Even if you haven’t heard the news, you probably sensed that record breaking heat struck Washington state in June. Everyone feels the heat, but some are impacted more than others. Farm workers labor under the sun, children in polluted neighborhoods lack clean fresh air, bus riders sweat through long waits outdoors. The same is true for climate impacts like drought, respiratory illness and fires, some people face greater risk than others. Most often, they are low income people and communities of color.
“We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach,” Pope Francis said, “it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment.” To integrate justice and environment requires attention to equity. Recognizing that communities of color and low-income people often don’t start on the same rung of the ladder, equitable policy creates a lift so that no matter where you start, everyone can pick the fruits of a healthy environment, economy and society.
But not all climate proposals center equity. As a “revenue neutral” proposal, Initiative 732 (which is collecting signatures) aims to disturb the status quo as little as possible. It redirects most of the revenue generated by its carbon tax as rebates to rich and poor alike, without investing in pollution reduction nor community benefit. Washington voters are tired of the status quo, and recent polling (by FM3 in May) shows I-732 lacks the voter support necessary to win at the ballot box. I-732 does carve out a slice for tax rebates for low-income working families, an important, unfunded tool. But rebates alone won’t address equity.
True climate justice looks like transit serving affordable housing, clean energy in low-income neighborhoods, healthy food systems and good locally rooted jobs. It takes an equitable policy, and at a time of great need, that means investments targeted for communities of color and people of lower incomes.
Climate advocates and movements fighting for justice are aligned, but our proven solutions are being held hostage to the fossil fuel industry. Achieving equitable policy requires mobilizing those most impacted by climate change. That’s what happened in California where more than a quarter of carbon revenue reinvestments target reducing pollution for the benefit of disadvantaged communities. Here in Washington, both Gov. Jay Inslee and the state House included investments in equity in climate proposals this legislative session, encouraged by the leadership from communities on the front lines of climate impacts.
Racial and economic justice leaders are mobilizing on statewide climate policy. They helped form the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy that believes Washington will respond to global warming, can make a just transition to homegrown clean energy jobs and must invest in communities disproportionately harmed by fossil fuel pollution. This summer, the alliance is exploring more viable alternatives for climate ballot measures, with the goal to qualify an inclusive, equitable and winnable initiative to the people in 2016.
Tony Lee is with the Asian-Pacific Islander Coalition of Washington State; Carolina Gutierrez is with C.I.E.L.O, an Olympia-based nonprofit that promotes self-sufficiency and leadership for Latinos and others in the community.