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Climate Equity Hits Home Climate Equity Hits Home

Climate Equity Hits Home

by Ben Jervey

April 19, 2009

A new, plugged-in coalition is making sure the poor don't get burned in America's climate policy debate.

The great tragic irony of climate change is that the worst suffering and biggest burden will fall upon the most innocent people. That is to say that those least responsible for the greenhouse gasses accumulating in our atmosphere are most vulnerable to the harmful effects of a warming planet. It is also to say that, if solutions aren't approached prudently, the poor-the very people who have done the least to cause the problem-will pay a disproportionately high price as we transition towards a new low-carbon world.For a long time, the climate equity discussion has been a global one: How can the world's vulnerable poor be protected from the worst fates of climate change, and how can we make sure those most responsible for it shoulder a fair amount of the burden in finding solutions? Lately, however, the climate equity issue has surfaced close to home, as environmental justice and social equity have landed squarely in the domestic policy debate.Last week, a coalition of some of Washington's most influential organizations was announced, and they immediately set out to redefine climate equity within our borders. The new Climate Equity Alliance-which includes in its diverse ranks Oxfam America, the NAACP, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the SEIU, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops-is working to ensure that regulations to combat climate change don't disproportionately hurt the poor, and that the benefits of a new energy economy are shared by all.In other words-to prove that good, just climate policy is good, just economic policy."If done right," writes Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, who recently took over for Van Jones as CEO of Green For All, "climate policy can fight pollution and alleviate poverty at the same time."The Alliance's reveal was well timed. Next week, the House will sit down to start "discussing" the Markey-Waxman draft of the "American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (aka the Climate and Energy Bill, aka "the opening shot in the battle about what we do about global warming"). You may remember that last year's attempt at climate legislation, the Warner-Lieberman bill, was killed abruptly (apparently before it could even be called an "opening shot"). The bill floundered in the face of fossil fuel-industry and right-wing messaging that claimed carbon pricing waged "a war on the poor."  (Jason Walsh, the national policy director of Green For All, spoke of the "phenomenon" of conservative lawmakers "usually aloof about the concerns of low-income people suddenly talking about them right and left.")The Climate Equity Alliance, however, has influential members with the ears of White House and Congressional leaders. That goes a long way in cutting the legs out from under the arguments that sunk earlier attempts at climate legislation.More importantly for the long run, the Alliance's guiding principles sketch the framework for climate legislation rooted in "fairness, opportunity, and equal access." As they represent the genesis of climate equity in American domestic politics, let's break down these principles.

Protect people and the planet: Limit carbon emissions at a level and timeline that science dictates.Simple enough: regulations have to be informed by science, and then be strong and fast-acting enough to avoid the worst fates of climate change, which will be costly to all, but will hit lower and middle class folks the worst.

Maximize the gain: Build an inclusive green economy providing pathways into prosperity and expanding opportunity for America's workers and communities.In other words-spread the wealth. Green-collar jobs (which I've tried to define in this space in the past) should be local, sustainable jobs on all levels of the employment ladder. As Van Jones likes to say, "A green wave to lift all boats."

Minimize the pain: Assist low and moderate-income families in meeting their basic needs.Energy prices-which are steadily climbing already-could jump in the near-term when a price on carbon is implemented (until cheap, clean energy alternatives are broadly implemented). Some revenue from an auction of carbon emissions permits should be refunded or rebated to low- and middle-income households to help offset cost increases. (One method of which, incidentally, has just been introduced to the House in Chris Van Hollen's (D-MD) "Cap and Dividend Act of 2009.")

Shore up resilience to climate impacts: Assure that those who are most vulnerable to the direct effects of climate change are able to prepare and adapt.Experts anticipate more heat-related illnesses and deaths in ever-more-sweltering cities, more frequent floods and severe storms, and worsening droughts in drier regions. Without adaptation and resiliency measures, low-income, minority, and immigrant populations will bear the brunt of these impacts.

Ease the transition: Address the impacts of economic change for workers and communities.How can we train and transition workers in carbon-based industries for the new energy economy? An easy example is retooling Detroit to produce more efficient plug-in electric hybrids. Somewhat more involved would be training old coal miners to climb and maintain wind turbines, or to manufacturer the nuts and bolts and blades that go into them.

Put a price on global warming pollution and invest in solutions: Capture the value of carbon emissions for public purposes and invest this resource in an equitable transition to a clean energy economy.Referring to possible loopholes in the carbon permitting process, the Alliance states bluntly: "Greenhouse gas pollution should not result in windfall profits for corporations." Rather, this revenue is much better spent on the programs offered above.The Climate Equity Alliance is already at work lobbying for these principles to be incorporated, or expanded, in the Markey-Waxman bill. Their message effectively dismisses the tired old economy vs. environment argument as "a false choice," and, through these six plain and clear principles, sets the first formal standard for fair, just, and, indeed, equitable domestic climate policy.
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