Democratic voters recognize, intuitively, that climate change is an existential threat and support a Green New Deal. Indeed, so does half of the American electorate. But the impression that unions and their members oppose the platform has led to hesitation and second thoughts on the part of elected officials, aspiring candidates and political elites.
Polling data on union members’ support for the Green New Deal should put those fears to rest. The union rank-and-file, like the Democratic party rank-and-file, want a Green New Deal. Democratic leaders should not be afraid to follow their lead.
I was honored to be part of the Public Administration Review‘s online symposium on the Green New Deal. I wrote about the work we did in New York State. You can read the whole Symposium, which I highly recommend, here. There are a lot of really great scholars and practitioners that contributed. My piece:
“Learning from the New York Experiment: Managing a Just Transition to a Low-Carbon Future”
Just transition is a core pillar of the Green New Deal, as is evidenced by the justice and equity focus of the resolution and the emphasis on creating high-quality jobs to replace lost fossil fuel jobs. In contrast to climate policies focusing only on carbon reduction, a commitment to just transition addresses the social and economic consequences of de-carbonization. For example, just transition requires that climate policies be designed to address the negative impacts from de-carbonization on workers and communities and include measures to mitigate these impacts.
In particular, ignoring the impact of de-carbonization on fossil fuel workers exacerbates the tensions between labor unions and environmental/climate advocates– two movements that are stronger together than when at odds. In the past, the rhetoric of, “jobs versus the environment,” increased the distrust between workers and environmentalists by emphasizing the class divide between working class union members and middle-class environmentalists. For a just transition, the loss of relatively high-paying jobs due to de-carbonization must be addressed. Creating good, family-sustaining jobs in the low carbon economy provides displaced fossil fuel workers with alternative jobs and breaks the false dichotomy that there can either be job opportunities or a healthy environment.
The Climate Jobs New York Initiative
The Climate Jobs New York (CJNY) campaign provides an empirical example of how to decarbonize while also protecting workers and communities. In the Spring of 2015, the Worker Institute at Cornell University launched an initiative called, “Labor Leading on Climate.” The goal of the initiative was to create a climate jobs campaign led by the labor movement that would present a proactive vision for transitioning to a low-carbon future that centered on workers and not only carbon reduction. Similar to other advances for worker protection, with labor unions at the center, the goal was to tap into the political power of unions to advance policies that would help all workers, not just union members.
The initiative targeted outreach to specific unions, in particular the building trades, transit, and public sector unions. These unions were chosen because they would be most directly impacted by de-carbonization, as well as job creation efforts. In NYC alone, there are 100,000 building trades members. While not all of these workers will be directly impacted, the size of the membership of just the building trades indicates the scope of workers that could be affected.
For example, within the building trades are unions that represent fossil fuel industry workers, and therefore their members would be displaced in the transition away from fossil fuels. In order to build support, alternative jobs must be created to offer opportunity to displaced workers. With a targeted climate jobs program, the building trades could see much of the job creation spurred on by the transition to a low-carbon economy, as much of the work created by infrastructure upgrades and renewable energy build out can be done by their members. While there is no guarantee that displaced workers will be placed in new jobs, implementing targeted policy to drive the demand side for jobs provides more opportunity for displaced workers to transition to jobs created by climate policy.
Consultative Process and Co-Design of policies
Over the course of 18 months, a series of one-on-one meetings with key labor stakeholders and several group meetings generated a series of proposals to meaningfully reduce carbon dioxide emissions and ensure family-sustaining job creation in the buildings, energy, and transportation sector. The resulting proposals were released in July 2016 in the report, “Reversing Inequality, Combatting Climate Change: A Climate Jobs Program for New York State.” After the report release, an advocacy effort, Climate Jobs NY (CJNY), was launched to operationalize the policy proposals. In June 2017, Governor Cuomo announced, in partnership with the Worker Institute and Climate Jobs NY, the Clean Climate Careers Initiative, based on three goals: investing in clean teach and substantial development of renewable energy, creating clean climate careers, and advancing environmental justice.
The first phase of the initiative includes a $1.5 billion investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and installing solar on public buildings and the creation of 40,000 climate jobs. The careers prong explicitly states the creation of “well-paying” jobs. Adding to these commitments, the Governor announced a 9 GW offshore wind target that includes a project labor agreement, which helps promote the use of union labor. Combined with the commitment to creating well-paying jobs within the Clean Climate Careers initiative, these policies link the importance of creating good jobs to carbon reduction efforts.
There can be no guarantee that displaced fossil fuel workers will be placed directly into the newly created jobs but the likelihood can be greatly increased by implementing demand-side policies, such as renewable energy production targets, and aligning them with training programs or transition programs so displaced workers are trained for and placed in low-carbon careers. New York has taken the first step towards a just transition by implementing carbon reduction policies that also have a demand-side job creation effect with an explicit commitment to family-sustaining wages.
The New York state example also shows how state-level actions can lead the way on climate policy. The size of renewable energy procurement and energy efficiency measures are substantial enough to create jobs to help mitigate the employment losses from de-carbonization within the state. Moreover, the explicit emphasis on job-quality within the carbon reduction policy strengthens the link between the two and helps ensure the creation of jobs that pay family-sustaining wages to replace the relatively high-paying fossil fuel jobs
As part of the work on looking at young workers and trade unions, I contributed to this brief published by the European Trade Union Institute that was just published on their website. “Unions are only as old as they feel: lessons on young worker engagement from the UK, France, Germany and the US” discusses trade union strategies towards engaging young workers in union campaigns or organisational structures, as well as initiatives from young workers themselves directed at gaining a collective voice at work. The brief is based on a three year research project and includes a number of case studies of young worker engagement, as well as some suggestions on strategy for trade unions as they try to reach out to younger workers.
Many thanks to Lowell Turner and Maite Tapia for leading this three-year research project. They are also just awesome, in general.
I’m thrilled to share our latest report, which was the culmination of an academic year’s worth of research. Working with amazing colleagues from USC PERE, Oxy, UC Berkeley, and two Oxy student researchers, we present “A Roadmap to an Equitable Low-Carbon Future: Four Pillars for a Just Transition,” which lays out a framework for achieving a just transition for workers and communities in California.
While focused on California, these pillars can be applied in multiple contexts. As we focus on implementing a Green New Deal, we must ensure that those that will be negatively impacted by ending fossil fuel extraction and use are not just protected, but also have access to the benefits of a low-carbon future. The four pillars are: strong governmental support, dedicated funding streams, diverse coalitions, and economic diversification. Through the report, we highlight each pillar with case studies and provide a roadmap for further research and advocacy. I’m really proud of the final product and hope as many people as possible read it (and even better, implement it!)
You can read the full report here: https://dornsife.usc.edu/pere/roadmap-equitable-low-carbon-future/
I wrote a paper that just came out in the Fordham Environmental Law Review on Just Transition. Here’s the abstract:
With a hostile federal administration, states must take up the fight against climate change. Shortly after the United States withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord, governors from several states announced efforts to meet the targets. This article argues that state level climate actions must consider the economic consequences of climate policy. A shift away from fossil fuels is a fundamentally necessary step in the fight against climate change. However, the economic impact of this shift will be felt most acutely by fossil fuel workers and communities, many of which are already facing economic hardships. Attention and resources must be focused on helping these workers and communities adapt to clean energy in a way that is fair and just, otherwise known as just transition. By failing to address the economic impact of moving away from fossil fuels, climate change will become a driver of inequality. Looking at examples in the United States and Germany, this article presents three elements necessary for a just transition program: dedicated funding streams, strong public sector role, and partnership with non-governmental organizations and unions. This article looks at New York State’s recently announced Clean Climate Careers Initiative and analyzes it through the proposed just transition framework.
The full paper: https://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/elr/vol29/iss2/4/
If you’re in the LA area, I’m giving a talk at USC on Implications of the Trump Administration Policies on Climate Change (spoiler alert: It’s not great). You can see more about it here: https://sowkweb.usc.edu/event/implications-trump-administration-policies-climate-change-environment-and-global-health
Some excellent climate news: Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a major climate jobs initiative based on work that my colleagues and I at the Worker Institute have done. Here is the press release:
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced the Clean Climate Careers initiative following the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord. The initiative is a multi-pronged strategy to grow New York’s emerging clean energy economy and prepare the workforce for the long-term careers associated with this industry. In partnership with the ILR School’s Worker Institute at Cornell University and Climate Jobs NY, this initiative focuses on accelerating energy efficiency and renewable energy growth to make New York a magnet for new energy technologies and creating 40,000 new, good-paying clean energy jobs by 2020.
Yesterday, Governor Cuomo signed an executive order to commit New York to uphold the standards set forth in the Paris Accord and announced a U.S. Climate Alliance, along with California Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr., and Washington State Governor Jay R. Inslee, to convene U.S. states committed to upholding the Paris Climate Agreement and taking aggressive action on climate change.
As part of the first phase of the Clean Climate Careers initiative, New York State will make an unprecedented investment of up to $1.5 billion in major renewable energy projects, including wind and solar, and significantly expand energy efficiency and solar installations at public buildings. The investment will result in an additional 2.5 million megawatt-hours of electricity a year, representing the largest clean energy procurement by a state in U.S. history.
The Clean Climate Careers initiative is a bold, three-pronged strategy that connects investment in clean energy technologies with the industry’s good-paying, quality jobs:
- Investing in Clean Tech and Supercharging Renewable Energy Development: Making record investments in renewable energy to meet Governor Cuomo’s ambitious Clean Energy Standard target of achieving 50 percent of electricity from renewables by 2030 – and as a result New York is poised to double the State’s solar capacity from roughly 800 megawatts today to more than 1600 megawatts by the end of 2018.
- Creating Clean Climate Careers: Making historic investment of up to $1.5 billion in major renewable energy projects will create thousands of well-paying jobs for middle class New Yorkers across the State, while providing funding to train our workforce for lifetime careers in building efficiency, renewable energy, and other low-carbon sectors.
- Advancing Environmental Justice: Establishing an Environmental Justice & Just Transition Working Group to develop priority programs and policies to help historical underserved communities – and those navigating the retirement of carbon-intensive energy plants – prepare for a cleaner, greener future.
“As the federal government abdicates its responsibility to address climate change — at the expense of our environment and economy — New York is leading the nation in advancing a clean energy future,” Governor Cuomo said. “The Clean Climate Careers initiative is a groundbreaking investment, representing the largest state clean energy procurement in U.S. history. With this $1.8 billion initiative, New York continues to tackle the challenges of climate change and create the high-quality, good-paying careers of tomorrow.”
Details of phase one of the Clean Climate Careers initiative include:
Record-Breaking Solicitations to Invest up to $1.5 Billion in Clean Energy
Today, the State will issue requests for proposals from qualified developers to build renewable energy projects that will generate 2.5 million megawatt-hours of electricity a year – enough to power approximately 350,000 homes. Combined, the RFPs are the first in a series of major procurements and are expected to result in the development of 40 to 60 large scale renewable energy projects by 2022 under the Clean Energy Standard.
The complementary solicitations by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and the New York Power Authority will invest up to $1.5 billion in wind, commercial solar and solar arrays, small and large-scale hydro, fuel cell and other technologies.
The NYSERDA solicitation will procure 1.5 million MWh of electricity from renewable energy sources and the NYPA solicitation will procure an additional 1 million MWh. This investment in additional large-scale clean energy supplies will expand NYPA’s leadership role as the State’s largest supplier of renewable electricity. Both the NYSERDA and NYPA solicitations will lead to the creation of thousands of direct and indirect jobs from development, construction and operation of clean energy projects through 2022.
The State is committed to studying the feasibility of the types of economic efficiencies that can be achieved through the use of a Project Labor Agreement for the construction of Public Work projects associated with this initiative. Use of a PLA for such Public Works could bring broad participation by NYS registered apprentice programs and can lead to new apprenticeship opportunities for a great many New Yorkers working in construction.
$300 Million Investment in Energy Efficiency and Solar To Expand BuildSmartNY and K-Solar Programs
Accelerating the Governor’s BuildSmartNY and K-Solar initiatives, NYPA will double annual investments in energy efficiency and solar deployments from $150 million to $300 million to get more clean, renewable energy into our local governments, public facilities, and schools. This $300 million is a mix of NYPA’s low-cost financing and additional private sector capital.
NYPA has established a new partnership with a consortium of banks that, will for the first time ever through NYPA, enable municipalities to access low-cost capital from commercial banks to finance energy efficiency and solar projects. Many local governments that are interested in energy efficiency projects and may not have previously qualified for financing will benefit from a more streamlined process and be able to obtain more competitive lending rates.
With this expanded investment, NYPA will conduct 1,000 energy efficiency and solar audits for municipalities and school districts by 2020 to help support prudent investments. The initiative will be available to all local governments and municipalities, who will have the opportunity to sign up and enrollment will be open before the end of 2017.
NYPA will also install more than 125 megawatts of solar capacity on schools and other public buildings by 2020, achieving a 300 percent increase in distributed solar projects at public facilities statewide. Through K-Solar and BuildSmartNY, NYPA partners with solar and energy efficiency companies to provide ‘turn-key’ solutions to its government customers, meaning local governments can easily receive design, construction management, commissioning, and financing services for their projects all at once.
These accelerated energy efficiency initiatives will create more than 2,000 new direct and indirect jobs.
$15 Million in Workforce Development & Training Programs
We have committed $15 million to educators and trainers that partner with the clean energy industry and unions to offer training and apprenticeship opportunities, and to prepare a new generation of our workforce for jobs in the growing clean energy economy. The funding will be distributed to the most innovative and far-reaching apprenticeship, training programs and partnerships including those with applicable trades and unions. We expect the grants to cover the full spectrum of workforce training from education to apprenticeships to employment in the industry and trades.
Environmental Justice and Just Transition Working Group to Help Communities Thrive in the Transition to a Clean Energy Economy
The Governor also announced a new Environmental Justice and Just Transition Working Group, which will focus, in part, on developing policies and programs to ensure a “just transition” to a green and clean energy future.
The Working Group will advise the administration on the integration of environmental justice and just transition principles into all agency policies, and to shape environmental justice programs identified in State of the State and inform what work products would assist in this effort. The first Working Group session will convene in June.
Here’s more information on Labor Leading on Climate, the Worker Initiative program that spearheaded this work: http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/worker-institute/intiatives/labor-leading-on-climate
Finally, here’s the report that I co-authored: Reversing Inequality, Combating Climate Change: A Climate Jobs Program for New York State.
(Originally posted at the American Prospect)
With his executive order repealing the clean energy policies of the Obama administration, President Donald Trump seems determined to undo all the climate progress of the past eight years. But Trump’s order, a misguided attempt to increase coal production, won’t bring back the mining jobs he vowed to resurrect. Even if every environmental regulation were repealed, those jobs aren’t coming back.
Nor is that an unmitigated tragedy for miners. Despite Trump’s rhetoric, expanding coal mining is as bad for workers and communities as it is for the environment.
Coal is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, and nearly a quarter of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2012 were just from coal combustion. From a climate perspective, there is no doubt that coal mining should be phased out. Yet it is also true that coal mining should be phased out to protect workers and communities. From the beginning, coal mining exploited workers and communities.
For nearly 70 years in the post-Civil War South, tens of thousands of incarcerated men were forced to work in coal mines. The vast majority were black men convicted of minor offenses or “Black Code” statute violations that were passed to reassert white control in the aftermath of the Civil War. The state of Alabama provided incarcerated individuals to businesses across the state, especially mines, until nearly 1930. The men were forced to cut and load one to four tons of coal per day to avoid being whipped. Tennessee Coal paid $18.50 per month in 1897 for a “first-class” prisoner, who had to cut and load four tons of coal a day, and $9 a month for a “dead hand,” who had to produce at least one ton per day. The men themselves received no compensation and were “subjected to squalid living conditions, poor medical treatment, scant food and frequent floggings.”
The mining industry didn’t stop at exploiting incarcerated individuals. Children as young as eight worked in the coal mines in the early part of the 20th century. A series of laws raised the age to 14 and the Federal Child Labor Law signed by President Wilson in 1916 banned the sale of any products from mines that employed children under the age of 16. While the Bureau of Mines was established in 1910, it was not given authority to inspect mines until 1941.
To this day, coal mines remain dangerous workplaces, and the sanctions for safety violations don’t seem to matter much. Coal-mine operators have racked up millions of dollars in safety-violation penalties, which often go unpaid. A 2014 NPR and Mine Safety and Health News investigation found that over the preceding 20 years, thousands of mine operators failed to pay safety penalties; indeed, most unpaid penalties were between two and ten years overdue. Among the study’s findings, the 2,700 mining company owners failed to pay almost $70 million in delinquent penalties and mines that didn’t pay their penalties had a 50 percent higher injury rate.
Even when mines are in compliance with health and safety regulations, mine workers are still at great risk. A recent comprehensive report from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found that after a long period of declining rates of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (also known as black lung disease), rates of the disease are now rising. Black lung disease is being seen in miners younger than 50. For many years, the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which strengthened safety and health standards and dramatically increased federal enforcement powers in coal mines, worked to reduce the incidence of the disease. The report posits that the recent increase in black lung disease rates is due to multiple factors, including miners’ exposure to increased coal mine dust levels and for longer durations. The inability of the 1969 act to protect these coal miners from a lifelong debilitating disease indicates that the legislation’s protections are inadequate to the conditions in today’s mines or, as evidenced by the high level of safety violations, are not being enforced—or both.
Mineworkers and the United Mineworkers of America have fought continually for better working conditions, better pay, and better benefits. Historically, better pay and improved working conditions came about through strikes and actions organized by the union. A Stanford University study published in 2012 found that unionized mines were substantially safer than non-unionized mines. Among the findings, the study found that unionization predicts an 18 percent to 33 percent drop in traumatic injuries and a 27 percent to 68 percent drop in fatalities. However, the number of mines that are unionized is on the decline. For the first time in nearly a century, unionized mines have completely disappeared in Kentucky.
Adding to the collapse of union mines, coal mining in general is on the decline due to decreased demand. The mining industry contends environmental regulation is responsible for the decreasing demand for coal. In reality, several factors have led to the decline, the most significant being the natural gas boom, which restructured the energy landscape. In recent years, natural gas became cheaper and cheaper, and in 2016 surpassed coal “as the leading fuel on an annual basis for the first time on record.” Coal production is unlikely to return to peak levels even if natural gas prices increase, because coal plants are being taken off line. In just one year, 2015, nearly 5 percent of all coal-powered plants were retired. While there are a few coal plants currently planned or under construction, far more have been canceled or delayed.
Even before the natural gas boom, employment in the coal industry was shrinking. Coal production peaked in 2008 but automation caused the workforce to decline for many decades before 2008. Between 1987 and 2004, well before there was an Obama administration to enact any regulations, the nation’s coal workforce fell from 151,000 workers to 71,000 workers. Since that time, unemployment in coal country has increased steadily, leaving parts of West Virginia and Kentucky with double-digit unemployment.
The economic anxieties common to the region and the industry have led many to believe in a false dichotomy between creating jobs or preserving the environment. Either we expand coal mining to increase employment and revitalize communities, at the expense of environmental and climate protection, or we have ambitious policies that decrease greenhouse gas emissions and stave off the worst impacts of climate change at the expense of workers’ livelihoods. In reality, these two fates are intertwined. The interests that exploit coal miners and coal communities are the same interests that are among the top contributors to climate change. Those of us who seek to reduce climate change must also come up with alternative livelihoods for miners that break their dependence on an industry that exploits and endangers them. The fight against coal is an environmental concern and a workers’ rights concern.
Given the Trump administration’s devotion to expanding fossil fuel extraction, it will be challenging, to say the least, for mine workers to align with environmentalists and oppose expanding coal mining. The key to building this coalition would be a plausible, robust program that will transition workers and communities away from coal. Economists Robert Pollin and Brian Callaci have set out a plan that would ensure a just transition away from a polluting economy for fossil fuel workers. The plan calls for a $50 billion annual public investment for an overall climate stabilization program that would substantially reduce carbon emissions through energy efficiency measures and dramatically increase renewable energy production. One percent of the $50 billion, $500 million, would be dedicated to transitioning fossil fuel workers by fully funding retirement and health benefits, providing wage and benefit support for current workers when they are displaced, and funding for green investments in former fossil fuel communities.
Moreover, this kind of plan can actually provide more employment for workers than expanding coal operations can, because the automation of coal mining has led to more coal being mined with fewer workers. In 1980, coal mining productivity was 1.93 short tons per miner hour. By 2015, that number had jumped to 6.28 short tons per miner hour. In turn, employment in the coal industry declined 59 percent from 1980 to 2015. In fact, coal creates far fewer jobs per million dollars invested than any form of renewable energy. For every million dollars invested in the coal industry, seven direct and indirect jobs are created. By comparison, every million dollars invested in the solar industry creates 14 direct and indirect jobs.
In the broadest sense, these aren’t challenges unique to coal country. Inequality and climate change impact every community. We must move forward in a way that addresses both issues to the benefit, and not exclusion, of workers and the environment.
(Originally posted on Huffington Post)
Last week, the AFL-CIO came out in support of the Dakota Access Pipeline. For many climate advocates, such as myself, the news was disheartening. The Dakota Access Pipeline will poison water supplies,destroy priceless heritage sites, and lead us farther away from the transition to a low-carbon economy. Here on Huffington Post, a headline read, “AFL-CIO To Planet Earth: Drop Dead.” But, this is a red herring. The enemy is not the AFL-CIO. The enemy is not those advocates rightfully trying to stop the pipeline from being built at Standing Rock. Instead, these two seemingly at odds interests have a common enemy: the fossil fuel industry, which puts profits over workers and is the worst contributor to climate change.
It’s no surprise that the fossil fuel industry is hostile to any attempt to transition to a low-carbon economy. For decades, the industry led atargeted, well-financed campaign to deceive the public on climate change. Evidence shows that the world’s largest fossil fuel companies knew of the dangers of climate change for over 20 years and continued to spend tens of millions of dollars on their deception campaign. The industry secretly funded “independent” scientists, created front groups, and even forged letters from nonprofit organizations, desperate to prevent the transition to a low-carbon economy.
But, the fossil fuel industry is also no friend to workers. As just one example, Peabody Energy, the largest private sector coal company in the world, shifted millions of dollars in health care liabilities to a subsidiary, Patriot Coal, that then filed for bankruptcy and sought to, “limit or discharge its pension and health obligations to 22,000 retired miners and their spouses.” By shifting the health care costs to a subsidiary that then filed for bankruptcy, Peabody Energy increased its profits at the expense of coal miners’ health. Health benefits for retired miners is particularly essential considering black lung disease is at its highest levels in 40 years, indicating that miners now are being exposed to ever more toxic working conditions. Despite what it may say, environmental regulations or the need to shift away from coal doesn’t seem to be hurting the company. Peabody Energy’srevenues for 2015 topped $5.1 billion.
In addition, fossil fuel companies are active members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Exxon Mobil, Koch Industries, and Peabody Energy are corporate board members of ALEC. ALECpromotes climate denial and has actively worked to repeal renewable energy standards at the state level, taking issue with theiroverwhelming success in increasing renewable energy use. ALEC has also successfully pushed Right to Work legislation at the state level since 1995. Right to Work laws undermine unions and Right to Work states have lower wages and benefits.
Without a drastic shift away from fossil fuels, we will see the worst impacts of climate change. At the same time, if you can’t feed your family, it’s difficult to focus on anything apart from that. Base pay for workers on the Dakota Access pipeline can start at $37 an hour plus benefits, overtime, and per diem pay. The median pay for solar PV installers is $18.19 an hour.
But, it doesn’t have to be this way. Research has shown that solar jobs can be good jobs. In California, utility-scale solar construction built by union members paid $39 per hour plus health and pension benefits. In addition to providing good jobs, all unionized employers participated in state-approved apprenticeship programs to train a new generation of solar workers. The mean hourly wage for an apprentice electrician is almost $24 an hour plus benefits andincreases with skill acquisition as they move through their apprenticeship program.
Pitting unions against climate change advocates only benefits the fossil fuel industry. Investing in climate jobs that pay family sustaining wages and meaningfully decrease carbon emissions makes our economy stronger and saves us from the worst impacts of climate change. Labor and environmentalists must work together and not be driven apart by fossil fuel greed. We are stronger together.
(Originally posted at the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy blog)
Feb 12, 2016
As the crisis in Flint, Mich., further unfolds, the depths to which officials ignored warning signs and allowed the city’s residents to drink poisoned water are astonishing. Recently released emails show local and state officials knew what was happening much sooner than they let on and were more concerned with shifting blame than fixing the problem. As a result, months went by without residents knowing they were exposed to lead, a toxin that has no safe level of exposure and causes severe developmental and physical disabilities.
The majority of Flint residents are African American, and nearly 42 percent live in poverty. In contrast, just 14 percent of all residents in Michigan are African American, and the state’s poverty rate is less than half that of Flint. For decades, Flint residents have been exposed to a disproportionate amount of environmental pollution, so much so that residents have filed complaints with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the amount of pollution they are forced to bear violates their civil rights. The demographics of Flint combined with the city’s disproportionate environmental burden make it a classic case of environmental racism.
Environmental racism is the disproportionate placing of hazardous waste and polluting industries near communities of color. In addition to several previous studies that found race was the number one factor in the siting of commercial hazardous waste facilities, new research found that communities of color and low-income communities are deliberately targeted for hazardous waste siting. Led by researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of Montana, this study is the first national-level environmental justice study to conduct longitudinal analyses using distance-based methods. The results of the study confirm that race and class determine the siting of hazardous waste sites.
The residents of Flint are all too familiar with the role that race and class play in locating polluting industries. There are at least 227 environmentally noxious facilities throughout the community. Residents have been fighting against these facilities with little success for decades. In 1994, advocates in Flint filed a Title VI administrative complaint with the EPA against a nearby power plant in Genesee. The EPA, like every federal agency, must abide by Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and ensure that recipients of federal aid do not discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin.
Title VI violations can occur if state environmental agencies, who receive money from the federal EPA, permit hazardous and/or polluting industries disproportionately in communities of color. The discrimination occurs if these facilities are permitted or sited based on race, ethnicity or another protected class. If a community feels Title VI has been violated, they can file an administrative complaint with the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights.
The EPA never responded to the Flint residents’ Title VI claim, and the power station started operating in 1995. A few years later, in 1997, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality granted an air permit to a Select Steel “mini-mill” to operate in Flint, even though the mill would send up to 100 tons of lead and other hazardous pollutants into the city’s air every year. The mini-mill would be located just two miles from the Genesee power plant. Flint residents filed another Title VI claim with the EPA against the Select Steel permit.
This time, the EPA responded promptly and dismissed the complaint 74 days after it was filed. EPA dismissed the complaint because it claimed the air quality protection and public participation were adequate. The ruling contradicted the Department of Justice’s interpretation that civil rights laws are independent and compliance should be evaluated with anti-discrimination requirements, rather than looking only at environmental regulations. In the end, the mini-mill was never built, but the EPA’s ruling created a precedent of environmental regulations trumping civil rights protections that still stands. The 1994 complaint against the Genesee power plant, by the way, was still pending at the time of the Select Steel ruling.
The Select Steel case is one of the rare Title VI complaints decided by the EPA. Over 95 percent of administrative complaints received by the EPA are either rejected or dismissed. Last year, the Center for Public Integrity did an in-depth investigation into the EPA’s Title VI record and found that in nearly 300 complaints filed by communities of color, the EPA has never once made a formal finding of a civil rights violation. On average, it takes the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights 350 days to decide just on whether to investigate a case — so long that investigators dismissed nine cases as moot. In 2011, the EPA commissioned Deloitte Consulting to conduct its own review of the performance of the Office of Civil Rights, and the results were dismal. Among the findings, only six percent of Title VI claims were accepted or dismissed within the agency’s 20-day time limit, and the backlog of cases went back nearly a decade.
In response to Deloitte’s findings, the EPA released draft Recommendations for Developing a Model Civil Rights Program at the EPA at the start of 2012. Among the recommendations were direct investment of senior leadership in the success of the program, including Title VI in strategic plans and performance objectives of offices and regions, adequate funding and resources, and direct reporting to the Administrator by the senior civil rights director.
An analysis of the Title VI claims filed since the draft recommendations were released shows that of the 35 claims that were filed, 25 were rejected. Some of the claims that were rejected were referred to other agencies and several are still under jurisdictional review, including claims originally filed back in 2013 and 2014. Of the 35 claims, only two have been accepted for investigation. In response to the Center for Public Integrity’s reporting, the EPA put forth more improvements at the Office of Civil Rights, including increased staffing and issuing a civil rights toolkit to help educate states, recipients of EPA funding, and communities on their rights and obligations under Title VI.
However, EPA’s attempts at reforming the Office of Civil Rights are too little, too late. The proposed changes seem to be cosmetic, at best, and will provide little relief to communities like Flint. We need a fundamental overhaul of the Title VI process and a recommitment to protecting the civil rights of communities of color. Until then, we can expect Title VI claims to continue to be largely ignored, and communities of color around the country will continue to bear the environmental cost of this broken system.
Jan 25, 2016
(Originally posted at The Hill)
By now, it is clear the tragedy in Flint, Mich. was completely preventable. In order to save money in the short term, the city decided to switch its water supply. As a result, thousands of Flint residents were exposed to lead and the clean-up, litigation and health costs will far outweigh any savings the city saw.
The demographics of the community raise issues of whether the community is suffering from the impact of environmental racism. The population of Flint is majority African-American and 40 percent of its residents live below the poverty line. In fact, despite the governor’s protest, Flint is a classic case of environmental racism — and it isn’t the first time the city has suffered this fate.
Environmental racism is the deliberate placing of hazardous waste and polluting industries near communities of color. In 1987, a comprehensive report found that race was the No. 1 factor in the siting of commercial hazardous waste facilities. A follow-up study 20 years later found racial disparities in hazardous waste siting were even greater than previously reported. The updated study found people of color made up the majority of those living less than two miles from hazardous waste facilities.
For decades, the residents of Flint have borne a disproportionate environmental burden, so much so that they have brought administrative complaints alleging that the amount of pollution residents faced violated their civil rights. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), like every federal agency, must abide by Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and ensure recipients of federal aid do not discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin. Title VI violations can occur if state environmental agencies, for example, permit hazardous and/or polluting industries disproportionately in communities of color. If a community feels Title VI has been violated, they can file an administrative complaint with the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights.
Flint has a long history of advocates fighting against environmental racism. In 1997, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality granted an air permit to the Select Steel “mini-mill” to operate in Flint, even though the mill would send up to 100 tons of lead and other hazardous pollutants into the city’s air every year. Residents were already dealing with pollution from the nearby Genesee Power Station when the Select Steel permit was granted. Advocates in Flint had filed administrative complaints with the EPA for Title VI violations against the Genesee Power Station in 1994. The EPA never responded and the power station started operating in 1995.
Flint residents didn’t fare any better with the Select Steel case. The EPA found that Select Steel’s permit did not violate Title VI and ruled that environmental regulations trumped civil rights protections, even though the two have separate standards. The ruling contradicted the Department of Justice’s interpretation that civil rights laws are independent and compliance should be evaluated with anti-discrimination requirements. In the end, the mini-mill was never built but the EPA’s ruling created a precedent that still stands.
The fact that the EPA issued a decision, in and of itself, is rare. The vast majority of administrative complaints received by the EPA are either rejected or dismissed. An in-depth investigation last year by the Center for Public Integrity found that in nearly 300 complaints filed by communities of color, the EPA has never once made a formal finding of a civil-rights violation. On average, it takes the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights 350 days to decide just on whether to investigate a case — so long that investigators dismissed nine cases as moot. The EPA’s own review of its Office of Civil Rights was highly critical and found poor performance, unqualified staff and a lack of prioritization.
The current environmental crisis in Flint was caused by failure at many levels of government, including the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights. Any solution must include an overhaul and new mandate for Title VI complaints. It’s time for the EPA to step up and enforce its duty to protect communities of color.
July 1, 2015
(Originally posted at The Hill)
The Supreme Court ruling in Michigan v. EPA is not as dire for environmentalists as it could have been. The ruling does not strike down the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulation of mercury and other hazardous pollutants from power plants. The court, instead, ruled that the cost of compliance should have been incorporated at the outset of deciding whether a regulation is necessary and remanded the case back to a lower court for reconsideration. Yet even this narrow decision was wrong — cost-benefit analysis is a flawed measure and not appropriate for environmental regulation.
In his majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia states, “The Agency must consider cost — including, most importantly, cost of compliance — before deciding whether regulation is appropriate and necessary.” But the primary consideration for the EPA should be what is best for the environment and health of the public, not how much compliance will cost, especially given how flawed cost-benefit analysis is. And, as Justice Elena Kagan notes in her dissent, the EPA considered cost throughout the regulatory process.
The problem with Scalia’s conclusion, and cost-benefit analysis generally, is that it depends on the EPA, or any agency, being able to monetize and calculate things that by their very nature do not have a price tag — such as a clean environment and a healthy population. We calculate health savings through measures such as hospital visits and lost school/work days, but does that really capture the benefit of a healthy population? We know how much it costs to clean up pollution, but we chronically undervalue the cost and health benefits of preventing pollution in the first place.
For example, mercury is a neurotoxin and many studies show the harm mercury exposure causes, including an $8.7 billion loss in economic productivity due to decreased intelligence caused by mercury exposure. But what about the cost that comes from neurological damage, beyond the loss in economic productivity? How do we quantify the damage to quality of life? By using only economic parameters, we reduce a person’s life to only to what he or she contributes to our economy and that is a dangerous, slippery slope.
The EPA’s regulations were implemented because there were no federal standards that required power plants to limit their emissions of toxic air pollutants, such as mercury, arsenic and metals, even though the technology to control these toxics was available. In fact, the EPA set the rules based on the best-performing sources currently in operation and gave power plants four years to implement the controls. In other words, the technology to limit these pollutants already existed and was in operation, proving that the pollution control goal was achievable and not overly burdensome to the industry, a result further validated by the fact that more than 70 percent of plants impacted by the rule are already in compliance.
The Supreme Court was wrong to rule that cost of compliance is the most important consideration. Requiring polluting businesses to stop polluting will of course incur a cost. However, the public is currently bearing the cost and health burden from polluted air and water. It’s only fair that industry begins to pay its fair share.
May 29, 2015
(Originally posted at Tikkun and cross-posted at Moyers and Co.)
Being a climate advocate is not for the weak of heart. The US is a safe haven for climate deniers. Instead of taking bold steps to reduce our carbon emissions, our elected officials focus on stunts like bringing in snowballs to Congress to claim there is no climate change. In the face of such obstinacy, climate advocates must stand together and take to the streets. And as the People’s Climate marched showed, there is no shortage of people willing to stand up and join the fight against climate change.
The Environmental Movement and Diversity
I woke up early on the Sunday morning of the People’s Climate March not sure what to expect. I had been hearing that over 100,000, possibly 200,000 people were expected to march. I hoped that the numbers would be there. But more than that, I hoped that the crowd that showed would be a reflection of those impacted most by climate change. While climate change will negatively impact all of us, people of color and low-income communities will be hit the hardest and have the fewest resources to adapt to the challenges, such as extreme weather and poor air quality, climate change will bring. Yet, these communities are often underrepresented, if not left out completely. It’s no secret that the environmental movement in the US suffers from a lack of diversity and if we are going to win the fight against climate change, we cannot continue with business as usual — not at the governmental level, not at the business level, not at the individual level, and definitely not at the advocacy level.
The Emergence of Environmental Justice
I’ve been an environmental advocate since I was in elementary school, and over the years, I’ve lost count of the number of times I was the only person of color in a room full of environmentalists. To be sure, there are very diverse segments of the environmental movement. Environmental justice advocacy arose to battle the disproportionate environmental burden that communities of color face. The pivotal study, Toxics, Waste and Race released in 1987, found that race, not class, was the leading factor in siting polluting industries. While socio-economic status played an important role, race was even more significant.
Since that time, environmental justice organizations across the country have been advocating on behalf of communities of color in their struggles against environmental hazards. In Harlem, West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT) works to ensure low-income communities and communities of color can meaningfully participation in creating, “sound and fair environmental health and protection policies and practices.” The Asian Pacific Environmental Network fights for environmental justice on behalf of Asian and Pacific Islander communities. The Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment uses a combination of legal tools and organizing to advocate on behalf of low-income communities and communities of color facing environmental hazards with a particular focus on the Central Valley in California, one of the poorest regions in the nation and home to some of the most toxic waste sites nationwide. People of color are the majority of the Central Valley’s population.
However the mainstream environmental movement has been, and continues to be, a largely white, middle-class movement. A recent study found that the percentage of people of color on the boards or general staff does not exceed 16 percent in environmental advocacy organizations, government environmental agencies, and environmental grant-making organizations. And racial minorities occupy less than 12 percent of the leadership positions in these three types of organizations.
This exclusion of people of color cannot continue. For one, in less than 30 years, people of color will comprise the majority of the population in the US. The changing demographics of the country must be represented in leadership across all levels. In addition, diversity will make these organizations better at problem solving and more innovative. A recent study in Scientific American presented decades of research showing that socially diverse groups are more innovative. The study showed that social diversity makes groups better at solving complex, non-routine problems. There is arguably no greater challenge facing us now than climate change and, as such, innovative and creative thinking is needed now more than ever in the environmental movement.
Challenges to Inclusion
Diversity is often seen as a worthy, but elusive, goal. Diversity for diversity’s sake can easily slide into tokenism, where people of color or other underrepresented groups are asked to be present and visible but are not given true power or decision making authority. The way forward is to look within organizations and within ourselves to acknowledge and address internal racism and oppression. Organizations must look deep inside themselves to see if their priorities are shared by communities of color, rather than creating a set of priorities and asking communities of color to sign on.
While walking through the crowds, at the climate march, I overheard two white men in front of me having a discussion about the steps needed to fight climate change. They eventually settled upon population control and proceeded to discuss whether forced sterilization was an option. For them, I’m sure it was just a thought experiment and an intellectual discussion. For people of color, forced sterilization is not a thought experiment — it is a tragic and heartbreaking reality. To this date, women in the criminal justice system are being forced to undergo sterilizations, and women of color are particularly targeted for forced sterilizations. This kind of misunderstanding is what creates a climate in which people of color do not feel comfortable and it is up to those with power to recognize their own privileges and assumptions that can create an environment where people of color do not feel welcome, let alone empowered and included. When we recognize it, we have taken the first step to dismantling it.
Signs of Hope
So what else did I find when I arrived at the People’s Climate March? Pockets of interests, particularly renewable energy groups and traditional environmental organizations, that clearly need to prioritize diversifying their membership and leadership. But I also saw a sea of new faces: young people, people of color, and food justice advocates emphasizing the need for worker’s justice. I had never seen such a diverse crowd and it was also the first time I saw such a strong presence of the intersectionality of climate justice, economic justice, and racial justice. In my many years of being a climate advocate, the scale of the march and the scale of diversity at the march were unprecedented. There is a lot of work that still needs to be done but if the People’s Climate March is an indication of where the movement is heading, I feel more optimistic than ever that together, we can build a new world.
Stop Using Me as Your Racist Scapegoat(Originally posted at Truthout)Duke University Professor Jerry Hough use of Asian Americans to denigrate the African American community uses Asians as a scapegoat for his plainly racist views. In response to a New York Times article detailing the racist policies impacting Baltimore, Hough commented that African-Americans were themselves to blame and that Asian-Americans had suffered racism but found a way to succeed because, “[T]hey didn’t feel sorry for themselves, but worked doubly hard.” Hough then went on to remark that Asians are successful because we have simple, old American first names and date/marry a lot of white people. If this is what passes as being accepted into white America, I think I’ll pass.The stereotype of the hardworking, successful Asian is a convenient way to gloss over increasing inequality within the Asian American/ Pacific Islander community. Poverty is growing rapidly within the AAPI community, especially among the native-born AAPI, but it is masked by the increase in high-earning AAPI. Though the number of AAPIs living in poverty increased more than 50 percent between 2000 and 2011, the overall poverty rate remained relatively unchanged due to the increase in the overall AAPI population, including large numbers of highly skilled, highly educated immigrants. The highly skilled Asians are Hough’s chosen minority and the ones that are struggling are “feeling sorry for themselves.”Hough’s white supremacist viewpoint comes through most clearly in the reasons he says Asians are successful: adopting very simple old American names and dating/marrying white people. Here, white supremacy is so necessary that even one’s name must be a “simple old American name.” Understanding this dynamic, my parents gave me a western first name, Julia, and I have deliberately chosen to go by my Korean name, Mijin. Very few people can pronounce my name but that’s not my problem. Unless you are Native American, your name has been imported. And, I don’t want to live in a country where everyone is a Jerry.Finally, Hough’s commentary on Asian-white dating/marriage shows a disturbing view on inter-racial relationships. He writes, “The amount of Asian-white dating is enormous and so surely will be the intermarriage. Black-white dating is almost non-existent because of the ostracism by blacks of anyone who dates a white.” His assertion is false: of 5.3 million inter-racial couples, 13.7 percent are Asian-white and 7.5 percent are white-Black. More troubling is his idea that only the minority-white interracial coupling is desirable, an idea again based in white supremacy. The only right path is the one that brings us closer to whiteness and if one is not born white, as least one can dream of marrying white.The fact that Hough is a professor at Duke brings his comments from being easily dismissed as just another racist rant to an issue of serious concern. To be sure, I am not calling for his censure or a restriction on his speech. But, Hough teaches young minds of all races and it is hard to see how his racism does not affect his interactions with students. Moreover, I am tired of seeing Asians used as a scapegoat for racist rants. The oppression Olympics, where people of color are pitted against each other to see who has it worst, deflects attention from the white supremacy still rooted in our institutions and our culture. The attitude of Professor Hough shows how deep white supremacy runs and no manner of using Asians as scapegoats can hide it.
(Originally posted at Huffington Post Green)
With news that global carbon dioxide emissions have reached record levels, the need to switch to a low-carbon economy is more urgent than ever. However, the urgency of this crisis does not absolve us of the responsibility to move forward in a just, sustainable way. How we transition to a low-carbon economy is just as important as when we transition. Privatizing clean energy development and replacing oil barrens with clean energy barrens repeats the mistakes of the past and concentrates wealth and resources into the hands of just a few. Increased concentration of wealth is poisoning our economy and our communities and a sustainable future cannot be built on this model.
If Governor Cuomo has his way, New York State will be the prime example of what not to do. Through a series of proposals, the Governor is looking to reform the state’s energy industry and regulatory processes–in and of itself, not a bad idea. New York needs to significantly increase renewable energy production in the state. In 2013, less than a quarter of the state’s electricity generated came from renewables and the energy grid is outdated, as is the case across the country. The problem, however, is how the Governor proposes to make these changes: eliminating successful programs and replacing them with programs that use public money to subsidize private development. Sound familiar? It’s the same broken formula that has resulted in increasing inequality across the state and across the nation.
The Governor’s proposed Clean Energy Fund would eliminate the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) and the Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard and replace them with a fund that invests in four areas: market development, technology and business innovation, New York Green Bank, and New York Sun. The mission of the Green Bank is to encourage private participation in clean energy development. New York Sun aims to increase solar production by “stimulating the marketplace.” The overwhelming emphasis on market-based and market-driven programs is the wrong way forward. We should not be developing renewable energy at any and all costs. We only have to look at the fossil fuel industry to know what happens with market-based and market-driven energy policy.
Eliminating the RPS would be disastrous. The RPS has successfully increased renewable energy development all across the country and is the, “single most important policy driver of renewable energy deployment in the nation.” New York’s current RPS has a target of 30 percent of electricity demand being met by renewables by 2015. Instead of eliminating the RPS, we should be following the lead of states like California and increase the production target. The level of renewable energy production needed can only come from a mandate. We cannot rely only on voluntary programs that incentive private development with public money.
A strong renewable energy mandate creates consistent and stable demand that can be filled by local renewable energy production. Community-owned renewable production is better for the environment and better for local economies. Instead of throwing public money at private corporations, New York should embrace the opportunity to build a new energy economy that makes renewable energy a public resource.