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Climate Change

Green New Dealers, Look to California

The Green New Deal Resolution has correctly articulated both the urgency of our climate crisis, as well as the ultimate outcomes we need to address it. But it is begging for a concrete, achievable policy roadmap to get there. Fortunately, there are some functional capitalist democracies in America—the states—that have already crafted policy to reduce emissions and put people back to work. Congress should look to those places now, as they work to build the components of a Green New Deal.

In California, we know this because have we already designed, drafted, and enacted Green New Deal-style policies.

California has long been an environmental policy pioneer; but in 2016, the state began in earnest to marry its climate work with a mission to foster economic opportunity in especially stressed parts of the state. One of the least-reported innovations of the State’s path-breaking climate targets legislation that year, SB 32, was its effort to link climate change policy with economic justice imperatives. We decided to pair SB 32 to a series of environmental justice bills, which focused on transparency, accountability, and equity in California’s climate policy implementation. One such bill, AB 197, requires that California’s climate policy be implemented equitably, with a focus on reducing emissions in our most polluted communities. Another, AB 1550, requires that as the state raises funds from climate polluters, it invest a minimum of 35 percent those dollars in projects benefiting California’s disadvantaged and low-income communities. (A “disadvantaged community” in California is one that has the dubious qualification—based on a sophisticated balancing of twenty factors—of being among the most socioeconomically and environmentally burdened in the state.)

Our disadvantaged communities fall mostly throughout the agricultural communities of the San Joaquin Valley, the migrant farm-working communities of the Coachella Valley, and the urban industrial areas in the East Bay and East Los Angeles. The vast majority of these places are communities of color. The burdens that these communities face, although different, share striking similarities to the challenges Americans face in places like West Virginia, Eastern Ohio, and Western Pennsylvania, where communities have been stressed by economic insecurity, and have lost tens of thousands of jobs as coal retreats. These communities have quietly absorbed the impacts of industry, but have for too long been invisible to policymakers in Washington and in Sacramento alike.

But whereas most American disadvantaged communities are hurting, in California, some are now experiencing renewal. California has already implemented nearly $2 billion in funding from the state’s biggest polluters to support low-income communities at the frontlines of climate change. California’s climate policy has spawned a host of programs that have two things in common: they reduce greenhouse gas pollution and they create jobs where we need them most. These programs include, among many others, affordable and sustainable housing developments, multi-family energy efficiency and renewable energy installations; wetlands and watershed restorations; rural clean mobility projects; and a number of incentive programs, such as the Clean Vehicle Rebate Program (CVRP), which help low-income Californians replace old, dirty vehicles with zero-emission and hybrid cars.

California’s focus on justice has had the added benefit of shining a light on the fact that the inequities of climate change map all too neatly onto the racial, economic, and historical inequities already woven into the American fabric. Proposals for a Green New Deal understand this inherently. But our effort to thoughtfully address and remedy these inequities has also illuminated the seemingly endless American potential for hope and promise. One CVRP recipient, for example, testified to his family’s experience in Sacramento: By trading an inefficient truck for a used Prius, he and his wife were able to begin putting away their fuel savings in a fund to educate their baby daughter.

California’s climate success was not destiny. We were told we’d fail. And without the support of California’s moderate lawmakers, we would have failed. But by focusing on economic justice outcomes, we earned votes from legislators representing the state’s conservative and rural areas. We therefore reimagined the type of coalition that could assemble popular support to extend and deepen the state’s climate targets. And therein lies another critical political lesson for Congress: a need for economic stimulus in moderate and even Republican communities can be a powerful driver toward pricing and reducing climate pollution. Throughout the Midwest, Appalachia, and the Mountain West, we now have a golden opportunity to put hundreds of thousands of people back to work replenishing exhausted soils, building wind turbines, installing solar panels, or assembling zero emission vehicles. That, in turn, has the potential to shift the politics of climate change, by creating new stakeholders invested in healthier, cleaner, and more prosperous communities.

To be sure, not every climate pollution-funded project in California has flourished. Perhaps most visibly is California’s bullet train, which now finds itself in President Trump’s crosshairs. This project promised new union jobs and opportunity in the Central Valley, and tens of thousands fewer cars—and their emissions—on the roads. But it is woefully behind schedule and spectacularly over-budget (on the order, by some estimates, of nearly $100 billion). Similarly, as California mandates solar roofs on all new homes, it is impossible to ignore the shameful reality that tens of thousands of Californians will sleep on the streets, or in their cars, this year. Legislators have proposed a policy to shift California’s famous suburban sprawl toward a new model based on transit-oriented density. But those efforts have largely been met with NIMBYs and local advocates afraid to cede any zoning authority to the state.

These are hurdles, certainly, but not reasons to back away from a national Green New Deal. Quite the contrary, in fact; if anything, they illustrate the immensity of our challenge. And they therefore suggest that our response must be greater in scale than what one state alone—even California—can accomplish. We need a national mobilization—as its advocates like to call for—that will allow states like California to partner with others eager to build a new clean energy economy. Iowa, to name but one more example, has built thousands of jobs in a wind power industry. What could Indiana, which has felt the sting of globalization and automation and seen factories shudder as its industrial economy moves overseas, learn from Iowa’s experience?

We should celebrate the possibility of a Green New Deal as the type of bold vision we need to spark our imagination, to stoke our resolve, and to call on our collective determination. But the grassroots movement needs a blueprint for policy implementation. California has reliably served as a laboratory for successful environmental policies for decades. Now, as Congress begins its work to fill in the details on the challenge of our generation, the time has come to call on California’s leadership again.

Jake Levine is a climate attorney in Los Angeles. He previously served as an energy and climate aide to President Obama and Senior Counsel to California’s Select Committee on Climate Change.