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A Green New Deal Must Be Rooted in a Just Transition for Workers and Communities Most Impacted by Climate Change

By various - Climate Justice Alliance, December 11, 2018

A Call for Special Attention to Highly Impacted Communities Leading a Just Transition

What is the Climate Justice Alliance?

The Climate Justice Alliance (CJA) is a growing alliance, currently linking 68 community organizations, movement networks, and support organizations throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico to unite under Just Transition strategies. CJA’s inter-generational constituencies are rooted in Indigenous, African American, Latinx, Asian Pacific Islander, and poor white communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis. They share legacies of colonialism, racial and economic oppression, along with rich histories of environmental, economic and social justice organizing.

CJA believes that in order to effectively confront the climate crisis, we must transition our priorities from global systems of production and consumption that are energy intensive and fossil fuel dependent to more localized systems that are sustainable, resilient, and regenerative.

The transition itself, however, must be just.

What is the Green New Deal (GND)?

The GND is a proposal recently put forth by Congressional Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and currently supported by 18 members of the U.S. House of Representatives. It comes on the heels of the midterm election where Democrats won the majority in the House as well as the election of a number of self-proclaimed Democratic Socialists. Building off of energy from the demonstrations in Nancy Pelosi’s office by the youth of the Sunrise Movement, the GND, at this stage, has been presented as a call for the establishment of a House Select Committee that would be charged with “developing a detailed national, industrial, economic mobilization plan for the transition of the United States economy to become carbon neutral.”  It also aims to “significantly draw down and capture greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and oceans and … promote economic and environmental justice and equality.”(1)

The GND is the first time in many years that a proposal of this type has been presented by a number of members of a major U.S. political party. It proposes to tackle climate change and inequality simultaneously, while revolutionizing conditions for workers.  It is a much needed aggressive national pivot away from climate denialism to climate action with large scale federal legislative and budgetary implications.

Support for the GND with Special Attention to Frontline Communities

The Climate Justice Alliance (CJA) has been organizing a Just Transition toward a regenerative economy for years and therefore presently supports the call for a new economic plan for the U.S. which could come from a Green New Deal. This GND must be innovative, bold, audacious and still be just—for example, creating meaningful, family and community supporting work for the 6.4 million workers currently employed in the energy sector, alongside workers in related fields such as construction and housing, food and farming, waste management, transportation, water and ecosystem stewardship.(2)  Simultaneously, this transition must be just for communities that live on the frontlines of extractive and toxic, polluting industries, and who have been putting forth local solutions that can be scaled for the benefit of a new economy for all.

The GND Needs to Be, Above All Else, a Tool to Build Grassroots Power

Support for the initiative is growing among members of the U.S. House of Representatives. However, signing on to the project will require elected representatives to think outside of the normally accepted economic, social, industrial, and commercial parameters. If the midterm election has demonstrated anything, it is that grassroots organizing is at the root of successful policy initiatives and there is still much to learn from local and municipal power-building strategies. For Indigenous-Native grassroots members of CJA, it is the strengthening of community-based and tribal leadership, and Indigenous, place-based strategies, that are critical for the foundations of such a large-scale initiative. CJA welcomes the GND as an opportunity to work creatively with many sectors and communities within CJA that have been transitioning to a regenerative economy using community-led strategies such as zero-waste, sustainable agriculture, energy democracy, land and water stewardship, affordable housing, and localized clean energy. All of which work to center the creation of local jobs and support for the families of workers and communities most impacted.

Background and Process: A Word of Caution

The proposal for the GND was made public at the grasstops level. When we consulted with many of our own communities, they were neither aware of, nor had they been consulted about the launch of the GND. In 2009, the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) was rushed through Congress by U.S. House Representatives Waxman and Markey, in partnership with a number of Green groups. The bill included the problematic aspect of Cap and Trade and was done with very little frontline and community consultation. This led to both disengagement on the part of working class peoples and frontline communities, and the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in support for the legislation, which never gained enough momentum to pass the Senate. (See One Sky Letter response from the Grassroots).

The process for achieving any new deal cannot be conducted in the same old way, in which power, privilege, and money trump communities’ needs, well-being, and democratic rights. Business cannot be first in line to be consulted and receive benefits from this Green New Deal.   

Strengths of the Current GND Platform

There is much that is good in the draft text for beginning such a deal, and some areas are particularly strong. The proposal to finance the GND with public funds, including public banks, can be an innovative measure if we are able to use the lessons learned from municipal banks and credit unions to assure that financing for the GND does not become a corporate give-away. Linking a climate proposal with measures to end poverty and unemployment is provocative and forward thinking. In its emphasis on eliminating poverty, the GND proposal calls for a job guarantee program to assure a living wage job to every person who wants one, basic income programs, and universal health care. It speaks of mitigating “deeply entrenched racial, regional and gender-based inequalities in income and wealth.” As part of this mitigation, prioritizing federal and other investments to be equitably distributed to historically impoverished, low income, de-industrialized or marginalized communities, is essential. This includes tribes and their grassroots communities disproportionately impacted by U.S. government facilitated fossil fuel and mineral development. Making these goals explicit at the outset is a good start.

A Green New Deal MUST:

Center a Just Transition

A whole-society approach to climate change must be centered on a Just Transition for communities and workers as we move beyond the existing extractive and fossil fuel-driven economy. The GND states that the plan will create jobs in many sectors of a new economy which includes moving to 100% renewable energy, building an energy-efficient “smart” grid, updating residential and commercial buildings to make them energy efficient, and decarbonizing industry. A deep decarbonization approach that applies an environmental and social justice lens without carbon markets, offsets and emissions trading regimes or geoengineering technologies, needs to be embraced. A Just Transition coupled with a commitment to Just Recovery and Rebuilding, community-driven Climate Action plans through block grants earmarked for community-based organizations, and community development funds would go even further to repair historical harm and center community innovation for water, land, air, and energy resources, in both urban and rural areas, including Indian Country.  

Support the Rights of Workers

The GND should restore the right to organize, collectively bargain, and engage in concerted action on the job. It should guarantee the Constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly in the workplace, restore the right to strike and guarantee the right to a safe and healthy work environment. The GND should provide a fair and Just Transition for workers whose jobs may be threatened by economic change. It should also establish fair labor standards, building on the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which provided minimum wages, limited the hours of work, and instituted other protections for workers. It should establish strong state and local prevailing wage laws and encourage industry-wide bargaining. It should also establish a “buy fair” procurement policy. The GND should provide incentives for quality jobs that ensure family-sustaining wages and benefits, the right to form a union and engage in collective bargaining free of intimidation and reprisal, hiring opportunities for workers in disadvantaged communities, training and careers, and building up local economies which would also apply in Indian Country.

Go Beyond Carbon Neutral to Include All Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Co-Pollutants

The GND focuses on becoming carbon neutral but does not address the supply side of economics. The climate crisis is a symptom of a deeper crisis, manifested in the prevailing “dig, burn, dump” economy. A Just Transition should be based on a regenerative economy that would advance ecological resilience, reduce resource consumption, restore biodiversity and shift us away from an economy based on extraction. This new economy would be based on living in balance with natural systems and bring them into line with ecological limits and the common sense science of planetary boundaries. It would put an end to the practices that have turned low-income communities, communities of color, and lands and territories of Indian Country into environmental sacrifice zones.

Support Renewable Energy, Not Just “Clean Energy”

We support the goal of achieving truly clean, renewable, and sustainable energy.

Clean energy is energy that will not result in new net pollution or toxic materials, including co-pollutants emitted through extraction, production and distribution. Renewable energy is energy that comes from sources that are naturally regenerated over a short period of time (as opposed to the 300 million years required for fossil fuels). It is derived directly or indirectly from the sun or natural movements and mechanisms of the environment and is appropriate in scale to work symbiotically with its ecological surroundings. For this reason, we support renewable energy over energy that is merely characterized as “clean.” We do not support the use of large-scale biofuel, biomass, mega-hydro dams, nuclear energy, or energy derived from burning waste.

Denounce Climate Geoengineering as a False Promise

We reject all forms of geoengineering/climate manipulation as well as carbon capture and storage (CCS), carbon capture, use, and storage (CCUS), bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), biochar, solar radiation management and similar false promises. These expensive strategies perpetuate harm to human and ecological health, extend our dependence on the extraction of fossil fuels, and divert resources that would be better deployed to transforming our energy system to clean, renewable, and community-owned solutions.

Reinvest in Community Controlled and Cooperative Enterprises

In order to support building local community wealth that is democratically governed rather than extracting wealth from communities for the benefit of a few, financing must be non-extractive. We strongly support the development of local non-extractive and regenerative loan funds that support the building of sustainable, community-benefitting, local economies. A Just Transition must redefine “returns” and “risks” to mean that risks are measured by the degradation of our communities and ecological systems, and returns on investment are measured by the stability and health of our communities and planet. Reinvestment projects must restore vital resources that are essential to the survival of human communities back to the common people.

Ensure Free, Prior and Informed Consent by Indigenous Peoples

Proposals in the GND may include changes to infrastructure that will most definitely traverse tribal lands and territories in Indian Country.  The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) must be upheld and implemented, along with treaties, instruments and decisions of international law that recognize that Indigenous Peoples have the right to give “free, prior and informed consent” to legislation and development of their lands, natural resources, energy development, climate change, cultural properties and heritage, and other interests, and to receive remedies of losses and damages of property taken without consent.  The rights to self-determination of the original peoples of these lands of the United States cannot be sacrificed exclusively for new energy or economic policy.

Develop a GND Process NOW That is Transparent, Inclusive, and Democratic

We call on the GND to include frontline, climate affected communities at all stages, from the earliest planning stages through the delivery of programs. Jobs and resources generated for and from the GND should be directed first to frontline, climate impacted communities, including tribes and tribal communities in order to: provide job training and development, rebuild and improve infrastructure, restore ecologically damaged neighborhoods, communities, lands and waters, ensure climate adaptation, and redress historic environmental harms. This process should be guided by the communities themselves, since they are in the best position to assess local needs and priorities. Town Halls for developing the GND should include language access for multiple languages, especially considering the 61.8 million U.S. residents that speak a language other than English and contribute over $718 billion to the national economy.(3) (This figure does not include contributions by farm workers and domestic workers who are historically omitted from these calculations and who are part of both organized and unorganized labor.) In 2014, immigrant workers, both documented and not, paid $328 billion in state, local, and federal taxes.(4)  

Should the proposal gain the support it needs and the Select Committee be named, CJA looks forward to supporting the process for a GND which would lead to a Just Transition for communities and workers under conditions that are transparent, inclusive, and democratic. We hope this will happen quickly. There is no time to waste.

*Special thanks to CJA members who contributed to the statement including:  Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Communities for a Better Environment, Connecticut Economic and Environmental Justice Alliance, Cooperation Jackson, East Michigan Environmental Action Council, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, Indiana State Conference of the NAACP, Indigenous Environmental Network, Institute for Policy Studies, It Takes Roots, Just Transition Alliance, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Kheprw Institute, Labor Network for Sustainability, Movement Generation, New York Environmental Justice Alliance, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, and UPROSE.

Notes

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.