When Aiming for "Better," Says Expert, It's Best to Focus on Delivering Justice

In Brief

There's only economic progress with energy progress, as voters who chose Joe Biden as President-elect know. 

But prominent scholar Dan Kammen insists that there's no energy progress without energy justice- and that sound economic policy can target benefits to people who face systematic oppression. 

We'll be welcoming energy-justice advocate Shalanda Baker to explore this terrain in another webinar later this month. Use Dr. Kammen's challenge as an entry to this urgent business. 

Joe Biden

A policy leader says the President-elect has emphasized environmental justice because no recovery will take off without it. 

In a recent discussion with CBEY as part of its Blueprint for Clean Energy webinar series, Dr. Dan Kammen highlighted climate justice as one of the most essential issues that the incoming administration should support. “Don’t think that you can solve climate change without making it a justice issue,” he cautioned.

When President-elect Joe Biden assumes office on January 20th, he has pledged to take up the job of building back better. The popular mantra has been adopted as his administration’s official transition website name (“buildbackbetter.gov”), which lists COVID-19, Economic Recovery, Racial , and Climate Change as four areas to be addressed on Day One of Biden’s presidency.

Within the Biden climate platform, environmental and climate justice occupy prominent roles. The term “environmental justice” refers to the need to address the disproportionate pollution and environmental degradation burden suffered by minority and low-income communities. Just as the COVID-19 pandemic has killed Americans of color at a higher rate than white people, the damaging effects of air, water, and soil pollution have been unequally and unjustly concentrated in communities of color.

As climate change worsens, the same communities are being hit by intensifying impacts like extreme heat, catastrophic weather events, flooding, drought, and wildfires. In recent years, “climate justice” has emerged as a focus on steeling against these impacts, pushing for regenerative and equitable economies, and transitioning our society away from the extractive – and often exploitative – industries responsible for amassing this burden.

While too little attention has been paid to undoing decades of pollution and neglected resiliency measures in underserved and frontline communities, there has been perhaps even less mainstream consideration of their potential role in climate mitigation solutions. In addition to addressing the problems facing these communities, forward-thinking policymakers are increasingly recognizing the imperative of investing in diverse swaths of the country that have historically been overlooked.

With climate change emerging as a top-tier priority in the eyes of many, Dr. Kammen emphasized the need for the primarily white climate and environmental movement to accept the crucial role of justice in bridging the gap between climate and inequality in the U.S. “My hope is that what we’re learning from Black Lives Matter right now is that many of the [climate] solutions we want to see cannot happen until environmental justice becomes coequal with climate.”

Dr. Kammen is one of the preeminent thinkers and doers on climate and clean energy in the U.S. At University of California-Berkeley, he leads the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL), which actively engages in on-the-ground projects in California and around the world. With previous experience at the U.S. Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency, Dr. Kammen was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve as Science Envoy at the U.S. State Department. After spending seven months in the Trump Administration, he resigned following President Donald Trump’s disturbingly equivocal response to neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Dan Kammen heads the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab at Berkeley.

Dan Kammen says that delivering affordable and clean energy to oppressed people precedes all other recovery tactics. 

Throughout the wide-ranging webinar conversation, Dr. Kammen spoke particularly about the inextricable link between climate change and structural inequities, stressing that addressing both issues requires a considered climate justice lens.

Along with COVID-19, one of the lasting legacies of 2020 is likely to be the high-profile killings of black Americans that focused justified and overdue attention on persistent systemic inequities. Dr. Kammen raised a concern that exists within the Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous communities that the recent spotlight on racial equity could be transitory, and that moments like this tend to dissipate into the background. To gird against this, he argued, real structural changes must take place as soon as possible.

Rethinking Climate and Clean Energy Policy

So, how are we to build back better through a climate justice lens? It requires scrutiny of the manner in which climate policies have been constructed and carried out in the past. Doing so also means consciously avoiding the further reification of social inequities as our society capitalizes on the clean energy opportunity.

Dr. Kammen, who is teaching a course on climate justice in the spring, argues that policies should lead with justice—we can’t just depend on benefits to trickle down to folks in disadvantaged communities. Each climate and clean energy policy must ensure that it doesn’t carry out decarbonization in a regressive manner. According to Kammen, “when we talk about a ‘clever’ clean energy solution it usually involves a subsidy, but when we exclude the most vulnerable members of society from the benefits, it ends up perpetuating systemic racism.”

With the Biden Administration’s agenda, clean energy could be unleashed like never before. Although wind and solar are currently the cheapest form of electricity generation in most parts of the country, analysts expect them to continue to scale up, doing so concurrently with other parts of a decarbonization portfolio such as energy efficiency, electric vehicles, grid infrastructure, and alternative fuel sources like hydrogen. Even with sweeping climate legislation facing an unlikely path in the Senate, President-elect Biden has an array of potential executive actions at his disposal. Together with the recent congressional passage of the most consequential energy package in more than a decade, the Biden Administration is poised to set a strong foundation for accelerating the transition to a decarbonized economy.

To heed Dr. Kammen’s advice, the Biden Administration should keep in mind its potential role not only for reducing emissions but driving enhanced equity and wellbeing. As one example of such a policy, Kammen mentions weatherization retrofits -- “a perfect area to meet social and climate issues [together]” by lowering electricity bills and creating scores of new jobs. In addition, a portion of the clean energy investment could explicitly target rooftop solar installations on single- and multi-family dwellings in communities of color, which according to Kammen’s own research, tend to suffer from underinvestment and subsequently lower rates of adoption. Kammen also mentions the EcoBlock project in Oakland, in which he is involved. The project, a first-of-its-kind venture to retrofit a neighborhood block to be emissions-free, is “powering not only homeowners and renters, but making EV charging a public service and not simply a private benefit.”

Investing in transit presents another option for diffusing these investments, as does directing funds to job training programs, local community organizations, Community Development Finance Institutions (CDFIs), and green banks. There is a tangible opportunity emerging to create jobs and careers by reinvesting in some of the most historically-neglected communities, as well as in the areas that are being hardest-hit by the shift away from fossil fuels. “So many of the front-liners and communities we haven’t invested in are ready to be invested in today. Our institutions have held back. So, there are opportunities to do things like energy efficiency and solarizing low-income homes. We have an ability to make this the job growth area.”

In what could prove to be one of the most consequential aspects of Biden’s entire climate plan, the campaign pledged to direct 40% of its stated $1.7 trillion clean energy investment to disadvantaged communities. Some advocates argue that while bolstering resilience and clean-up efforts is crucial, if done in isolation they can ossify structural inequities. This target seems to acknowledge that with the clean energy transition shaping up to be a massive vehicle for investment, the nation has an opportunity to redefine the relationship between marginalized communities and the U.S. energy system by putting these Americans at the center of the solution-set.

Biden’s plan cites New York’s recent climate law for establishing the 40% benchmark. The policy, which has been hailed as a new touchstone in bridging climate and equality, calls for the establishment of a “Climate Justice Working Group” comprised of New Yorkers from communities of color and low-income communities or those otherwise bearing disproportionate burdens, along with representatives from state energy, health, and labor departments. This past summer, Governor Cuomo’s office announced nearly $1 billion of investment in energy efficiency upgrades for low- and moderate-income communities. Helping to lead this work for Governor Cuomo was Ali Zaidi, who has been appointed Deputy National Climate Advisor to President-elect Biden.

Fundamentally, Kammen argues, we cannot solve the climate crisis without putting justice front-and-center. “If we’re to heal the country, it’s through reinvesting in jobs in the hardest-hit areas…those are the opportunities that will make social justice and clean energy go together.”

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