Photo of a climate-justice march near the White House.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

There’s a reason why climate-change legislation failed in the past. Environmental-justice advocates don’t want the Green New Deal to repeat those mistakes.

A study published recently in Science, on the mounting evidence in favor of the EPA’s 2009 finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health, reveals which counties in the U.S. are projected to incur the most climate-change damage at the end of the century.

The reddened areas in the map below, showing the most damage, are found mostly across the Gulf South, in states where some of the poorest black, Latino, Asian, and Native American communities are located. Many of these places have already sustained huge tolls from climate-related disasters.

It would be wise, then, to ensure that the people who live in the most climate-imperiled parts of the country would have a substantial say in what the “Green New Deal” means for them.

Total direct economic damage integrated over agriculture, crime, coastal storms, energy, human mortality, and labor in 2080 to 2099, under a scenario of continued high emissions. (Left) Damages in the median scenario for each county. Negative damages indicate benefits. (Right) Range of economic damages per year for groupings of U.S. counties, on the basis of income (white lines, median; boxes, inner 66% of possible outcomes; outer whiskers, inner 90% of possible outcomes). (Science)  

With all the brouhaha over the Green New Deal resolution introduced on February 7 by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey—Does it go too far? Not far enough?—what matters to advocates for racial and environmental justice is power. They’re invested in both the kind of power that heats where we live and fuels how we travel, and the kind that decides policies and enforces laws. The Green New Deal presents an opportunity for distributing both kinds of power more equitably, to improve the lives of the nation’s most vulnerable families.

The resolution emphasizes “frontline communities” in various passages, and this is one of the most critically important parts of it, according to Cecil Corbin-Mark, the director of policy initiatives for the New York City-based organization WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

“There can’t be a solution without communities from the front lines,” said Corbin-Mark. “The days of fashioning policy and solving problems in ways that say, ‘We, mainstream green organizations or politicians in Washington, know best,’ those days are way behind us.”

Perhaps not entirely, though. The Markey who introduced the Green New Deal with Ocasio-Cortez last week is the same politician who introduced Green New Deal-ish climate legislation 10 years ago—the ill-fated Waxman-Markey bill. Corbin-Mark was in D.C. for that ride, as were other environmental-justice activists and lobbyists, but they were ignored in the bill’s markup. Back then, these EJ lobbyists were not on board with the bill’s accommodation of fossil-fuel energy sources and some of its climate-pollution mitigation measures. The bill ultimately failed, in no small part because it did not garner the support of frontline communities and their advocates.

The Green New Deal would correct the failed Waxman-Markey attempt by prioritizing frontline-community families, although it has yet to lay out specifics on how to deal with carbon pollution. In some ways, that’s by design. It is only a resolution with no binding power to force Congress to act on anything. It provides the framework for future legislation should it later emerge. The resolution mostly asks if Congress will get behind the Green New Deal in principle. For Corbin-Mark, that framework needs to at least set time-specific goals for what future legislation should achieve—namely, phasing out the fossil fuels that cause climate change.

“Some of the compromises that are taking place are troubling,” said Corbin-Mark, “especially when it does not squarely establish a timeline for when we turn off the tap on fossil fuels, and that’s at the … crux of the problem, in terms of the climate crisis. How we do that is at the heart of addressing the equity issue.”

The Green New Deal resolution does call for reaching net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions and eliminating air pollution “as much as technologically feasible” within a 10-year span. An accompanying fact sheet (which has been retracted in parts) does call for a “full transition off fossil fuels and zero greenhouse gases,” but hedges that “simply banning fossil fuels immediately” won’t provide the kind of economic benefits for disadvantaged communities the resolution calls for.

In 2009, the most widely accepted measure for dealing with carbon emissions was cap and trade, a market-based mechanism by which companies can buy and/or trade allowances to emit carbon-dioxide emissions under a cap that will gradually drop to zero over time. That ended up being a reason why the Waxman-Markey bill failed. Corbin-Mark, along with advocates and lobbyists from groups such as the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, opposed the cap-and-trade provisions. Instead, they pushed for a carbon tax or fee, and were castigated for it by lawmakers and mainstream environmental organizations that believed a new tax would never work. Today, economists, politicians, and environmentalists alike are rallying around putting a price on carbon emissions in the form of a fee or tax.

California ended up becoming a major laboratory for examining whether a cap-and-trade scheme could work. It installed its own self-styled program in 2013, with the promise that environmental-justice communities would benefit from the revenue collected from it. Those communities may have gotten some of the windfall, but they also continued to get the pollution. According to a 2018 study that tracked pollution in the first years of the cap-and-trade program’s implementation, “the majority (52%) of regulated facilities reported higher annual average local GHG emissions since the initiation of trading”—most of those facilities being in neighborhoods with “higher proportions of people of color and poor, less educated, and linguistically isolated residents.”

The Green New Deal resolution rules out neither a carbon tax nor cap and trade, but says neither is a full solution for the elimination of the nation’s carbon-pollution load. The resolution mostly focuses on shoring up renewable-energy sources, increasing energy efficiency in buildings, expanding public transit, and widening the market of electric or non-gasoline-fueled vehicles. The transportation sector is the largest greenhouse-gas polluter right now (though beating out the electricity sector only by a smidgen), so it makes sense that it would focus on this.

However, some critics charge that the resolution focuses too much on transportation. They argue that the nation should be reducing car travel altogether rather than merely electrifying cars. As my colleague Laura Bliss reported, a recent study shows that limiting car use or access would further economically burden families that are already struggling financially. The Green New Deal framers seem to agree with this; Ocasio-Cortez’s fact sheet states, “We cannot simply tax gas and expect workers to figure out another way to get to work unless we’ve first created a better, more affordable option.”

Most cities in the South do not have robust public-transit systems. And if you recall the map at the beginning of the story, it’s counties in the South that will suffer the most damage from climate change. These are also the counties and states with some the largest concentrations of black and Latino families, many of whom live in poor and/or rural communities. Which means that having access to a car or truck in a disaster event will be critically important for evacuation.

“It’s important that we don’t minimize this historical legacy and assume that all regions of the country are equal, or that we can somehow have a standard format to apply across the country,” said Robert Bullard, a long-time environmental justice scholar and activist. “The resistance that will be met will come from the very states that birthed the civil-rights and the environmental-justice movements. It’s not by accident that these Southern states have a disproportionate share of governors and attorneys general who are climate denialists and are trying to roll back voting and civil rights.”

The Green New Deal calls for “community-defined projects and strategies” in several parts of the text, meaning it is not subscribed to a one-size-fits-all strategy. Instead, it seeks to empower the people who face the most harm from climate change to come up with environmentally and racially just solutions tailored to where they live. And it’s because of that inclusion of frontline communities that Corbin-Mark says his allies in the environmental-justice community are sticking with the Green New Deal framework, despite its current shortcomings.

But he offered a caveat: “If we get to net-zero, but the way we get there is based on false narratives, and technologies with no proven record of dealing with the scale of what we have to deal with, then that is not a solution,” said Corbin-Mark. “That is just politics as usual.”

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