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A Domestic State of Emergency on Climate Change

Lew Daly

Donald Trump’s election came at the worst possible time in so many ways. In a spectacular litany of truly awful aims, including mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, repealing Obamacare, retracting federal oversight of abusive local policing, undoing Obama-era banking reforms, and much more, where does one begin to describe the damage he and the Republican Congress could do? But the threat Trump poses to our environment and particularly to our ability to escape the worst impacts of global warming is unparalleled. It is a domestic state of emergency unlike anything else we have faced since the Civil Rights Movement, or the Civil War. 

On Saturday, we the people will accelerate the fight for climate action with mass civil action in our nation’s capital. Importantly, although most people simply refer to the upcoming mobilization as the People’s Climate March, there is actually a much broader concept of what’s at stake embodied in the march’s official name: The People’s March for Climate, Jobs, and Justice. Not only does this appropriately echo the full title of the famous March on Washington led by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963—the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”—it also underscores how our environmental destiny is interwoven with fulfilling our values as a nation that is founded on—at least claims to be founded on—principles of equality. By some measures, our country is more economically unequal today than it was during the Gilded Age, even as we are hurtling toward climate catastrophe. Racial segregation remains the most characteristic feature of our society, with devastating results. Not least, majority communities of color are disproportionately exposed to fossil fuel pollution and climate change impacts, resulting in stark disparities by race and income on both health and community risk.

The doubly oppressive nexus of harmful environmental impacts and stark socioeconomic inequalities, especially by race, is not at all coincidental; these escalating crises are connected by policy and mutually reinforcing. This has long been true historically, which gave rise to the environmental justice movement, whose communities remain squarely in the crosshairs of Trump’s onslaught today—and not just on climate issues. But it is no less true going forward. Simply put, we cannot come together to rein in climate change if our society is coming apart in every other way. At the same time, Trump’s threat to not only repeal climate rules but to revive and expand fossil fuel production will bring astronomical economic and social costs that will literally bankrupt any better future we could have imagined as a society of equals.

Can we stop them by marching on Washington this Saturday? Probably not. But if the march is just the beginning of ongoing, organized resistance from all sides, we can definitely slow them down and give them doubt about America’s tolerance for massive environmental harms justified by blatant lies about job creation. Public opinion might provide us with a tailwind. Whereas climate change action was a middling priority at best for average Americans before Trump, recent polling shows that public disagreement with the Trump Administration’s agenda is highest on the issue of climate regulation.   

The most important near-to-medium term outcome from the People’s Climate March on Saturday will be for the energy of that experience to feed back into organizing a ground war for aggressive climate action in states and localities. This is the way forward because it will build power from the bottom up for a just and inclusive clean energy transition—and rebuilding grassroots power is the only way progressives, including the climate movement, will ever regain power nationally.

A great example is NY Renews, a 100-member, arguably first-of-its-kind coalition bringing together green groups, labor unions, and environmental and racial justice groups around the idea of advancing bold climate and equity solutions in a single integrated policy. The first iteration of the NY Renews policy vision is the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA), which was passed by the state Assembly in the spring of 2016. It establishes a zero GHG pollution/100% renewable energy standard statewide by 2050, with 40 percent of public revenue invested through the policy earmarked for financing clean energy and clean transportation projects in low-income communities, particularly environmentally-embattled communities of color. Along with direct health benefits, this approach of centering New York State’s clean energy transition in low-income communities will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs in places where jobs are needed most—a powerful marriage of climate needs, reparative justice, and inclusive economic development. With the latter aspect, elected leaders need to understand that, on net, the people they represent have a lot gain economically from reducing emissions, but the “inclusive” part is essential for making this link. As Demos president Heather McGhee, writing with Sierra Club president Aaron Mair, argued in a pro-CCPA op-ed in the Albany Times-Union, “Communities of color have disproportionately borne the harms of fossil fuel pollution, while gaining few of the benefits of the economic growth that, increasingly, only the richest New Yorkers enjoy. We need a clean energy policy that remedies such injustice and disadvantage in a big way.”

We also need political leadership that is up to the task, especially from governors who can serve as a counterweight to Donald Trump’s open assault on climate policy and equity alike. New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who exhibited great leadership in 2014 by ordering a statewide fracking ban (fighting off a multi-million dollar fossil-fuel lobbying onslaught), is perfectly positioned to lead a state-level counter-movement against Trump and his congressional allies. Indeed, Governor Cuomo can set a new standard for climate leadership by working with NY Renews to incorporate the CCPA as a major priority in his 2018 budget. In such a populous and influential state, the real-world impacts of such leadership would be amplified by the political impacts, potentially galvanizing similar coalitions and policy campaigns in other states. With a similar policy likely heading to the ballot in Washington State in 2018, led by the multi-racial, multi-sectoral Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, this is already happening, setting the contours for an anti-Trump resistance movement that not only tackles climate change but puts climate justice at the center of a new progressive politics for building power in the states. With the seeds of an equity-oriented 100% renewables policy being planted recently at the federal level by Senators Merkley and Sanders, the potential for large-scale positive change on climate and equity is taking shape. Hopefully, with a lot of new momentum from the People’s Climate March, we can win big on job-creating climate action in a number of states. This would be a body blow to Trumpism like no other. We simply have to make it happen.