After the State of the Union, What the President (and We) Can Do on Climate Change

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This piece was originally published by Good

Yesterday’s State of the Union address could go down as a watershed moment in America’s transition to a clean energy economy. Two years ago, the president wouldn’t mention climate change. Last night, he spoke honestly about the issue to 40 million people and vowed that if “Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.” The question is: Just what can President Obama do, and what will it mean for our economy and energy system?<--break->

Recent experience provides some clues. Even without a Congressional climate bill, the United States has doubled renewable electricity production over the past four years, and reduced carbon emissions to a 20-year low, even as the economy has rebounded from the worst recession since the Great Depression. We’ve also built substantial new energy industries. Solar power alone now accounts for 119,000 American jobs, spread across 5,600 companies in all 50 states. Economy-wide, there are some 2.7 million green jobs, and green job sectors are growing faster than other parts of the economy.
Some of these accomplishments are directly attributable to Obama Administration policies. The stimulus package, for instance, injected more cash into green investments than any piece of legislation in American history. New fuel efficiency standards will likewise save tens of billions of barrels of oils in the coming years. Other important pieces of the policy puzzle, such as state level Renewable Portfolio Standards, have come from different parts of the government, but still demonstrate the same principle that there are many ways to move forward on climate and energy, even in a tough political moment.
And so we come back to the present moment. Obama has again called on Congress to pass a big cap-and-trade bill, but also knows that he will be more successful in producing change through a variety of smaller initiatives.
In his speech and an accompanying policy document, the president put forward several specific proposals he will pursue in his second term, including calling for the Production Tax Credit for wind energy to be made permanent and refundable (a very big deal) and working directly with states to incentivize energy efficiency. He also issued a broader challenge to legislators, noting that he has directed his cabinet to “identify additional executive actions … which will be assessed if Congress does not take action.”
What would these executive actions look like? Perhaps the administration working through the EPA to tighten regulations on greenhouse gases—a major move that would put a substantial dent in the coal-fired power system. Maybe Obama using his convening powers to bring together a high-level commission on climate change and energy, so that we could shift from a debate about whether climate change is real to a debate about all the ways we can solve the problem. Or the president could slow the pace of fossil fuel development by taking a stand on a big project like the Keystone XL.
This last example highlights an important point about the opportunity of the next four years. The president’s ability to pursue aggressive executive actions depends on the strength of the popular coalition behind him. Obama is going to use the bully pulpit to take his energy agenda to the public. It’s up to us to show Obama that we want him to exercise the full power of his office, as aggressively as Lincoln on slavery or F.D.R. on reviving the American economy after the Great Depression.
So, let’s take Obama up on his promise of action. Let’s use our money and let’s use our feet. We need to weaken fossil fuel interests through divestment campaigns like that being organized by and invest in renewable energy through platforms like Mosaic. We also need to turn out. This Sunday, Washington D.C. will host what will likely be the largest climate rally in U.S. history, with a specific goal of stopping the Keystone XL pipeline. It’s a great moment to let Obama know: If he’s ready to take on Congress, or the fossil fuel industry, or both, we’ve got his back.

The Days After the Storm

By Daniel Rosen and Billy Parish, co-founders of Mosaic

First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy. We’ve seen the impacts of climate change in other parts of the world, but with Hurricane Sandy, we saw for the first time the places of our childhood underwater, family members without power. It is as shocking as it is frightening to see the devastation extreme weather can wreak.

We were deeply moved by pictures of firemen and nurses carrying babies in the dark from NYU Hospital out of harms way. Seeing them in action, we were filled with a fierce pride in humanity. When it comes down to it, in moments like these, we rise to extraordinary levels of bravery and sheer force of will.

But we’re also left feeling angry. The irony that the same energy system that brought us climate change and this tremendous storm also couldn’t handle its wrath makes us sick.

Let’s not mince words: The fossil fuel industry is destroying our planet and everything that we love. CO2 in the atmosphere is making our oceans warmer and making our climate unstable. The current energy system is not only bad for the planet, but also is extremely fragile. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, 12,000,000 people went without power for days. Many of them still without power today.

When you awake you will remember ev’rything, You will be. – Bob Dylan

The gravity of the situation is real. Everything is at stake. Families. Homes. Memories. Whole ways of life. All packaged up neatly and for sale to the highest bidding lobbyist The fossil fuel industry has spent $153 Million on this election so far. It’s no wonder climate change didn’t come up once in the three Presidential debates or the VP debate.

Meanwhile, the expected costs of Sandy are upwards of $50 billion. Will Exxon and Shell pay for that out of their $54 billion in profits this year? Will ConEd? Will PG&E? And what about the wildfires this summer? And the droughts across the midwest that have destroyed corn crops and farmers’ livelihoods? What about those costs? Is there math that they have that figures out the value of lives lost in the hurricane? It’s disgusting to even write that, but it begs the question.

So after the storm, what?

An Ambitious Proposal
Like the firefighters who risked their lives, we of all creeds, all ages, and all political stripes, must come together and work with the same tireless strength and courage to replace CO2-producing energy sources with clean energy and smart grid technologies. A world powered 100% with clean energy. If you don’t think it’s possible, watch this talk by actor and activist Mark Ruffalo, Stanford engineer Mark Jacobson, and Executive Vice President of Rabo Bank, Marco Kraepels.

Jacobson’s team has mapped out how New York can make a total transition to clean energy by 2030. Under this plan, electricity would come from a mix of renewables and energy efficiency, reducing statewide power demand by 37%.  And talk about collateral benefits: Air pollution mortality would decline by 4,000 deaths a year. Just the cost savings from reduced air pollution would save the Empire State $33B a year, enough to pay for the needed new 271 gigawatts of renewable power.

Take Jacobson’s plan national and there you have it — clean energy delivered via thousands of decentralized microgrids. It will take planning, coordination and financing by the whole crazy lot of us, from the clean tech sector to utilities to Mosaic investors crowdfunding the next distributed solar power plant. It will take an unprecedented coalition of people and businesses mobilized to make this ambitious vision happen.

ConEd is saying that it will take 10 days to get the majority of its customers their power back, but some may be without power until the end of November. In coming months, Cuomo and others could establish an aggressive state Feed In Tariff, guaranteeing a market for renewables. They could help to structure it to incentivize back-up storage. Each house could be a solar power plant. Every rooftop a place for distributed generation.

Distributed generation (such as wind and solar with backup battery storage) and other decentralized energies would have been far more resilient than our current electricity grid. The advantage of clean power microgrids, besides curbing climate change, is that if one mini-power station goes down, it doesn’t take the whole grid down with it — had NYU Hospital been microgrid-powered, we likely would not have witnessed the grim spectacle of firemen carrying those babies to safety.

Microgrids would offer protection in the inevitable event of future superstorms and in the face of powerful solar storms predicted for 2013 that have the potential to take down the entire US grid. Better still, clean energy would help avert extreme weather events in the first place.

One of Mosaic’s projects in Oakland funded by 134 people.

The storm waters have gone back to the sea. Now begins the real work of rebuilding. The task in front of us is the most ambitious rebuilding project human civilization has ever undertaken. This is not a top down mandate. The task to transition from a CO2 based economy and energy production to 100% clean and renewable energy is a movement of movements, community of communities, network of networks.

We have the technology to make the transition. We have the know how. We have the people.  We need not wait for another superstorm to underscore our vulnerability, and we need not — must not — wait for politicians and utility executives to lead the charge. As we say at Mosaic, we got this.

On the Longest Day of the Year, Celebrate Solar Power!

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, today is the longest day of the year. Here in Oakland, California, we’re soaking up over 15 hours of sunlight. Globally, about 7600 exajoules of solar energy—that is, about 15 times the amount of energy humanity will use this year—will reach the earth’s surface in the next 24 hours, powering everything from phytoplankton to redwoods to backyard BBQs.

It is, in other words, a beautiful day to get outside and celebrate the power plant that has kept our planet humming with life for the last 3.7 billion odd years.

It’s also the perfect day to celebrate what we’re learning to do with the sun’s power. The past few years have ushered in an unprecedented, unforeseen, and largely unheralded solar energy revolution. As recently as 2005, global installed solar power capacity stood at 4.5 gigawatts (GW). Today, the figure exceeds 65 GW, which is equivalent to the capacity of about 130 average-sized coal-fired power plants.

To put recent growth of solar power in perspective it helps to look at how it has played out in particular places. Take the U.S., for example. Solar is America’s fastest growing industry, and already employs more than 100,000 men and womenmore than U.S. steel production and more than U.S. coal mining. In California, which leads the nation on solar power, the number of installed solar energy systems has increased from about 500 in 1999 to more than 50,000 in 2011. These days, when you fly into a place like Oakland, you can see your plane reflected in the rooftops below.

Then there’s Germany. A few weeks ago, every energy wonk in the world did a double take after learning that the country had met a third of its weekday noontime electricity demand—and half of noontime electricity demand on a Saturday—with solar power. These statistics are amazing in of themselves, but even more amazing is the fact that three-quarters of Germany’s solar energy capacity is locally-owned. Put simply: the world’s fourth largest economy and seventh largest energy consumer is now meeting a huge chunk of its electricity demand via clean energy sources whose economic benefits flow to everyday people.

So what’s driving the solar revolution?

Better, cheaper solar technology is a big part of it. While the efficiency with which solar cells convert sunlight to usable energy has improved dramatically over the last few decades, manufacturing costs have come down. The upshot of both these trends is that the cost per watt for solar panels declined from $22 in 1980 to well under $1 by January of this year.

Policy has also played an important role. Many countries, Germany included, have implemented feed-in tariffs that essentially subsidize solar and other forms of renewable energy. In the U.S., government support for renewable energy has been more scattered, but state and federal incentive programs have still played a critical role in expanding the solar industry. For a fraction (one twelfth, to be precise) of the government dollars that go to the fossil fuel industry, these programs are driving innovation, bringing us closer to the day when solar will be cheaper than coal, even absent incentives. In California, we are already arriving at that point.

Finally, a new breed of solar entrepreneur is bringing down the costs associated with installing and financing solar power. One major innovation came from Jigar Shah, a founder of SunEdison, who realized that it might make more sense for many property owners to lease, rather than purchase, solar energy systems for their roofs. Thanks to solar leases, building owners are now able to go solar with no upfront cost and make lease monthly payments that are typically less than what they would pay the utility for the same amount of energy. More recently, innovations in cleantech have been merging with innovations on the net to form what Sunil Paul calls the “cleanweb.” Sungevity uses advanced software and satellite imagery to provide potential customers with iQuotes for solar installations on their roofs. My own company, Solar Mosaic, is using the web to empower people to pool their resources to create solar in their communities. Our efforts recently won us a $2 million grant from the Department of Energy’s Sunshot Inititiave, which aims to catalyze a dramatic decrease in solar energy costs over the next decade.

There are plenty of days in the year to think about the mistakes we’ve made fighting climate change and how much we have left to do to create a society powered by clean energy. Yet, for now, with the sun shining outside, it’s worthwhile to step back and think about what we have accomplished. It’s worthwhile to think about all of the solar panels that are out there catching some serious rays today and how much coal–about 186 million tons per year–they’ll keep in the ground.

What comes next? According to McKinsey and Co, the revolution is just getting started: we’re on track to reach 400-600 GW of global solar capacity (that is, the equivalent of between 800 and 1200 coal-fired power plants) by 2020. Other projections estimate that by the end of the decade solar will be the cheapest power source for more than 80 million Americans. Some would say these projections are overly optimistic. I suspect we can do better than the projections suggest. We’ll have to work hard. We’ll have to innovate like crazy. We’ll have to beat some seriously big and bad opponents and overcome some immense challenges.

Fortunately, we know can do all of this, because we’re already doing it.

This post was crossposted from the Huffington Post.

Next Generation Democracy Book Review

I first met Jared Duval in the summer of 2003 on a bus with 100 students from every state in the country who had received the Morris K. Udall Scholarship for college sophomores and juniors committed to the environment and native public health issues. I laughed when he told me he was working for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign — then an unknown Governor from Vermont few thought had a chance at winning the primary. But over the course of the ride, Jared’s well-reasoned confidence began to win me over. And by the end of the Udall gathering, we had recruited most of the scholars into an organization a core group of us invented on the spot: Students for an Environmentally Responsible President. SERP wasn’t long for this world, Jared got busy again at school, and we lost touch.

I had already dropped out of college by then to pursue student organizing full-time, and soon co-founded and began coordinating the Energy Action Coalition. Two years after we had first met, Jared was elected National Director of the Sierra Student Coalition, the student arm of the Sierra Club and one of the biggest partner organizations of Energy Action. We spent two years working together to build the Campus Climate Challenge, and organize the first national student climate summit, Power Shift, in 2007. When Jared’s two terms with the SSC were over, he told me he wanted to write a book. Doubtful again, I wished him the best of luck.

So when I got a copy of his book, Next Generation Democracy, in the mail just a week ago, I was chagrined again as I found myself tearing through it in just a few sittings. The book details how a range of new, web-enabled tools, combined with a newly global, progressive and tech-savvy generation is poised to change the world. He tells the stories behind well-known open-source projects like Linux and Wikipedia, but also unearths some of the most cutting edge approaches like the Deliberatorium, Legislation 2.0, 21st Century Town Meetings and other efforts that hold real promise for fixing our Democracy at a time when such hope can be hard to come by.

A couple of years into the Obama presidency, we are now confronted with the stark realization that truly transformational progress will not be made on any major social challenge until the underlying dysfunction of a ‘pay to play, keep people at bay” system in Congress is addressed…

Where might we look for progress instead? I believe that to get at the root blockages of transformational progress, we must address the disenfranchisement of the American and global public from the decision-making institutions of our society. As author Don Tapscott has written, ‘real change seems glacial…What the current system lacks are mechanisms enabling government to benefit on an ongoing basis from the wisdom and insight that a nation can collectively offer.’

Indeed, while the defining ideological debate of the previous generation concerned the proper size of government, for the Millennial generation the pressing question should be the nature — open versus closed, collaborative versus zero sum — of our very process of government.

Democracy is an ancient idea, and our Democracy here in America is the oldest continuous government in the world. When you consider the incredible gridlock and corruption in our current system against the massive problems on both the domestic and global level it is required to deal with, it’s hard not to feel like we need a tune-up. Jared’s book is as good a primer on these issues as I’ve read, and a good fun read as well.

State of the Union & Green Entrepreneurship

While mainstream environmental groups cheered the President’s State of the Union, many climate activists and bloggers are pissed — the speech included no specifics about what he wants in a climate bill, and the laundry list of “clean energy jobs” had nuclear, oil, coal and biofuels, but strangely didn’t mention clean energy or energy efficiency. “What we needed was a call to arms, and what we got was a kick in the face,” one blogger complained.

MoveOn.Org had an instant dial application for members to rate how they felt throughout the speech, and the nukes-oil-coal section was the least popular part of the speech, even more unpopular than sending more troops to Afghanistan! The President’s reaffirmation of his commitment to pass a climate bill this year is encouraging, but it’s going to be hard to mobilize the activist base to whip the needed votes with this kind of … stuff. Sigh.

But from the standpoint of an aspiring green entrepreneur, there was an awful lot to like in the speech. This was the jobs speech it needed to be, and it continued what may bethe overarching theme of his presidency, “to lay a new foundation for long-term economic growth.” [see a piece I wrote on this last May] But more than any speech we’ve heard from him before, he put clean energy jobs at the absolute center of his job creation strategy, mentioning clean energy 10 times, solar twice and climate change 3 times. His discussion of U.S. competitiveness in the global economy is entirely framed in the context of the race to develop clean energy technologies.

But beyond the importance of this rhetorical shift and the clear signal on passing a climate bill this year are three new proposals rolled out this week designed to help small businesses access credit, increase exports and help young people go to college.

Continue reading ‘State of the Union & Green Entrepreneurship’

Climate Generation: The Evolution of The Energy Action Coalition’s Strategy

This Climate Generation series is well-timed. Like every other national group I know working on the transition to a clean energy economy, the Energy Action Coalition is going through a strategic planning / soul-searching process to figure out just what the &$*$ to do next. The outline of the broader movement’s situation is pretty well understood, but few really good ideas about how to solve it have surfaced. Despite some meaningful accomplishments in 2009 — mainly through the Recovery Act and executive actions — the big goals of passing strong federal legislation before Copenhagen and securing a binding international treaty have not been achieved.

The chasm between what’s needed and what is being discussed in Washington grows ever wider and the “pragmatists” inside and outside the beltway can barely hear each other anymore. Every week comes with more dire scientific predictions and, newly, worse polling numbers on public understanding of the impacts and support for action. Major Democratic losses predicted for the 2010 midterm elections confirm the widespread feeling that our golden opportunity for change is slipping away.

We’re still just not powerful enough as a movement to make the changes we so desperately need. As Jamie’s great post yesterday clearly laid out, we need to be thinking about strategies that go big. To complement Jamie’s history, I want to sketch out my understanding of how the Energy Action Coalition’s strategy has evolved over the past 6 years with the hope that a better understanding of our strategic history can inform the decisions we make moving forward.

Three quick notes before I do: 1) I believe the coalition’s collaborative planning processes — and culture of fun, diversity, aspirational thinking, solidarity and action — have been a large part of how we’ve developed smart strategy, but the focus here is on the results and what we actually did, not how we came to the decisions; 2) I’d also commend a look at Sara Robinson’s account of the progression of social change, which provides a broader context in which to situate these decisions; and 3) This is MY interpretation of events, biased as it surely is.

PHASE 1: Finding Ourselves (November 2003 — August 2005)

Continue reading ‘Climate Generation: The Evolution of The Energy Action Coalition’s Strategy’

Community-Owned Clean Energy

When I was a younger man than I am today, I had a vision of the Great Plains transformed: buffalo roaming across great tracts of tallgrass prairie studded with wind farms that powered the whole Midwest. Tribal communities, farmers and ranchers and young people all working together to develop an economy that could sustain the people and restore the land. Maybe even a little folk school, something like the Highlander Center in east Tennessee, to bring everyone together to sing and dance and strategize together.

As I’ve learned, usually the hard way, big visions only become reality through perseverance, hard work and often a bit of luck or good timing. I only lasted six months in Grand Forks, North Dakota, all of which were somehow during the winter, but one of the things I remember best was that any of the plans we devised had to contend with the 800 pound gorilla in the state. Basin Electric, a rural electric cooperative with 2.8 million members across Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming was the populist face of big dirty coal. Headquartered in Bismarck, ND, they seemed to run state politics and they weren’t interested in wind.

So when I saw the headline “Rural Electric Cooperative Completes $240 Million Wind Farm in 4 Months” I almost couldn’t believe my eyes. This 115.5 MW project will be the largest wind project entirely owned by a consumer cooperative, AND IT WAS COMPLETED IN JUST 4 MONTHS!! Basin, which got 94% of its power from coal in 2005 (and only 1% from wind) now has a goal to reach 20% wind by the end of the year.

As we work towards a rapid and massive ramp-up of clean energy across the country, we should look to consumer cooperatives and municipally-owned utilities, both of which are non-profit, community-controlled structures with jobs and revenues that stay in the communities they serve. In 2008, rural cooperatives expanded wind energy capacity 65% compared to just 25% nationally, and municipal utilities, like in Long Island and Austin, are implementing some of the most innovative and aggressive renewable energy and energy efficiency programs in the country. Check out the American Public Power Association, which represents over 2,000 community-owned utilities, for more information.

Accept it in Oslo, Earn it in Copenhagen

Today is “Young and Future Generations Day” here at the International Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen, and I’m here with my wife Wahleah and our two-year-old daughter Tohaana. Along with thousands of other young people, we’re doing everything in our power to convince world leaders to commit to a fair, ambitious, and legally binding international agreement based on a target of 350 parts per million (ppm), which is the safe upper limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Less than 400 miles away in Oslo, Norway, President Obama is accepting the Nobel Peace Prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” If ever there was a time and place to live up to that honor, now, in Copenhagen is it.

Four former Nobel Peace Prize winners have endorsed a target of 350ppm. On December 12th, 2008, at the international climate talks in Poznan, Poland, Al Gore (2007 winner) said to a huge crowd: “Even a goal of 450 parts per million, which seems so difficult today, is inadequate. We need to toughen that goal to 350 parts per million.”

On December 20th, His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama (1989) wrote: “It is now urgent that we take corrective action to ensure a safe climate future for coming generations of human beings and other species. That can be established in perpetuity if we can reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350ppm. Buddhists, concerned people of the world and all people of good heart should be aware of this and act upon it.”

On August 25, 2009, Rajendra Pachauri, who accepted the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the IPCC said, “As chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, I cannot take a position because we do not make recommendations. But as a human being I am fully supportive of [350ppm]. What is happening, and what is likely to happen, convinces me that the world must be really ambitious and very determined at moving toward a 350 target.”

And on October 23, 2009, two days before what CNN called the “most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history”, Archibishop Desmond Tutu, who has been an ambassador for the 350 campaign and won the Peace Prize in 1984, wrote in USA Today: “Many top scientists agree that there’s a number the world needs to know. It’s 350 — as in 350 parts per million of the heat-trapping gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The growing consensus is that it’s the most carbon we can have in the atmosphere without causing terrible climate havoc. Since we’re already past that level, at 390 parts per million, it also implies that we need much swifter political action than governments have supported in the past to reverse this trend.” Continue reading ‘Accept it in Oslo, Earn it in Copenhagen’

Why We Fight

We fight, even against insurmountable odds, because sometimes we win.

As I get ready to head to Copenhagen this Saturday for the international climate negotiations, I’m thrilled to see the success of The Leadership Campaign and their efforts to have Massachusetts use 100% clean electricity by 2020.

On Monday, Representative William Brownsberger will file their bill, An Act to Re-power Massachusetts, in the Massachusetts House, calling on Gov. Deval Patrick to create a task force to formulate a plan to get Massachusetts to100% clean electricity by 2020.

To draw attention to their campaign, they have refused to sleep in homes, dorms, apartments powered by dirty electricity until Massachusetts commits to 100% clean electricity in 10 years. Since October 25, hundreds of students, activists and engaged citizens have spent at least one night camping out. Some haven’t slept in a bed in over a month — [check out a personal account here].

Each Sunday, members of the campaign come together to camp out on the Boston Common. They face citations for violating the 11pm curfew, but each week they gladly except the consequences of their protests.

Last May, I wrote about how climate activists need to rethink the rules of engagement and not accept the “rules” of a rigged game. I’m thrilled to see the students and leaders of the Leadership Campaign doing just that. It’s a great sign for our cause and an example we can all follow.

If you’re in Boston this weekend, join the Leadership Campaign for their final sleepout on the Boston Common. They’ll be joined by one of my favorite people, Rev. Lennox Yearwood of The Hip Hop Caucus. The rally begins at 3pm at the Boston Common across from the Statehouse.

This entry is cross-posted at Green Owl Records.

Young, Green, And Out of Work

by Rinku Sen and Billy Parish

Last week, the Labor Department reported that youth unemployment stands at 18.2%, nearly twice the national average of 9.8%. The percentage of young people without a job is a staggering 53.4 percent, the highest figure since World War II. Looking deeper, the statistics for youth of color are terrible and telling.

According to the most recent data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 40.7% of black youth between 16-19 are unemployed, almost double the amount of whites teenagers (23%). For Latinos the same age, the rate is nearly 30%. Get a little older and the gap grows wider. Unemployment for black Americans aged 20-24 is 27.1%, over twice that faced by white youth (13.1%) in the same age range.

The glaring differences indicate that unemployment is not only decidedly raced, but also that the current economic condition is wholly unforgiving for young people of color. Only a massive, well-funded set of green jobs programs explicitly designed to close those racial gaps can create a truly vital, full-employment economy.

Without more opportunities for young people, those un- and under-employed will suffer in the short and long-term, especially in their ability to attend college, afford health insurance, buy homes, and save for retirement. In short, they won’t be able to make a living. The great promise of the green economy to end poverty as well as environmental suffering can only be fulfilled if we’re prepared to fight, not just for green, but also for racial and economic equity.

There’s a long history of clashes between environmentalists, workers’ organizations and racial justice movements, as each operated on the assumption that they had conflicting goals. Yet, the objectives of all three are interdependent for two big reasons. First, poor economies and environmental degradation have a disproportionate impact on communities of color. People of color occupy jobs in the most hazardous industries and homes in the most environmentally degraded neighborhoods. That’s not accidental. It is a predictable result of persistent segregation, which strips communities of color of their power, facilitating the discriminatory placement of toxic incinerators, power plants, factories, and other big polluters in their communities.

While economics has contributed to the dual degradation of the environment and communities of color, racism has accelerated environmental and economic problems. “White flight” from inner cities fueled suburban sprawl, leading to more driving, more highways, and more carbon in the atmosphere. And in industries like agriculture and food production, with prominent racial hierarchies, employers find it easy to generate competition and scapegoating between various groups of workers, killing unionization drives that could produce better wages and conditions for all of us.

Luckily, a growing number of people know better than to separate environmental and economic recovery from race. Local groups have started green jobs programs for young people that are inclusive and future-oriented. In Oakland, California, for example, the brand new Green Media Youth Center boasts a green job training program that can help create pathways out of poverty for young people in the city. Last Friday at the Center, Milani Pelley recorded her latest song in a brand new studio. Jhamel Robinson showed off the permaculture garden behind the building. And the list goes on.

But great programs here and there aren’t enough. We need to bring those programs to scale, and create both training and the actual jobs through federal, state and local policy. We need to spend real money funding job creation, and then closely monitor implementation to make sure new programs generate local hiring, affirmative action, great wages and benefits and long term career paths, among other elements that will make them work.

This year, a national alliance of organized labor and civil rights, social justice and environmental groups has worked to create a vibrant clean energy economy that can not only improve the environment and economy, but also close the racial gap. In the House version of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), this alliance secured the eleventh-hour addition of a billion dollars for green jobs training, as well as equity provisions for access to the jobs created. The Senate version released last week maintains those provisions.

These policies are a good start, but if they’re to survive and lead us to the additional billions and effective implementation that we need to get control of unemployment, we have to be prepared to fight on the race front, as well as the green. All signs indicate that opponents will bait American racism with brutal inventiveness. If the right’s attack on Van Jones isn’t enough of a warning, then we should take our lessons from the health care debate. We can expect conservative pundits to call equity guidelines reverse racism, or to put up immigrants rather than corporate pollution as the true cause of environmental collapse.

To counter that rhetoric, we need to be able to articulate more than a “lift all boats” approach – which improves things but leaves the racial and poverty gaps in place. We need to move support for a “fix all boats” approach that ensures full recovery for all. It’s our responsibility to change the rules and structures that threaten to exclude people of color from taking part in the new, green economy.

Young people are going to have to take the lead in this because they’ve got the most at stake. The decisions we make as a country now will affect them far longer than anyone else. The powers that be like to call these Millennials the first “post racial generation.” They claim that young people take racial equality so much for granted that fighting racism is low on their list of priorities. The polluters of the gray economy will take that idea straight to the bank, unless young people themselves make it clear that they understand racism shows up in all our issues, including the environment.

We should amplify and grow efforts to build an inclusive green economy. In doing so, we must always ask two key questions about new policies and programs: is it green, and is it fair?

Rinku Sen is the Executive Director of the Applied Research Center, which promotes racial justice through media, research, and activism.  Billy Parish is the founder of the Energy Action Coalition, a national youth clean energy coalition.

This entry is cross-posted at The Huffington Post.


Billy Parish is co-founder and president of Mosaic, a solar investment platform. He's also co-author of Making Good: Finding Meaning, Money & Community in a Changing World. In 2002, he dropped out of Yale to found the Energy Action Coalition and grew it into the largest youth advocacy organization in the world working on the climate crisis. A serial social entrepreneur, Parish has helped launch dozens of clean energy, youth, and green jobs related companies and organizations. He has been honored as a Rolling Stone magazine “Climate Hero,” one of Utne Reader's "50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World," and was elected as a Fellow by Ashoka, the global association of the world's leading social entrepreneurs. He lives in Oakland, California, with his wife and two daughters. @BillyParish

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