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Will New York Democrats stand up for climate justice? Green New Deal faces crucial test

Image Caption: Protestors gathered in the NY state Capitol two years ago to advocate for the CCPA, which remains stalled in the Legislature. | Photo by Zach Williams

Originally Published on Salon, June 17, 2019.

The Green New Deal is the policy du jour — and rightly so. Climate change threatens the future of life, and its fires and floods are already upon us. Thankfully, many politicians are now taking up the climate challenge, spurred no doubt by historic environmental activism erupting across the nation. So, too, voters want action. Registered Democrats now say climate change is their top issue, certainly a hopeful sign given that in 2016 climate change was on the Democrats’ back-burner.

Another sign of hope? A handful of states aren’t waiting for national leaders to act.

New York is one such state. Well before the Green New Deal exploded onto the national stage, a diverse coalition — including environmental justice organizations, labor unions, and community leaders typically focused on housing, economic empowerment, and racial injustice — crafted the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA). This bill takes decarbonizing our lives seriously and proposes solutions in which those most hurt by climate change are also those who will most gain. And, after years of on-the-ground activism, it has a real chance of passing this year.

The CCPA weaves together climate, jobs, and justice in three key ways.

First, it sets a 2050 binding deadline for moving the entire economy — not only the electricity sector — off fossil fuels.

Second, the CCPA mandates the investment of 40 percent of state climate-transition funds directly in communities on the front lines of the climate crisis and environmental pollution — typically communities of color and low-income communities.

Finally, the law would ensure that green jobs subsidized by the state come with fair labor standards — a prevailing wage and assurance that the new jobs are accessible to underrepresented communities.

With a goal of decarbonizing New York state’s entire economy, the CCPA would be the most ambitious climate plan in the nation. A handful of states have committed to 100 percent clean electricity, and others are considering similar steps, but none set such standards for all sectors of the state’s economy. Clean electricity is no doubt necessary, but electricity only represents approximately 20 percent of New York state’s emissions and 28 percent of our nation’s emissions.

Action truly commensurate with the scale of the climate crisis requires expansive decarbonization. New York, in passing the CCPA, would set a bold, new benchmark for state-based reform.

For many Americans, it’s difficult to feel agency — a sense that one can contribute meaningfully — to combat a crisis as massive and complex as the climate crisis. Indeed, after decades of a dominant ideology that denigrates government’s role as problem solver, it takes imagination to believe that we can muster democratic public action to address this crisis.

But the CCPA is one potentially transformative first step; and, in the process of fighting for it and winning, we can inspire others to shed hopelessness and act.

A new study by Penn State researchers shows that bystanders at the 2017 March for Science and the People’s Climate March experienced increased feelings of “collective efficacy.”

In other words, courage is contagious.

A deeply related crisis is that of our democracy itself. In writing "Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want," we observed that the crises of big money in politics, extreme partisan gerrymandering, and voter suppression often seem so dire that Americans can feel powerless to make a difference. They are tempted to tune out instead of turning out.

Focusing on solutions has the opposite impact. In chronicling Americans fighting back and winning real reforms, while inspiring others to join them, we ourselves were energized and more determined than ever. So, tackling the climate crisis requires a parallel reframe, from hopelessness and inaction to a sense of possibility and organizing for concrete solutions.

And now is a moment of historic possibility.

Legislators are running out of time to pass CCPA, as New York’s legislative session is scheduled to end on Wednesday. But make no mistake: If Democrats want to save our collective future, they have the power. After all, the party holds the majority of New York Assembly and Senate seats as well as the governorship.

If the CCPA fails to pass, Democrats will be solely responsible.

The rest of the country is now looking to New York. Will it become a beacon of hope in the Anthropocene? We certainly hope so.


Frances Moore Lappé is the author or co-author of 19 books about world hunger, living democracy, and the environment, beginning with the three-million copy Diet for a Small Planet

in 1971. Adam Eichen is an American author and activist focused on highlighting the emerging democracy movement in the United States. Eichen and Lappé co-authored Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want (Beacon Press, 2017).

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