Some Democrats in Washington who are embracing the Green New Deal might be as oblivious as several of California’s own Democratic leaders about the real impact their ambitious environmental policies have on working families, the poor, and minorities. This is an ironic turnaround for the party that has long touted itself as the champion of the little guy.
Progressive politicians both in Sacramento and Washington are correct in arguing that addressing climate change is imperative. However, in their quest to make California a world leader on climate change, the state’s political leaders seem to overlook the fact that addressing long-term goals to save the planet can hurt the people who live on it today. That’s the crux of a lawsuit filed by the civil rights and housing advocacy group, the Two Hundred, currently underway in California Superior Court.
Since the enactment of Assembly Bill 32 in 2006, California has been working toward the goal of a 25 percent reduction in the state’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from 1990 levels by 2030. Ambitious as that was, it was not enough for many environmentalists. As a result, former Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill last fall (Senate Bill 100) that mandates the state’s utilities to obtain all their electricity from carbon-free sources by 2045.
To meet the targets set by AB 32, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) is required to issue “scoping plans” every five years. The Two Hundred’s suit contends the 2017 Scoping Plan would exacerbate the state’s affordable housing crisis, hike electricity costs on those least able to afford it, and stifle job creation for working families.
The 2017 Plan envisions gradually replacing older, less energy-efficient housing units with carbon-friendly, residential high rises closer to urban areas. That sounds like a good way to reduce urban sprawl and automobile traffic but as a practical matter, the suit against the CARB charges this would decrease the stock of affordable housing located close to where people work, driving up housing costs in a state where 2 million children live below the national poverty level.
The Plan also seeks to implement a “vehicle mile traveled” quota that is patently unfair to people forced to commute to work from lower-cost areas, often communities of color. The quota is likely to prove even more discriminatory as rising housing costs force workers to relocate farther away.
On top of that, the Plan aims to induce people to take buses and other forms of public transit or, better yet, bike or walk more. That might be fine for Californians who can afford to live close to work but for people who have no choice but to drive, the 2017 Scoping Plan smacks of arrogance and elitism.
This disconnect from struggling workers is not surprising. The suit points to racial bias in environmental advocacy organizations that lobbied the CARB during the formulation of the 2017 Plan. Sierra Club Board of Directors President Aaron Mair, who happens to be African American, has conceded, “White privilege and racism within the broader environmental movement is existent and pervasive.”
California’s experience – now being replicated on the national level with the Green New Deal – could signal the Democrats’ drift toward ambitious dreams and away from the day-to-day challenges of working families and people at the margins of the economy, especially people of color.
While the details of Green New Deal are far from formalized, it could cost trillions of dollars, directly and indirectly. National Democrats should take note that California’s pursuit of cutting-edge environmental goals has taken a toll, with an exodus of well-paying jobs from the state, along with the hopes of young workers and their families. In California and at the national level, labor unions, long a stalwart part of the Democrats’ base, have warned they will not support green policies at the expense of jobs.
It appears these Democratic leaders, in their disgust of President Trump, remain impenetrable to the chief lesson of his unexpected victory in 2016: Struggling workers are sick of their political leaders catering to big corporations, international bodies, progressive policy activists, and other elites.
FDR’s New Deal created nation-building jobs, helped replace fear with hope, and built a Democratic coalition that lasted more than half a century. Democrats who support the Green New Deal argue that remaking the economy will likewise lead to shared prosperity and a healthier world. But they need to reckon with the fact on the way to that utopia, there could be disruption and hardships that fall disproportionately on working people – the very people Democrats have counted on to win elections in the past but who they could be losing touch with now.