By David A. Love
Climate change is on the minds of many these days.
And, yet, there’s just a limited amount of time to act. The consensus from the United Nations and most scientists is that it will be 12 years to avert certain environmental catastrophe. We’ll need a myriad of solutions to protect against the extreme heat and drought, flooding, mass poverty and social dislocation and disruption that will ensue.
Big problems will require big solutions, and saving the Earth suggests a massive wartime-style mobilization is in order. The most high-profile proposal offered to date, at least in the U.S., is the Green New Deal. Unpacking the plan reveals a number of pros and cons.
But what will all of this mean for Black people?
Answering that question requires the dominant presence of Black community advocates and policymakers in that mobilization. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed. Markey (D-Mass.) have each proposed Green New Deal legislation, which is actually a non-binding resolution calling for aggressive measures to cut carbon emissions into the atmosphere. And while Congressional Black Caucus members have signed on to it, they’re not the legislators creating or pushing it. Yet, environmental racism is real and despite the disproportionate impact of pollution and climate crisis on Black people in the United States, the introduction of the Green New Deal presents a key question: Where does the Black political establishment stand on the Green New Deal? It doesn’t go unnoticed that there are no Black Members of Congress who are leading the push for it, even though they represent some of the most pollution-impacted and climate crisis-hit districts in the nation. In a competing House Select Committee on Climate Crisis formed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), one CBC member, newly-elected Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), plays a role.
Still, the Deal boasts a number of measures for creating jobs and boosting economic growth, including a renewed focus on economic justice for vulnerable communities. The jobs portion, of course, is an attractive proposition for African Americans who find themselves burdened with the highest unemployment rate among all demographic groups: a rise from 6 percent in November to 7 percent in February, roughly 85 percent higher than the national average. Black male unemployment has risen from 5.8 percent to 7.2 percent.
The Green New Deal resolution suggests a fix for that, albeit details are scarce. It declares that “a new national, social, industrial and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II and the New Deal is a historic opportunity– (1) to create millions of good, high wage jobs in the United States; (2) to provide unprecedented levels of prosperity and economic security for all people in the United States; and (3) to counteract systemic injustice.” Among the highlights of the 10-year mobilization plan, which is named after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program, are the following:
- Achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and 100% power demand through clean and renewable energy sources.
- Healthcare, affordable housing, economic security and access to healthy and affordable food, clean water and air, and nature.
- A guaranteed job with a family-sustaining wage, paid vacation and family and medical leave, and retirement benefits for all. High-quality union jobs with protected rights for organized labor.
- Working with farmers and ranchers to eliminate greenhouse gases and pollution from the agricultural sector.
- Overhauling transportation systems and buildings, and providing clean, accessible and affordable public transportation for everyone.
- Upgrading and repairing infrastructure, building energy-efficient, “smart” power grids and ensuring clean and affordable power.
- Boosting growth in clean manufacturing and industry.
- Public investments in research and development in renewable and clean technology and industry, and investments in community development, with a priority on “vulnerable and frontline communities,” including “indigenous people, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.”
- Education, including higher education, resources and training for all people, with a focus on frontline and vulnerable communities.
- Obtaining consent from indigenous people and protecting their sovereignty and land rights.
There are a number of potential advantages from the Green New Deal for the Black community. For example, this sweeping industrial policy proposal places communities that bear the brunt of racial, economic and environmental injustice front and center. This includes Black and Brown communities, rather than merely the “White working class” or similar constituencies that are normally prioritized whenever jobs and the economy are mentioned.
Further, the plan purports to understand the need to connect the dots among economic, environmental and social stability. Cleaning up the planet also means not only dealing with an environmental crisis, but also addressing the interrelated crises of rising inequality and low upward social mobility, a racial wealth gap, and declining life expectancy. An environmental and energy policy that benefits all people equally is important, given that predominantly Black and Latino communities have “significantly less” solar panel installation. The disparities between Black and White solar panel users are significant and concerning: Black solar usage, according to a Nature Sustainability study, are nearly 70 percent behind Whites, a worrisome data point considering Black populations are the most impacted by issues such as urban heat islands and air pollution that are alleviated by renewable energy sourcing.
Ocasio-Cortez named this new initiative after F.D.R.’s New Deal with the understanding that the original New Deal — which arguably prevented full-scale Depression-era social unrest and arguably saved unchecked capitalism from itself, if it didn’t save America from unchecked capitalism — was racially discriminatory and excluded and exploited Black, Latino and Native American people. A Green New Deal, its supporters say, must not repeat those very intentional mistakes of racial exclusion and injustice, and some warn that a plan that is not broad and inclusive enough will only reinforce and perpetuate racial inequality. And if there is a push to save the environment, if there is an argument for remaking the nation to reflect the sense of urgency, policymakers must do so in a bold, sweeping and intersectional fashion rather than in incremental baby steps. The notion of creating a sustainable environment, economy and society with guaranteed jobs, healthcare and education is an appealing one, and the environmental policies enjoy a majority of popular support.
Any plan would require the political will and the votes, winning over the public, and withstanding those who claim it is too expensive–as much as $93 trillion according to some center-right critics. Climate deniers on the hard right, including those who claim the plan is a Stalinist plot to take everyone’s hamburgers, may never come around to supporting it … and maybe that’s alright.
Unions such as the AFL-CIO energy committee–and not surprisingly the United Mine Workers– criticized the proposal. “We welcome the call for labor rights and dialogue with labor, but the Green New Deal resolution is far too short on specific solutions the speak to the jobs our members and the critical sectors of the economy,” the AFL-CIO wrote in a letter to Ocasio-Cortez and Markey. “We will not accept proposals that could cause immediate harm to millions of our members and their families. We will not stand by and allow threats to our members’ jobs and their families’ standard of living go unanswered.”
Critics on the left believe the Green New Deal may not go far enough.
Some suggest that if the plan is going to work, there must be a commitment to addressing the victims of the housing crisis — including those disproportionately Black folks who fell prey to the foreclosure crisis, are fuel-poor or suffered power shut offs — and building 10 million public carbon-free homes in 10 years. Still, others believe the Green New Deal is not radical, but is a mere lifesaver to restore a dying system of capitalism to its mid-twentieth century status. Terri Friedline of the American Prospect argues that the Green New Deal must take on the activities of global capitalism itself, which “amplify racial and gender disparities in how people experience the effects of climate change.” While the poor and people of color are already the most vulnerable to climate change, Friedline notes, wealthy white people have the money to “buy greater distance between themselves and extreme weather.”
Meanwhile, climate justice activists are concerned he Green New Deal does not phase out fossil fuels, leaves nuclear energy and uranium mining on Native lands on the table, and the net-zero provision would allow high-carbon polluters to continue to do business, only exacerbating environmental conditions in already vulnerable frontline communities. Further, the plan is not perfect in that it does not address land use, cities and sprawl – all of the above which perpetuates racial and economic segregation.
The Congressional Black Caucus has not taken a public position. Spokespersons for the caucus and CBC Chair Karen Bass (D-Calif.) tell ecoWURD that the CBC has not issued an official stance on the Green New Deal. However, Rep. Bass announced her support for the measure before being sworn in. Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), both presidential hopefuls, are among the co-sponsors of the Green New Deal resolution.
Other Black lawmakers co-sponsoring the bill include: Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), Alcee Hastings (D- Fla.), Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.), Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), and Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.).
Considering its strengths or flaws, the Green New Deal is an open acknowledgement that addressing our environmental challenges means creating a new economy and making society work for everyone. Whatever the Green New Deal or any future alternative solutions may ultimately take, change will most certainly come. Black people will want to make sure they are front and center in that discussion. Black policymakers will then need to ensure their communities are sitting at the table, lest they find themselves left behind and languishing in a permanent heat wave of racial injustice.